Spare Saddam

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By the time you read this, Saddam Hussein may be dead. When Iraq's Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected Saddam's appeal of his death sentence, the tyrant's luck finally ran out. That there would be no reprieve was apparently evident to Saddam himself, who penned a farewell letter to his former subjects in which he seemed to welcome a martyr's death — while adding that if he somehow managed to escape the noose, that would be OK too. "If [God's] decision is postponed, then He is most merciful," the letter said. In all likelihood, the world will never see him again.

To anyone interested in holding the world's worst despots accountable for their crimes, the Iraqi High Tribunal's conviction of Saddam for the 1982 massacre in Dujail should be cause for celebration. And considering that the 148 people killed in Dujail amount to only a tiny fraction of the thousands who died under Saddam's murderous rule, it's perverse to claim that capital punishment did not fit the magnitude of his crimes. By most codes of retributive justice, execution is the only worthy end to such a brutal life. But it is also a mistake.

It's not that I believe Saddam got a raw deal. Some opponents of his execution say the trial's flaws — compounded by the climate of intimidation surrounding it, during which two defense lawyers and a judge were assassinated — are sufficient to justify sparing his life. (Human Rights Watch outlines the trial's deficiencies here: http://hrw.org/reports/2006/iraq1106/). But it's doubtful that any proceeding held in Iraq today would have turned out any differently. The fundamental question before the tribunal's judges — whether the prosecution could prove Saddam's direct complicity in the Dujail massacre — was settled when prosecutors produced killing orders bearing Saddam's signature, which handwriting experts confirmed. Only Saddam's most ardent loyalists would argue that his guilt is still in question.

But the case against executing Saddam has little to do with justice. (Though it has some: as Gary J. Bass has argued, Saddam still faces trial for an even worse offense, the genocide of Kurds at Anfal in 1988, which will never be prosecuted adequately if he is put to death now.) It comes down instead to politics. In a perfect world, Iraq's courts would be free of sectarian biases and worthy of public trust. But many Sunnis who loathed Saddam distrust the institutions of the Shi'ite-led government even more. I doubt that most Sunnis will view Saddam as a martyr any more than Saddam, whose entire regime was built around his self-preservation, really wants to become one. But there's every reason to believe that many ordinary Sunnis will see Saddam's execution as another humiliation at the hands of the Shi'ites and one more reason to take up arms against the government. That's good news for the insurgents, terrorists and death squads on both sides — and bad news for U.S. troops.

The Iraqis who suffered under Saddam would be outraged at the idea of granting him clemency. But beyond the fleeting, visceral satisfaction of giving Saddam the same violent end that he administered to his victims, there's little political upside for the Iraqi government in putting him to death. It will not slow down the pace of Iraq's sectarian slaughter, which is being driven by an array of uncontrollable forces. But it will almost certainly fuel Sunni rage and scuttle Pri me Minister Nouri al-Maliki's program of reconciliation, which may be the last chance to avoid an even bloodier civil war. Any surge in violence by Sunni insurgents, in turn, would cause more Shi'ites to turn to militias for protection, which would undermine al-Maliki's authority even more. The real fear of many Shi'ites and Kurds — that if allowed to live and remain in Iraq, Saddam would someday escape and return to power — could be allayed by putting Saddam in international custody and consigning him to life imprisonment in the Hague. Like Slobodan Milosevic before him, he would be left to die there a defeated, forgotten man.

That, of course, would require the U.S. to intervene in the case, which the Bush Administration is determined not to do. U.S. civilian authorities in Iraq abolished the death penalty after Saddam's fall in 2003, out of fear that it could be too easily abused by Iraqis out to settle scores with their former Baathist tormentors. But capital punishment returned with the ratification of a new constitution in 2005. Whatever the Administration's true feelings about the wisdom of executing Saddam in such a heated environment, the U.S. appears prepared to allow the Iraqis to do as they please. When the hanging happens, it will no doubt be greeted with official U.S. congratulations to the Iraqis for "stepping up" and taking responsibility for their future.

Ultimately, the U.S. may be right to allow the Iraqis to decide Saddam's fate for themselves. But this is no time for triumphalism. It should shame both Americans and Iraqis to hear a man as repugnant as Saddam presenting himself as a uniter and imploring Iraqis "not to hate." Executing Saddam won't extinguish those fires of hatred any more than it will relieve the pain of his victims. Only when Iraqis build a decent, humane society at peace with itself will they be able to erase the memory of the crimes for which Saddam died.