Saddam Is Sentenced to Death, and Iraq Shrugs

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Former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein yells at the court as he receives his verdict, November 5, 2006. Saddam and two others were convicted and sentenced to death by hanging for war crimes in the 1982 killings of 148 people in the town of Dujail.

For those seeking omens on Saddam Hussein's day of judgment, Mother Nature obliged: Sunday dawned wet, cool and clean in Baghdad after overnight showers rinsed the city of several layers of desert sand. Late in the morning, Ahmed Hussein, a government-employed street sweeper, looked up into the overcast and still-rumbling skies and nodded approvingly. "This is the right weather for a day like this," he said. "The rain is God's blessing upon the verdict."

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But for many Iraqis, the death sentence passed on their former dictator Sunday was not so much a cleansing autumnal rain as just another thunderclap — albeit a particularly loud one — in the middle of a terrible and unending storm. Once the clatter of celebratory gunfire that greeted the verdict had died down, Iraqis' thoughts returned to their own future, and the depressing realization that it is no less bleak than it was yesterday. "Whether Saddam lives or dies is not important to me," shrugs Imad Mohammed, a computer technician. "I'm not even sure whether my family and I will live or die."

This isn't how the trial of Saddam Hussein was meant to turn out in the imagination of U.S. officials back in the winter of 2003, when he was found in that Tikrit spider-hole. J. Paul Bremer, the American administrator of Iraq, had hoped seeing Saddam on the dock would allow Iraqis to exorcise the demons he had unleashed upon them during his long reign. More recently, as the country descended into a sectarian war, some U.S. and Iraqi officials clung to the hope that the trial would remind Shi'ites and Sunnis how they had once been unified in misery under his rule.

Instead, the unrelenting sectarian violence in daily Iraqi life soon turned the trial into a televised sideshow. For those who bothered to watch anymore, the sight of Saddam in court sometimes had the exact opposite effect than officials expected — it evoked nostalgia for a time when, under the tyrant's yoke, Shi'ites and Sunnis were not at each other's throat. Although viewership spiked today, interest in the proceedings will quickly subside again.

What will not subside is the violence. Far from being collective therapy, the trial has only helped widen the sectarian divide. While Shi'ites celebrated the verdict, many of Saddam's fellow Sunnis protested. In his hometown of Tikrit, over 1,000 people staged demonstrations in defiance of the curfew. In Baghdad's mainly Sunni Adhamiya district, several mortars landed near the Abu Hanifa shrine, the most revered Sunni mosque in the country.

Anticipating an uptick in Sunni insurgent activity, the Iraqi government cancelled all military leave and put security forces on high alert. With much of the Sunni Triangle under an all-day curfew, pro-Saddam insurgents had few opportunities to express their reaction to the verdict; in Baghdad, there was only sporadic violence. Saddam's defense lawyer, Khalil al-Dulaimi, warned in an open letter to President Bush that "this decision will set the country ablaze again and plunge the entire region into the unknown." However after the verdict al-Dulaimi told the Associated Press that Saddam had urged Iraqis to reject sectarian violence and to "not take revenge" on U.S. forces. Regardless, insurgent groups will undoubtedly up the ante when the curfew ends.

All convictions will be reviewed by an appellate panel of nine judges. There is no deadline for the panel to rule, but officials close to the trial process have said it is likely to be weeks rather than months. Once the panel has completed its review, any sentences must be carried out within 30 days. The panel has the authority to order a retrial, but that is thought to be highly unlikely.

Truth be told, there was never any doubt Saddam would get the death sentence; he had himself anticipated it weeks ago, when he asked that he be shot — like a soldier — rather than hanged. That request was not honored. As the presiding judge, Rauf Rasheed Abdel Rahman, announced the verdict, the tyrant responded by shouting, "God is great," and "Long live the nation!" and an assortment of other slogans. But by his standards, it was a subdued performance; there was none of the bug-eyed ranting that has characterized many of his court appearances.

Joining Saddam on the gallows will be his cousin and enforcer, Barazan al-Tikriti, and Awad al-Bander, who presided over many of the dictator's kangaroo courts. Saddam's former vice president, Taha Yaseen Ramadan, got life and three lower-ranking officials were each sentenced to 15 years. One official was acquitted for lack of evidence.

The verdict came nearly 13 months after the trial had begun in a high-security courtroom in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone. The eight men were tried for an incident that, until the trial began, most Iraqis had long forgotten. On July 8, 1982, at the height of the Iraq-Iran war, Saddam's motorcade was attacked by gunmen in the village of Dujail, an hour's drive north of Baghdad. During the trial, Saddam recollected the attempted assassination, saying, "Bullets were in front of me and here and there. [But] God wanted to save me."

The dictator's retribution was ferocious. Although the then outlawed Dawa Party claimed responsibility for the attack, it was the residents of Dujail who bore the brunt of Saddam's revenge. In al-Bander's "revolutionary" court, 148 townspeople were tried and sentenced to death. Many died from torture before the sentences could be carried out. Hundreds of others were forced to a desert camp. Large portions of the village were razed to the ground.

The Dawa Party is a major political force in post-Saddam Iraq; current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his predecessor Ibrahim al-Jaafari are both members of it. That meant the trial was always going to have political overtones, which tarnished its credibility with many Iraqis. The trial's first top judge resigned halfway through the proceedings of the Iraqi High Tribunal (IHT), complaining that Shi'ite and Kurdish political leaders were leaning on him for being too lenient toward Saddam's courtroom antics. The judge who was due to succeed him was blocked by Shi'ite officials because he had been a member of the Ba'ath Party. It didn't help that three defense lawyers were assassinated during the trial.

The trial process raised eyebrows, too: prosecuting attorneys were able to introduce evidence without allowing the defense opportunity to preview it. And in the end, Judge Abdel-Rahman simply ended proceedings when the defense was still supplying its own evidence.

The unseemly haste prompted accusations that the IHT had been pressured to pass judgment just before the U.S. midterm elections — accusations denied by American officials. "The Iraqis set the date for the delivery of the verdict," says a senior State Department official. "It's not something we control. "

In any event, most experts said the verdict would not temper widespread discontent among American voters about the way the war and occupation have been prosecuted. "I have a hard time believing this [verdict] will radically change people's minds," said Kenneth Pollack, an NSC staffer in the Clinton White House and now Director of Research at the Brooking Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. "I think most people realize that Iraq is a pretty violent place, and any surge in violence is unlikely to shift many people's view."

Pollack said the White House was unlikely to indulge in any mission-accomplished type crowing. "I think at this point in time the Administration has learned to be a little more modest," he says.

Al-Maliki's government, on the other hand, could scarcely conceal its triumph. In a statement, the Prime Minister, a Shi'ite, said the "justice handed out to [Saddam] is a response to the call from thousands of sons and sisters of those sentenced and executed by [him]." President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, declared that the trial was fair, because the defendants "had the full right to say what they intended." If the review panel upholds the sentence against Saddam, Talabani must sign off on the execution. Although he has said he is on principle opposed to the death sentence, the President has allowed a deputy to sign in his place on other death warrants.

Saddam, meanwhile, has not had his last day in court. When his lawyers prepare to appeal, the former dictator will be back on the dock on Tuesday on another trial, for his alleged 1988 genocide against the Kurds.

—With reporting by M. Ezzat/Baghdad and Elaine Shannon/Washington