Used to send a weekly newsletter. To subscribe, email me at

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Saddam buried; videos grip Iraq

Saddam buried; videos grip Iraq
Copyright by The International Herald Tribune
Published: December 31, 2006

BAGHDAD: The body of Saddam Hussein was buried in the town of his birth in the hours before dawn Sunday, after a final journey into the night aboard an American military helicopter that carried him from Baghdad.

The burial was the final act in a grim and turbulent 24 hours that began with Mr. Hussein's execution at dawn on Saturday. But like much else about Mr. Hussein's life and death, his passage back to the otherwise unmemorable town where he grew up, Awja, was marked by bitterness and dispute. It was only under American pressure that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, Iraq's new ruler, agreed to surrender the body for burial after his aides insisted for much of Saturday that it would be held in a secret location until the risks of violence or turmoil at the burial site receded.

Taken from Mr. Maliki's office at midnight, the body was shown in a video recording broadcast by the state-run Iraqiya television channel being loaded in a simple wood coffin into the back of a police pickup truck and driven to the American's command's helicopter landing zone a mile away in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone. There, it was loaded aboard one of two Black Hawk helicopters and flown north on the 110-mile journey to Camp Speicher, an American military base outside Tikrit.

From the American base, it was driven south to Awja, on the banks of the Tigris River, and laid to rest in the ornate visitors center there that Mr. Hussein ordered built for the townspeople in the 1990's. Local officials and members of Mr. Hussein's Albu-Nasir tribe had broken open the marbled floor in the center of the main reception hall and cleared what they said would be a temporary burial place until the fallen dictator could be moved to a permanent grave in a cemetery outside Awja where his sons, Qusay and Uday, were buried after dying in a firefight with American troops in July 2003.

Accounts relayed by some of those in the large crowd who attended the burial said that American and Iraqi soldiers had set up separate security cordons around Awja, apparently to prevent the occasion from escalating into unrest and possible violence of the kind seen elsewhere in Sunni areas since the hanging. A video recording made inside the hall and played later on Arabic television channels showed several mourners throwing themselves on top of the closed wooden casket. One of them, weeping, cried out: "He has not died. I can hear him speaking to me."

For many Iraqis, the wrangling over the body was another anguishing chapter in the long trauma brought to their national life by Mr. Hussein.

After nearly three decades of living with his brutal repression and the violent aftermath of his overthrow by American troops, they spent the weekend in a mixture of rejoicing, violence and muted reflection over the stark events that unfolded in the pre-dawn hours of Saturday, when the former dictator was hanged in one of the grimmest of his own execution chambers.

This nation of 27 million people spent the 36 hours after the hanging crowding around television sets to watch mesmerizing replays of a government-made videotape that showed the 69-year-old Mr. Hussein being led to the gallows at dawn by five masked executioners, and having a noose fashioned from a thick rope of yellow hemp lowered around his neck. In the final moments shown on the videotape, he seemed unnaturally calm and cooperative.

On Sunday, there was even more fascination with another video of the execution, this one unedited, showing what the government recording did not: the moment when the executioners pulled the lever that released the trapdoor, causing several feet of thick yellow rope coiled at Mr. Hussein's feet to tauten as the condemned man fell to his death. The new video, apparently captured by a cellphone camera smuggled into the execution chamber by one of the witnesses or guards, also captures some of the taunting Mr. Hussein was subjected to in the final 50 seconds before he was hanged.

The government recording ended when the chief executioner tightened the noose around Mr. Hussein's neck and stepped back towards the trapdoor lever mounted on the execution block's bare concrete wall. But the cellphone video showed what followed. In the semi-darkness of the chamber, lit only by lights for the government's video camera, voices can be heard from the area in front of the gallows. "May Allah praise Mohammed and his family and curse his enemies," the voices chant, adding, in a provocation to Mr. Hussein, "Moqtada! Moqtada! Moqtada!"

