Saddam the Martyr

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Now was not the time to execute Saddam Hussein. With Iraq still under coalition occupation, as far as Iraqis are concerned the rope around Saddam's neck was American. The Shi'a and the Kurds may not care whose rope it is they just wanted the man dead and their pound of revenge. But for the Sunni, Saddam will become an instant martyr.

You'd be hard pressed to find a Sunni or for that matter anyone else who thinks Saddam's trial was fair or impartial. The Coalition Provisional Authority, the institution dedicated to dismantling Saddam's regime, established Saddam's tribunal. Its first head was the nephew of Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi exile who dedicated his life to destroying Saddam. The tribunal's presiding judge is a Kurd from Halabjah, the Kurdish city Saddam gassed in 1988. How could the man vote other than to execute Saddam and still expect to go home to Kurdistan?

The list goes on. Iraq's judiciary clearly is not independent the Shi'a-led council of ministers has appointed and removed the tribunal's judges according to political whim. Saddam's trial was conducted inside the Green Zone, protected by American forces and paid for by American money. The U.S. Department of Justice was integral to the prosecution's investigation and training the tribunal's judges and lawyers.

Sunnis aren't alone in their view of the trial. Europe refused to participate in it because it believed the trial could not be fair and his execution would be a foregone conclusion. The U.N.'s Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers of the Human Rights Council issued a press statement that the tribunal is illegitimate.

It doesn't matter to the Sunni that Saddam was guilty of the crime he was charged with: the massacre of 140 Shi'a villagers in 1982 in reprisal for an attempt on Saddam's life. At the risk of oversimplification, the Sunnis think the Shi'a villagers deserved it. It was that kind of rough justice that Saddam used to keep Iraq together.

Nor do the Sunni care that Saddam was guilty of a lot more bloodshed, from gassing the Kurds at Halabjah to the invasion of Kuwait. Nor do they care he was a catastrophically incompetent leader who more than the United States led to their downfall.

All they care about is this: as the current war grinds on, as Iraq's death toll starts to approach Saddam's deadly legacy, as the Sunnis lose more and more of their power, as memories fade, Iraq's Sunni will think of Saddam's rule as a golden era. They'll remember Saddam as the leader who kept Iraq together, kept them on top and prosperous, kept the Shi'a and the Kurds in their place, and kept the Iranians from invading during the Iran-Iraq war. They may never look at Saddam as Saladin, the Muslim general who liberated Jerusalem in 1187. But when the rough edges do wear off, Sunnis will look at Saddam as a martyr.

Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, is the author of See No Evil and, most recently, the novel Blow the House Down.