Seven Questions: The Hanging of Saddam

Saddam Hussein is dead. The tyrant's unexpectedly sudden and rowdy execution, which took place on a Muslim holy day, stirred controversy in Iraq and around the world. FP sat down with Nibras Kazimi, an Iraqi formerly with the Iraqi National Congress and a fierce critic of Saddam, to get his take.

Foreign Policy: Did you have friends or relatives that had been hurt by Saddam?

Foreign Policy: Did you have friends or relatives that had been hurt by Saddam?

Nibras Kazimi: My mothers family is Kurdish, and theyre Talibanis. My mothers village was targeted during the Anfal. They dug up the cemeteries, and my grandfathers grave was dug up. They were stamping out traces of people. It was vindictive, and it wasnt unique to my mothers village. It happened across many of the villages that were affected by the Anfal campaign. And through marriage, we had relatives who were directly affected by the chemical bombings at Halabja. On my fathers side, the ones that had registered as Persian nationals rather than as Ottoman nationals were deported to Iran. Some of the young men were seized, and they spent years in prison, some of them executed. You know, the usual Iraq story. My fathers people were Shiite Arabs from Kazimiya, a formerly independent town that has become a northern suburb of Baghdad. Its actually where Saddam was executed, in the military intelligence complex.

FP: What did you think of the trial? Was it a good idea to hold it in Iraq, or should it have been done in The Hague as some people argue?

NK: Had I been a Bosnian Muslim, and seen the Milosevic trial, and was asked by an Iraqi for good advice, I guess Id say: Dont allow them to do it at The Hague. This was an Iraqi court, and I that was a good thing. I got to see a lot of the trial live TVa lot of Arab satellite channels carried it, especially at first due to the novelty of seeing Saddam being hauled in front of a judge.

I remember arguing with Iraqis at the time who asked, Why are they allowing him a podium? Why is he allowed to mock witnesses? Why doesnt the judge clamp down on him? I argued that its a good thing hes getting away with all these things so that people dont detract from the legality of the trial later on. Maybe they should have put him behind a glass cubicle where he wouldnt be allowed to harass witnesses.

But it was a very solid case. Thats why they started with Dujail rather than an outright political issue. If it were political, they would have gone straight to 1991 and the mass control measures that Saddam put in place to put down the Shiite uprising. They went with Dujail instead because it was easy to pit down. The paperwork was there, and Saddams handwriting was on it. It was easy to prove that these people were executed because they were relatives of those who conducted the assassination attempt, and that this was Saddams doing.

FP: As someone of Kurdish heritage, are you upset that he wasnt sentenced for the Anfal campaign?

NK: Saddam had seen half of the Anfal trial, and sure, I would have liked him to see all of it. But the man was 69, and I think there was a tradeoff. Somebody had to make a decision regarding whats going on in Iraq now, and the possibility that Saddam might die in his sleep. They had a sentence, the appeal was rejected, and the sentence was reaffirmed, and thats it. And the text of the special tribunal says that once the sentence is passed, its execution within 30 days.

FP: What about the controversy over having the execution on a Muslim holy day?

NK: Im pretty much a secular person, so that didnt ruffle my feathers. But I can understand how people would feel uneasy about having Saddam executed on Eid al-Adha. But its basically like this: if you wanted Saddam executed, thats all youre going to see from this event, if you didnt want Saddam executed, youre going to find all kinds of things to point to, and say Why didnt they do this? or Why didnt they do that?

FP: As for the execution itself, there was that famous mobile phone video that got out, there were people shouting Moqtada, Moqtada, Moqtada and other things. Was the execution seen in Iraq as a sectarian event?

NK: Good, let it be seen as a sectarian event. I think that will suck out the sectarian poison a little bit. Why does someone follow Moqtada al-Sadr? The typical Sadrist is an angry person, who feels dispossessed, a Shiite, but a poor one who is not part of the Shiite elites. The chanting and shouting and taunting at the execution told him: All of these little revenge fantasies that you have in their head have been fulfilled.

Civil war will only happen in Iraq if the Shiites are sufficiently angry to act against Sunni provocation. For Shiites, cheering the hanging of the Sunni tyrant will ameliorate the sting of the Saddam years. As for the Sunnis, they are sufficiently angry at losing power and Saddam being arrested, and theyve been acting on that anger by joining the insurgency in large numbers or voting for certain political parties. I dont think much has changed because of the hanging. Its not as if were suddenly going to have more angry Sunnisanyone angered by the series of events since 2003 is already angry.

Everybodys writing about these Sadrist thugs jumping around. But when Saddams tribe came to take the body, they said hed been washed and clothed according to the Islamic tradition and that they saw no signs of mutilation or any of that on the body. So were basically down to taunting before his death.

People should watch footage from 1969, when the Baathists strung up a mostly Jewish batch of alleged spies in Baghdads main square, and they brought hundreds of thousands of people to jump up and down as a spectacle. And look, many in the United States are criticizing the trial and the execution, but a lot of that may be due to lingering embitterment over the Florida recount.

FP: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was apparently afraid that Sunni insurgents would try to free Saddam, and thats why he wanted to do it right away.

NK: I dont think it was a fear of insurgents freeing Saddam, but a fear that Americans would free Saddam. Theres very little trust of the Americans at this point. Theres a feeling that the Americans are bending over backwards to placate the Sunnis at the expense of the Shiites. You know, how the Americans connived at releasing Ayham al-Sammarai, and there was a prior case. Whenever I talked to anyone about those, they asked What if they let Saddam go, too?

FP: Do you think Saddams victims now feel a sense of closure?

NK: Its not completely shut, but the wound closed a long way. With every execution, its like adding a new stitch. A lot of people were hurt by the Mukhabarat under Barzan al-Tikriti, and hes next. Then theyre going to take Awad al-Bandar, who sentenced a lot of the people who were executed in the early 80s. Saddams hanging made it real. It made it real for Saddams victims and for Saddams sympathizers, too, in a way that his capture didnt. At the time of the sentencing, there was a sense of shock amongst Sunnis, and especially amongst the peripheral circles of the insurgency, that theyre actually going to do this.

Many in the Baathist component of the insurgency held on to this fantasy that somehow theyd release Saddam, or that the Americans would negotiate with him as head of the insurgency. People forget that he was loose from April until December of 2003, and he was found with a lot of evidence that the nascent Baathist insurgency saw him as at least a symbolic figure. I think part of that lingered, and you had websites like, which speaks for the Baathists, holding online polls asking How do you think our captive president Saddam will be liberated? And you had three choices: through an armed uprising, through the actions of the mujahedin, or through negotiations with the occupiers. When I last looked at it a couple of months ago, the most popular of some 12,000 responses was through the actions of the mujahedin. As fantastical as it sounds, the return of Saddam was a myth that people were holding on to. Thats the influence of the totalitarian system, whereby your class or your sect gets subsumed into the cult of personality of the leader, and you become an extension of his identity.

Nibras Kazimi is a fellow at the Hudson Institute. Previously, he directed the research bureau of the Iraqi National Congress, and was a pro bono advisor to the Iraqi governments Higher National Commission for De-Baathification. He left Iraq in October 2004.

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