The reference was to Moqtada al-Sadr, the volatile Shiite cleric whose private militia has spawned many of the death squads now terrorizing the Sunni minority community that ruled Iraq for decades until Mr. Hussein's overthrow in 2003. Some of those death squads have recruited men from within the police and prison service. Mr. Hussein, on the gallows, noose around his neck, can be seen with a brief smile crossing his face before he utters his own mocking reply: "Moq-tada," he says, drawing out the name.

"Is this what you call manhood?"

Another voice then calls out, "Please, no. The man is being executed," prompting Mr. Hussein to a denunciation of his persecutors that is mostly drowned out by the hubbub. But one phrase that can be deciphered from the recording is clear. "Gallows of shame," he says.

Still another voice then shouts in the darkness, "Long Live Mohammed Bakr al-Sadr," a reference to Moqtada al-Sadr's grandfather, who was ordered hanged by Mr. Hussein in 1980 along with his sister, allegedly for planning to overthrow Mr. Hussein and found an Islamic state in Iraq. "Go to hell," another voice in the darkness shouts. At this point, with about 10 seconds to live, Mr. Hussein begins intoning the most common of all Muslim prayers. "There is no God but God, and Mohammed is his messenger," he says, twice.

At that point, the trapdoor opens with a loud metallic clang, and Mr. Hussein can be seen falling. The grainy images on the cellphone recording become jerky, apparently as the man holding the cellphone struggles for a view among a crowd of people pushing forward. "The tyrant has fallen! May God curse him," a voice shouts. Another, apparently that of one of the officials overseeing the execution, attempts to restore order. "No one touch him for three minutes," the voice says. "Everybody step back."

The cellphone images then show Mr. Hussein in death, dangling from the rope, his neck grotesquely snapped and his head hanging backwards at a 45-degree angle. His eyes are open and glassy, and bruising is visible on the left side of his cheek, where the noose has tautened against his skin.

Moments before the hanging, the executioners had wrapped a black cloth scarf around his neck, telling Mr. Hussein that its purpose was to prevent the rope from cutting through his neck at the Adam's apple. He nodded, almost courteously, though some witnesses said later that he seemed to have gone through his final moments in a daze.

But many who watched the recordings, and certainly his supporters among Iraqi Sunnis, took from the hanging a message quite other than the one that the government of Mr. Maliki seemed to have intended. To them, what the videos showed was that the ousted ruler had lived his final moments with unflinching dignity and courage, reinforcing the legend of himself as the Arab world's strongman that he cultivated while in power.

Seen from this perspective, Mr. Hussein, one of the last century's most murderous tyrants, emerged from the hanging as almost heroic; his executioners as thuggish and cowardly, cursing and taunting a condemned man.

According to accounts given later by some of the 25 people who attended the execution, Mr. Hussein spent much of the last half-hour before being led to the gallows, after arriving at the execution block at the Khadimiyah prison in northern Baghdad, in another sequence of bitter exchanges with the Shiite guards and executioners assigned to hang him and with some of the Shiite witnesses. At one point, on the gallows, Mr. Hussein delivered a final defiance of his old enemies, the United States, Iran and their "spies," a word commonly used at the height of his tyranny to justify the merciless persecution of his domestic opponents.

"Down with the traitors, the Americans, the spies and the Persians," he said, meaning Iran. His mention of Iran seemed to have been intended to provoke the overwhelmingly Shiite gathering in the execution block, since Iran, ruled by Shiite clerics, has been a major backer of the Shiite religious groups that now rule Iraq, and has been accused by American commanders of supplying weapons, including armor-penetrating rockets and bombs, to Iraqi insurgents.

The death sentence on Mr. Hussein, handed down first on Nov. 5, was required under Iraqi law to be to be carried out within 30 days of the rejection of his appeal, which was delivered on Tuesday. The fact that the hanging was carried out within four days of the appeal's denial took some officials in Washington by surprise and left some American legal officials who have worked with the Iraqi court uncomfortable, to the point of complaining privately that the Maliki government had substituted political expediency for justice.

