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ICG Risk Blog - [ Iraqi state hanging revealed as Shia gang lynching; Saudis, moderate states and the Arab street blame the US ]

Iraqi state hanging revealed as Shia gang lynching; Saudis, moderate states and the Arab street blame the US

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Think of the propriety of executing Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. As you're trying to absorb the wisdom of this act, first presented in sanitized still frame, you're exposed to a video in which Santa is taunted and harried by the Grinch who is seen to execute Santa as he is talking about toys for tots.

Worse, you have been blamed for allowing it to happen, even charged with engineering both the act and its timing.

I submit this analogy useful to Westerners to grasp the impact on Sunni Muslims of Saddam's execution on the eve of the 'Eid Al-Adha holy period that concludes the Hajj. Worse, Sunnis have placed the blame upon the Americans and the Persians (codeword for non-Sunni, non-Arab Iranians). I had thought that we could not have descended further in Iraq and in Muslim eyes, but I was mistaken.

Non-Muslims need to know why the timing of Saddam's hanging was so offensive to so many Sunnis and even Shias not of Iraqi background. Eid al-Fitr (Festival of the Breaking of the Fast) and Eid Al-Adha (Festival of the Sacrifice) are the two most holy Muslim festivals. Eid al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan and its fasting while Eid al-Adha "celebrates the completion of the hajj (pilgrimage) rites at Mina, Saudi Arabia, but is celebrated by Muslims throughout the world. Eid Al-Adha begins on the 10th of Dhu'l-Hijja, the last month of the Islamic calendar, and lasts for three days."

`Eid Al-Adha is a symbol of obedience. It signifies submission to Allah. On this day, we commemorate together the acts of obedience and submission performed by Prophet Ibrahim and his family when he was commanded to take Hajar and their son Isma`il [Ishmael] to an uninhabited, barren, distant land and leave them there alone. He submitted and obeyed. When Hajar realized what was happening, she cried out, "Ibrahim! [Abraham] Are you going to leave us in this valley where no people live?" She repeated the question yet she received no answer, so she asked him, "Did Allah order you to do this?" He replied, "Yes." So she said, "Then Allah will not let us perish." Thus she submitted.

Furthermore, when his son Isma`il became older, Ibrahim received a command from his Lord to sacrifice him. He submitted and so did his son. The family of Ibrahim was a family of obedience and submission. They were tested and tried again and again, but the result was always submission and obedience.

The act of Muslim sacrifice and submission in Eid al-Adha is Isma'il (Ishmael) whereas in Jewish and Christian faiths, it is Ishmael's brother Isaac.) Eid al-Adha "commemorates the God's gift of the ram" in place of Isma'il. "During the festival, families that can afford to do so sacrifice an animal such as a sheep, goat, camel, or cow, and then divide the meat among themselves, the poor, and friends and neighbours."

The Sunni observance of Eid al-Adha commences a day before its observance by Shias. Technically, the Shias could and did execute Saddam prior to the commencement of their observance but, in general practice, the execution of such a noted personage would not be carried out in the run-up to the festival or during it.

Make no mistake; the House of Saud is not happy. Here is the Saudi Press Agency, the usually politic official voice of Riyadh (who always speaks in CAPS) speaking on 30 December during what I call the 'still frame period' shaped by soundless stills and video snippets released by the Maliki government which temporarily preserved the fiction of a solemn Iraqi state hanging (also here):

SAUDI, ARAB, AND ISLAMIC CIRCLES HAVE WATCHED WITH CONCERN THE NEWS OF THE EXECUTION OF FORMER IRAQI PRESIDENT SADDAM HUSSEIN ON THE MORNING OF THE FIRST DAY OF THE OF THE HOLY DAYS OF BLESSED EID AL-ADHA, AND HAVE FOLLOWED UP THE REACTIONS AFTER THE EXECUTION WHICH OSCILLATED BETWEEN SUPPORT, DENUNCIATION, RESERVATION, AND DETRACTION…

MANY OF THOSE CONCERNED AND FOLLOWING THE EVENT EXPECTED THE TRIAL OF A FORMER PRESIDENT, WHO RULED IRAQ FOR DECADES, TO TAKE A LONGER TIME, EXTENSIVELY DETAILED LITIGATION, AND STRONG AND FINE LEGAL PROCEDURES SECURE AGAINST ANY POLITICIZATION.

A SENSE OF BEWILDERMENT AND DISAPPROBATION PREVAILED AS THE EXECUTION OF THE SENTENCE COINCIDES WITH THE HONORIFIC MONTHS OF BLOOD INTERDICTION AND WITH THE FIRST OF THE HOLY DAYS OF THE BLESSED EID ALADHA WHICH EMBODIES THE UNITY AND CONVERGENCE OF MUSLIMS. ON THIS DAY MILLIONS OF PILGRIMS MEET AT MOUNT ARAFAT SEEKING UNITY RATHER THAN A REMINDER OF DISPERSION. AND MILLIONS OF MUSLIMS EXPECT THAT ALL THE WORLD, NOT ONLY POLITICAL LEADERSHIPS IN ISLAMIC COUNTRIES, WOULD LOOK RESPECTFULLY AT THIS GREAT OCCASION, ITS DIGNITY AND POSITION IN THE HEARTS AND CONSCIENCE OF MUSLIMS, RATHER THAN DISREGARD IT.

