With Ali al-Fadhily
BAGHDAD - The death sentence for former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein could
deepen a divide that threatens to tear Iraqis apart.
The signs on the street are dangerous already. Several reports have come in
of celebrations in Kurdish and Shia areas, with strong protests in Sunni-dominated
cities in central Iraq.
Iraq is being ripped apart by sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shias,
and many fear that if Saddam Hussein is executed Iraq could slide into civil
On Sunday, the High Tribunal in Iraq held Saddam Hussein guilty of ordering
the killing of 148 Shias in 1982. The verdict threatens stability because Saddam
Hussein, a Sunni Muslim, is seen by non-Sunnis to have run policies to the advantage
of Sunnis and the disadvantage of others.
Many Iraqis in Baghdad say the judgment was hastened for the benefit of the
Republican Party in the United States, which faces congressional elections Tuesday.
The party is expected to do badly primarily as a result of a widely perceived
failure of the Republican administration's Iraq policy.
The sectarian split under U.S.-led occupation has spiraled high enough to lead
to fears that Iraq is in a state of civil war already. The oil-rich nation of
25 million comprises mainly Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds, with the Shias an estimated
majority of 60 percent.
In Shia-dominated Sadr City in Baghdad, and in other Shia cities such as Najaf,
Karbala, and Basra, large numbers came out on the streets to celebrate. Much
of the Shia population suffered great repression during the rule of Saddam Hussein.
Celebrations have been reported also across Kurdish regions of northern Iraq.
Like the Shias, the Kurdish population was also heavily repressed under the
reign of the former dictator.
A day before the verdict was announced, Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki
asked Iraqis not to "celebrate too much" when the announcement came.
Other Shia leaders have been trying to sober down such celebrations, and even
oppose the death sentence. They say that the execution of the former leader
would make a martyr of him, and give him a higher status than he deserves.
The picture of a split society was completed by protests and anger in Sunni-dominated
areas of Iraq, particularly in Baghdad and in al-Anbar province to its west.
Facing repression now from a Shia-dominated government under U.S. influence,
Sunnis have adopted the former leader as one of their own.
In a predominantly Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad, al-Adhamiya, Iraqi police
battled resistance members armed with machine guns. In Saddam Hussein's hometown,
Tikrit, thousands defied a curfew to carry pictures of Saddam through the streets.
The divisions were deepened further when Iraqi army units attacked pro-Saddam
demonstrators in many areas. Sunni television channels Zawra and Salahedin that
aired pro-Saddam demonstrations were immediately shut down and raided by Iraqi
The closing of the two networks has infuriated Sunnis further. The move appeared
similar to the U.S.-ordered closing of the newspaper al-Hawza of Shia
cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, which sparked his first uprising against occupation
forces two years back.
In a country where sectarian death squads are killing on average more than
100 people a day in the capital city alone, another polarizing event is the
last thing Iraq needs at this time.
One potential flashpoint everyone is watching is the northern, oil-rich city
of Kirkuk. The city has a mixed population, including Sunni Arabs who were settled
there under Saddam's regime. Kurdish leaders want Kirkuk, and its wealth, within
an autonomous Kurdistan.
In the Shia-dominated south, more than 100,000 Iraqis are fleeing their homes
each week as Shia leaders push for federalism, under which each ethnic group
would take substantial control of a region it dominates.
The execution of Saddam Hussein, if it takes place, could worsen a pattern
under which every "success" of the government under occupation has
led to increasing attacks on U.S. and Iraqi security forces.
This happened after Saddam Hussein was captured by U.S. forces in December
2003 after they were tipped off by Kurdish militia members. The attacks against
security forces rose dramatically after that. A similar pattern followed the
killing of suspected al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi by occupation forces.
It is not yet certain that execution will be carried out. The verdict on Saddam
now goes before a nine-judge panel that has indefinite time to review the case.
But if the sentence is upheld, the execution must be carried out within 30 days.
(Inter Press Service)