Within hours of the execution, at least 75 people were killed in nine bombing attacks of the kind that Sunni insurgents commonly carry out against Shiites. In the mainly Shiite districts of Hurriyah and Sayidah in Baghdad, separate sequences in which car bombs detonated in close succession caused at least 39 deaths. Two other car bombings hit Baghdad before nightfall, one outside a children's hospital in the Iskan neighborhood, and another that killed two people outside a mosque in the mainly Sunni district of Adhamiya, the Interior Ministry said.

Another vehicle bomb detonated in a popular fish market in the Shiite holy town of Kufa, 100 miles south of Baghdad, killing 34 people and wounding 38 others, the ministry said. In the Kufa attack, an angry mob set on the suspected bomber and beat him to death, the police said. Five more victims died in a suicide bombing in the northern city of Tal Afar, another center of violence between Sunnis and Shiites.

The United States military command announced six more combat deaths, bringing the number of American troops killed in December to 109, the deadliest month for American deaths since November 2004, according to Reuters.

With bombing attacks a long-established feature of the struggle for power across Iraq, it was impossible to say whether the Saturday bombings or the violence today were connected to the execution.

But statements by remnants of the ousted Baath Party, the political vehicle Mr. Hussein rode to power, had promised retaliation, in the form of a new wave of bombings, if the death sentence passed by an Iraqi court eight weeks ago was carried out.

Those threats were repeated in a statement issued by the Baath party's underground headquarters on Saturday. In a statement issued on its Web site, the party called Mr. Hussein "the master of Arab and Muslim martyrs in the current era," and said that it was the duty of every Muslim to respond to his hanging by joining in holy war against his enemies. "Hit the joint enemy Iran and America relentlessly," it said. "Take a stand of honor, and seek revenge for Saddam."

From accounts given by witnesses, the hanging of the former ruler had strong sectarian overtones from the outset. Within minutes of arriving at the execution block from the American detention center near the airport, where he spent more than 1,000 days in solitary confinement, Mr. Hussein, who may have been the only Sunni present, argued with the guards and executioners.

The men who guided him to the gallows were drawn from the country's Shiite south, identifiable by their darker skins and accents. The Shiites of southern Iraq harbor a strong hatred for Mr. Hussein for his repression of uprisings there, a repression that killed tens of thousands of Shiites.

The execution block scenes offered a grim echo of the sectarian struggle now convulsing Iraq, as Sunni insurgents and Shiite death squads engage in a implacable cycle of revenge that has killed as many as 3,700 civilians a month this year, and prompted many Iraqis to say that the killings ushered in by the overthrow of Mr. Hussein are becoming as brutal, and numerous, as anything he inflicted.

Even the decision to hasten Mr. Hussein to the gallows took on a sectarian edge, as Iraq's new Shiite leaders presented the hanging as a message to Sunnis that their days as Iraq's rulers are gone forever. The message was clear in a statement issued by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, whose "national unity" government of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds has splintered into ethnic factions, with the Shiite religious groups that swept last December's elections increasingly assertive of their majority rights.

The statement, which he signed before a battery of Iraqi television cameras, amounted to a warning to the Sunnis that their hopes of ever regaining power are lost. "Saddam's execution puts an end to all their pathetic gambles on a return to dictatorship," he said, referring to the former Baathists at the core of the Sunni insurgency. "I urge followers of the ousted regime to reconsider their stance, because the door is still open to anyone who has no innocent blood on his hands to help in rebuilding Iraq."

At his death, Mr. Hussein had ceased to be much of a major rallying point, even among diehard Sunnis, whose battles in the past three years have been less about restoring Mr. Hussein to power — a chimerical goal, considering that the former leader was America's most closely-guarded prisoner in Iraq — than about reversing the political transition from Sunni to Shiite rule.

Mr. Maliki short-circuited a bitter internal debate within the government over how quickly to send Mr. Hussein to the gallows by signing an order for the execution on Friday night, voiding a procedure that would have required the three-man presidency council — composed of a Kurd, a Sunni and Shiite — to all vote for the hanging.