Saudi-based, Arab News carries many individual bylines but make no mistake that it prints with the oversight and approval of the House of Saud. Weighing in on the following day, the 31st:

The [SPA] criticized the timing of the execution of Saddam Hussein [saying that] the execution has drawn strong disapproval of observers because it took place during the holy month of Dul Hijjah, besides being on the first day of Eid Al-Adha. "It is an occasion which is respected by the entire Muslim population"...

Dispensing with Iraqi and US efforts to craft a demonstrably legal trial for Saddam, i.e., to satisfy both law and public perception as did the Nuremberg Trials:

"Observers had expected that the trial of the former head of the Iraqi government who ruled for a considerable length of time would last longer with sophisticated legal and court procedures without politicization of the affair"…

Recognizing the commencement of Saddam's conversion from monster to martyr:

Saddam’s execution struck a chord of sympathy in many Saudis, although they did not deny the crimes he committed. "We all know that Saddam was a dictator who led his country to one disaster after another, but still his trial was illegal. What we saw on TV were more scenes of black comedy rather than objective trial."

Repeating a refrain heard in nominally friendly Arab capitals concerned that their statesmen could be later hauled into the dock:

[The] trial was based on the Dujail incident, in which Shiite villagers were executed for plotting against Saddam, and that it was neither enough nor convincing, as Saddam was not dealing with entirely innocent citizens. "What would any Arab leader do if he knew of an assassination plot? They would all do exactly what Saddam did, maybe more."

While the reality is that the US is a rider being drug behind a runaway Shia horse, it is the US that was instantly branded as instigator and master puppeteer:

[Saddam] was merely a tool in the hands of Americans and when his role was done they sacrificed him on the Eid day. The choice of the execution day is no mistake and it surely is an American message that mocks our defeat and surrender."… [The] Americans are not naïve and they chose the day on purpose. "They wanted to implant in the minds of Muslims that the Shiites of Iraq chose the sacrifice day to kill Saddam as a challenge to Iraqi Sunnis."

[The] sentence of death was passed 55 days ago and the Americans knew that by choosing the morning of Eid Al-Adha to execute him would upset all Muslims, even those who acknowledge Saddam’s cruelty. "America’s claims of restoring peace in Iraq proved to be nonsense today. They only make things worse by inciting Sunnis against Shiites and fueling the division"

Same day, Arab News flagged the fact that Hajj pilgrims from across the Muslim world were displeased:

They either hated him or loved him, but almost everyone here in the tent city of Mina was outraged at the hanging of ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on Eid Al-Adha. The hanging was viewed by most pilgrims as a corruption of the occasion.

Those who had been the victims of his brutality welcomed his hanging [but] there were many who were shocked that Saddam paid the ultimate price for taking an unflinching stand against the United States. While it was announced that the timing of the death was the decision of the Iraqi government alone, many pilgrims had their doubts. They believe that Saddam’s execution was done at a convenient time in regards to security for the coalition forces, whose diplomatic missions are closed worldwide for the New Year’s holiday.

"Would it be OK if the president of the United States were hanged on Dec. 25?" shouted Anmar Al-Khodair, an Iraqi pilgrim from Anbar. When it was pointed out to him that it was the Iraqi government not the US government that executed Saddam, his reply was: "This Iraqi government is a puppet government. It is the US that is responsible for security and all other aspects in Iraq. The Iraqi government is based in the US-protected Green Zone in Baghdad and the writ of the government is confined to the Green Zone in Iraq. Go ask anybody. He was, is and will remain our hero."...

It is not only Arab pilgrims who had the execution of Saddam in their thoughts, pilgrims from nations far removed from Iraq were worried about what effect the ousted president’s execution would have. "Throughout his rule Saddam claimed to be a Baathist and a secularist," said a female pilgrim from Nigeria. "We saw though that during his trial before the kangaroo court he repeatedly invoked verses from the Holy Qur’an. That was enough for us to know that he was a Muslim and the way he was treated should be of concern to all Muslims."

Discussions to this point still operate under the assumption of a state trial, but on 1 January, what I call the 'live video period' commences with a two-minute video snippet with audio, likely from a cell phone, that lays bare a sectarian lynching, virtually destroying any hope of Sunni-Shia reconciliation.

"Yes, he was a dictator, but he was killed by a death squad… What’s the difference between him and them?"… It was supposed to be a formal and solemn proceeding carried out by a dispassionate state. But the grainy recording of the execution’s cruel theater summed up what has become increasingly clear on the streets of the capital: that the Shiite-led government that assumed power in the American effort here is running the state under an undisguised sectarian banner...

The video was particularly disturbing for Sunni Arabs, who accuse the government of willfully allowing militias to remain in the ranks of its security forces. It left the impression that the government cared more for revenge than for justice, Sunnis said. "Either it’s terrible incompetence or it’s an act of revenge — a vendetta," said Adnan Pachachi…

To make matters worse, it fell just as the first day of the Id al-Adha holiday dawned for Sunnis — a day before the Shiites’ observance was to begin. Shiite politicians did not apologize and some even reveled in the timing.

