John Burns And The Run-Up To Saddam’s Execution

While many of us distrust the New York Times and its reporting on Iraq, John Burns has consistently provided the most objective and fascinating accounts of the war throughout most of the American media establishment. He has written a narrative of the process that led to the execution of Saddam Hussein that exemplifies his skill and insight:

In interviews with dozens of American and Iraqi officials involved in the hanging, a picture has emerged of a clash of cultures and political interests, reflecting the widening gulf between Americans here and the Iraqi exiles who rode to power behind American tanks. Even before a smuggled cellphone camera recording revealed the derision Mr. Hussein faced on the gallows, the hanging had become a metaphor, among Mr. Maliki’s critics, for how the “new Iraq” is starting to resemble the repressive, vengeful place it was under Mr. Hussein, albeit in a paler shade.
The hanging spread wide dismay among the Americans. Aides said American commanders were deeply upset by the way they were forced to hand Mr. Hussein over, a sequence commanders saw as motivated less by a concern for justice than for revenge. In the days following the hanging, recriminations flowed between the military command and the United States Embassy, accused by some officers of abandoning American interests at midnight Friday in favor of placating Mr. Maliki and hard-line Shiites.
But for Mr. Maliki’s inner circle, the hanging was a moment to avenge decades of brutal repression by Mr. Hussein, as well as a moment to drive home to Iraq’s five million Sunnis that after centuries of subjugation, Shiites were in power to stay. At the “White House,” as his officials now describe Mr. Maliki’s headquarters in the Green Zone, a celebratory dinner began Friday night even before the Americans withdrew their threat not to hand over Mr. Hussein.
An Iraqi who attended the hanging said the government saw the Americans as wasting time with their demands for a delay until after the four-day Id al-Adha holiday, and for whatever time beyond that required to obtain the legal authorizations they considered necessary. For the Americans to claim the moral high ground afterward by disavowing the hanging, the Iraqi said, was disingenuous.
“They cannot wash their hands, this is a joint responsibility,” he said. “They had the physical custody, and we had the legal custody. At one point, I asked, ‘Is it our call or is it your call?’ They said, ‘It’s your call.’ I said, ‘If it’s our call, we’ve made the decision.’ ” Legal niceties could not save Mr. Hussein, he said, concluding, “The man has to go.”

It’s difficult to know where to place one’s sympathies. After all, the American insistence on ensuring that all of the legal niceties took place seems second nature to our culture, where we attempt to avoid any possible criticism through the emphasis on process. The Iraqis, naturally, did not see the value in adhering to processes intended to protect those whose guilt had more possibility of being debatable, and saw little value in delaying the inevitable. Burns’ narrative tells the story of a culture clash as well as power plays, and it’s rather gripping even for those of us who have followed the story closely.
In the end, though, one has to wonder why Nouri al-Maliki was so insistent on executing him before Eid and in the triumphalist manner in which the execution was conducted, rather than just wait a few days more to avoid the religious issues. Saddam had sat in his cell for 1100 days and was not going anywhere but to the gallows. The Iraqi tribunal, having hit its stride, was in the process of displaying the evidence for the genocide of the Kurds, a trial that would have enlightened at least a few Iraqis who harbored residual affection for the monster who ruled them for decades. A spring execution would not have seemed completely unreasonable.
However, Maliki no doubt wanted to end speculation of Saddam’s return to power if the sectarian conflicts worsened, speculation that Saddam himself provoked. As I wrote earlier, the existence of a deposed tyrant acts as a destabilizing force to the successor government, no matter what form it takes. As long as Saddam remained alive, he existed as a symbol of Restoration to Ba’athist hard-liners. And without a doubt, the crimes Saddam committed personally against the members of the new government had an effect on their decision-making. Saddam had attempted to assassinate Maliki at one point, and given the American push to replace Maliki, the Prime Minister may have wanted to make sure he got Saddam while he still had the chance.
Read the whole article; Burns, as always, is a must-read.