Mr. Hussein and two of his associates were sentenced to death on Nov. 5 for their roles in the persecution of the Shiite town of Dujail, where an alleged assassination attempt against Mr. Hussein in 1982 was followed by the execution of 148 Shiite men and teenage boys. After the three men's convictions, Mr. Maliki led the push for a hanging before the end of the year. After the sentencing, American officials were confident that appeals might delay the hanging until the spring.

But Mr. Maliki pressed for a speeded appeal process and secured a confirmation of the death sentences within three weeks. A senior Bush administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said on Saturday that the Kurds had called for a delay, so the trial of the former dictator for his repression of the Kurds, which began in August, could be completed, probably not until spring. But the White House official said the United States had "no desire" to delay the execution in the face of the urgency pressed by Mr. Maliki, and had cooperated by surrendering Mr. Hussein to his executioners.

Administration officials said President Bush had gone to sleep before Mr. Hussein's hanging, but had been told it was imminent. He awoke Saturday at 4:40 a.m. Central Standard Time, said a White House spokesman, David Almacy, and at 5:55 a.m. received a 10-minute telephone briefing about the execution from his national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley. The president and Mr. Hadley discussed the execution and the worldwide reaction to it. "The president remarked that he was pleased with the culmination of the Iraqi judicial process, and justice was done," Mr. Almacy said.

Among Shiites elsewhere in Iraq, there were sporadic eruptions of joy at the hanging, marked by dancing in the streets and the firing of automatic weapons into the air, as the early morning radio and television bulletins carried word that Mr. Hussein was dead. But the more general mood, even among Shiites, was one of subdued reflection, as if millions of Iraqis had exhausted their emotional and psychological reserves during the long years of violence.

Apart from the bombings, the most palpable Sunni reaction to the hanging took the form of scattered protests, some of them violent, that swept through Tikrit, Mr. Hussein's hometown, and across Anbar Province, west of Baghdad, the principal heartland of the Sunni insurgency.

In one major insurgent stronghold, Ramadi, American troops were reported to have fired in the air to scatter demonstrators, who were marching through the streets hoisting portraits of Mr. Hussein and firing automatic weapons into the air. In Falluja, 30 miles west of Baghdad, witnesses said crowds of angry men took to the streets within 90 minutes of the hanging, attacking a police station and a courthouse and setting them ablaze.

Among those Iraqis who watched and re-watched the government's video of the hanging, there seemed to be a widespread view that Mr. Hussein accepted his fate, at the end, with a composure and courage at odds with the psychotic figure he cut during his 24 years in power. In that time, he ordered the killings of thousands of his fellow citizens, many of whom ended up in mass graves scattered across Iraq's oil-rich deserts.

Throughout Saturday, Iraqi government officials put out conflicting signals as to what they planned to do with Mr. Hussein's body. An official in the governor's office in Salahaddin Province said that a delegation led by the governor, Hamad Shegata, and including and the head of Mr. Hussein's Albu-Nasir tribe, Sheikh Ali Al-Nida, had traveled to Baghdad during the day to arrange the handover of the body for burial in Awja. Muslim tradition requires that burials be completed before dusk on the day of death.

But a political adviser to Prime Minister Maliki, Bassam al-Husseini, said there were no plans to hand over the body until the risk of violence over Mr. Hussein's hanging subsided, a period that he said could run for weeks or months. In the meantime, he said, the body would be kept in "a secret place," where it would be secure against desecration by his enemies. "If we bury him in Tikrit, people will dig him up and tear the body apart," he said.

However, in the end, the Maliki government relented, and cleared the way for the helicopter trip that returned Mr. Hussein to his hometown. For the fallen ruler, who often spoke with contempt of his friendless, poverty-stricken childhood, and of Awja, returning there in death would likely have been an embittering thing. But not so embittering, perhaps, as making the final journey aboard a helicopter belonging to the forces of the enemy that overthrew him, the United States.

Jeff Zeleny contributed reporting from Crawford, Tex.


Post a Comment

<< Home