But none of the Western English reports that I've read relay the level of profanity and venom that have so incensed Sunnis. Only when the reader goes to the Saudi-based Arab News does one get the full velocity of an exchange that elevates a mass murderer while deflating his executioners:

In a video footage of the execution, apparently captured on a mobile phone and spreading across the Internet yesterday, members of the party carrying out the hanging can be heard chanting "Moqtada, Moqtada, Moqtada!"

The reference is to Moqtada Sadr, a Shiite leader whose uncle Mohammed Bakr Sadr was murdered in 1980 by Saddam’s agents, and who has risen to prominence since Saddam’s fall as a politician and militia leader. One of the execution party calls: "Long live Mohammed Bakr Sadr!"

"Go to hell," Saddam seems to respond, although the sound is not clear.

One of the guards becomes angry. "You have destroyed us," the masked man yells. "You have killed us. You have made us live in destitution."

Saddam is scornful: "I have saved you from destitution and misery and destroyed your enemies, the Persians and Americans."

The guard curses him: "God damn you!"

Saddam shoots back: "God damn you!"

As Saddam drops through the metal trapdoor, his final prayer, the profession of faith, is caught short: "There is no God but God, and Muhammad..."

Noise erupts in the room as the filmmaker struggles to get a shot of Saddam’s face, hanging lifeless to one side. "The tyrant has fallen, damn him!"

Given the heightened levels of torture and mutilation exhibited by so many Sunni victims of Shia death squads, I was bracing for signs of disrespect to Saddam's body. Luckily, there were none:

The head of Saddam’s Albu-Nassir clan said the body showed no signs of mistreatment. "We received the body of Saddam Hussein without any complications. There was cooperation by the prime minister and his office’s director," the clan chief, Sheikh Al-Nidaa, told state-run Al-Iraqiya television. "We opened the coffin of Saddam. He was cleaned and wrapped according to Islamic teachings. We didn’t see any unnatural signs on his body."

I believe that there is a Saudi-US back channel story yet to be told in which the Saudis were imploring the US to defer this execution, a feeling that is heightened by the comments of US questioning of the Maliki rush to justice.

Part two will address what has been forgotten, rendered moot and some likely outcomes.

Rush to Hang Hussein Was Questioned
By JOHN F. BURNS and MARC SANTORA
New York Times
January 1, 2007

For Sunnis, Dictator’s Degrading End Signals Ominous Dawn for the New Iraq
By SABRINA TAVERNISE
New York Times
January 1, 2007

Jeers and Taunts for Saddam
Arab News
Agencies
1, January, 2007 (12, Dhul Hijjah, 1427)

In Hussein's Last Minutes, Jeers and a Cry for Calm
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post
December 31, 2006

Saudi Arabia dismayed; Egypt regrets timing
Gulf News (UAE)
Published: 31/12/2006 12:00 AM (UAE)

Spirit of Sacrifice Comes to Fore
M. Ghazanfar Ali Khan & K.S. Ramkumar
Arab News
31, December, 2006 (11, Dhul Hijjah, 1427)

‘Haj Highlights Islamic Tolerance, Equality’
Syed Faisal Ali
Arab News
31, December, 2006 (11, Dhul Hijjah, 1427)

Pilgrims Unhappy at Saddam Execution on Eid
Siraj Wahab
Arab News
31, December, 2006 (11, Dhul Hijjah, 1427)

Outrage at Timing of Execution
Ebtihal Mubarak
Arab News
31, December, 2006 (11, Dhul Hijjah, 1427)

Arab World Surprised at Speed of Execution
Linda Wertheimer
Weekend Edition Saturday, NPR
December 30, 2006

Palestinians Angered by Saddam Execution
by Eric Westervelt
Weekend Edition Saturday, NPR
December 30, 2006

SPA COMMENTARY ON SADDAM'S EXECUTION
SAUDI PRESS AGENCY (SPA)
DEC 30, 2006

Iraqis Consider Fate of Hussein's Body
By MARC SANTORA
New York Times
December 30, 2006

Dictator Who Ruled Iraq With Violence Is Hanged for Crimes Against Humanity
By MARC SANTORA, JAMES GLANZ and SABRINA TAVERNISE
New York Times
December 30, 2006

Saddam Hussein Is Put to Death
Former Iraqi President Hanged Before Dawn in Baghdad to Divided Reaction
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post
December 30, 2006

Saddam Hussein Executed
Former Iraqi Leader Hanged for Crimes Against Humanity
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post
December 29, 2006

Iraq Prepares to Execute Hussein
By MARC SANTORA
New York Times
December 29, 2006

`Eid Al-Adha: A Symbol Of Obedience
By Gyasi Abu Umar Mckinzie
Islam Online
26/12/2006

Eid Al-Adha: Festival of the Sacrifice
Religion Facts

Eid Al-Fitr
Religion Facts

Gordon Housworth



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