Saddam Hussein wasn’t termed the “Butcher of Baghdad” for nothing. He was a ruthless dictator who committed widespread crimes against humanity. He was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. He deserved to be brought to justice for his crimes. Yet, in a sharp detour from the road to justice, Saddam Hussein was hanged in what amounted to little more than yet another act of the kind of raw sectarian revenge that has come to define post-war Iraq. By handing Hussein over to be hanged even as real due process concerns persisted, the U. S. not only foreclosed the opportunity to bring Hussein to justice, but also undertook a course that will likely impose additional adverse geopolitical consequences at a time when it can ill-afford more such burdens.
By delivering Hussein to be hanged, the U. S. took its most visible step to date in embracing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s pursuit of sectarian domination for the Shia. Such a course is to be expected from Maliki, as his Shia-led government continues to depend, to a large extent, on support from parties associated with the Mahdi Army and Badr Militia, two leading Shia militias that have played major roles in instigating and carrying out sectarian violence. Its policies have politically and economically disenfranchised the Iraq’s Sunnis and put that nation firmly on the path of fragmentation.
By catering to the desires of a sectarian government that has tilted increasingly toward Iran against American interests, the U. S. has damaged its ability to serve as an “honest broker” for national reconciliation in Iraq. It has possibly squandered its ability to effectively reach out to Sunni leaders and thereby made it more difficult to bring stability to Iraq.
The fact that the hanging was carried out at the onset of Eid al-Adha, an important Sunni religious holiday, has further driven wedges between the Sunnis and Iraq’s Shia-led government and between the Sunnis and the United States. Eid al-Adha is a feast of sacrifice. It is an occasion for forgiveness. The timing of the hanging could only have sharpened the Sunnis’ pain and sense of humiliation. Worse, the hanging was carried out to shouts of “Moqtada, ” a Shia cleric who has played a leading role in inciting violence against Iraq’s Sunnis and whose militia is responsible for ethnic cleansing in sections of Baghdad. All said, the Maliki government sent an unmistakable message to Iraq’s Sunnis that the Iraq it envisions has no respect for their religious traditions and has no place for them.
That message will likely translate in increased and more intense sectarian violence. With Sunni Arab states increasingly concerned about Iranian aspirations for regional domination, it is possible that such states could passively permit their citizens to assist Iraq’s Sunnis. Should the Sunnis be pushed to the brink of disaster, it is even possible that these states could actively lend military, financial, and technical assistance to them in a bid to safeguard their own critical interests. The interests of moderate Sunni states such as Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia would be endangered by a Shia victory in Iraq that would transform that country into a vehicle from which Iran could project its growing power.
The hanging could also reunify the fractured anti-U. S. Ba’athist movement. With Sunnis feeling that they cannot count on either the pro-Shia government in Baghdad or the U. S. for protection, Iraq’s increasingly disenfranchised Sunni population could turn to the Ba’athists for protection. If so, that movement could regain the vigor it lost when Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled and its leaders were either captured or sent into hiding. At the same time, if the Sunnis conclude that their community in Iraq is confronted with near-certain destruction, there is some risk that such a situation could provide Al Qaeda in Iraq with the opening it seeks to become “mainstreamed” among Iraq’s Sunnis, not to mention among Sunnis worldwide. Such a development would greatly complicate the overall U. S. -led war on terrorism. Nevertheless, it is a development that cannot be dismissed altogether.
An increase in U. S. soldiers, perhaps along the lines of that recommended by Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), will likely be insufficient to contain the increased sectarian violence that will occur in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s hanging. According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), there are currently 23 known militias in Iraq. The Mahdi Army has as many as 60,000 fighters. The Badr militia has 5,000, but is also assisted by Iran. There are up to 40,000 active Sunni insurgents. Al Qaeda has as many as 3,500 foreign fighters. These figures do not include sympathizers who provide non-military support to the various armed elements. Presently, these groups enjoy military advantages from local knowledge and support networks, speed in which they can carry out attacks, and dramatically lower operating costs than the U. S. These advantages have allowed the various armed elements to bring about a military stalemate.
The United States may also have weakened the credibility of its stated intent to see Iraq evolve into a state defined by the rule of law. Leading human rights groups expressed concern about the legal process that led to Saddam Hussein’s conviction and hanging. Human Rights Watch argued that there were “serious procedural flaws” during the trial. According to that group, the actions of Iraq’s government “undermined the independence and perceived impartiality of the court, ” there were “numerous shortcomings in the timely disclosure of incriminating evidence, ” there were “violations of the defendants’ basic fair trial right to confront witnesses against them, ” and there were “lapses of judicial demeanor that undermined the apparent impartiality of the presiding judge. ” Amnesty International charged that the legal process “failed to satisfy international fair trial standards. Political interference undermined the independence and impartiality of the court, causing the first presiding judge to resign and blocking the appointment of another, and the court failed to take adequate measures to ensure the protection of witnesses and defense lawyers, three of whom were assassinated during the course of the trial. Saddam Hussein was also denied access to legal counsel for the first year after his arrest, and complaints by his lawyers throughout the trial relating to the proceedings do not appear to have been adequately answered by the tribunal. The appeal process was obviously conducted in haste and failed to rectify any of the flaws of the first trial. ” As a consequence, especially among Iraq’s Sunnis and neighboring Arab states, the credibility of the U. S.commitment to due process has been undermined. Such a development is not helpful in advancing the objectives of American public diplomacy in a region in which the U. S. is widely viewed unfavorably.
Reflecting Sunni sentiments, the Al Quds al-Arabi website opined, “The American Government suffered a lethal blow from its allies in Iraq when they acted in an abhorrent sectarian way at a critical historic moment as they insisted on carrying out the death sentence on the blessed day of Eid al-Adha, one of the most sacred days in Islam, and allowed some spiteful people to insult the Iraqi president with political slogans and offensive words without any respect for the sanctity of the dead and the sensitivity of the occasion. ” It added, “We do not exaggerate if we say that it deliberately made this insult and this humiliation to more than 1.5 billion Muslims through this barbaric implementation of the death sentence and the humiliating violations during it. ” In short, at least among Sunnis who comprise the majority of the world’s Muslims, the U. S. may have suffered a self-inflicted setback that further complicates its ability to build a constructive relationship with the Muslim world.
In the end, while the hanging of Saddam Hussein closed a terrible chapter in Iraq’s history, it likely opened the door to a fresh tragic sequel that could further undermine Iraq’s prospects for stability and unity. It will also likely worsen the U. S. geopolitical position in the region on account of its further reducing the already scarce options available to the U. S. for addressing the challenges it faces in Iraq. Whether or not the U. S. has lost its ability to work with the Sunnis remains to be seen, but robust efforts to repair the damage will be needed and there will be short-term costs that will be incurred on account of the recent hanging of Saddam Hussein.
Don Sutherland has researched and written on a wide range of geopolitical issues.