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Saddam verdict leaves Iraq more divided than ever

india Updated: Nov 06, 2006 17:53 IST
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Iraq's shellshocked population awoke on Monday one day after Saddam Hussein's death sentence to find a country still more deeply and dangerously divided into rival armed camps.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and US President George W Bush may well have hailed the verdict as a victory over the demons of Iraq's dark past, but the reaction on the streets showed a battle far from over.

Joyful Shiite crowds celebrated the judgement like a release, a weight that had been lifted from their once persecuted community, but also as their latest bitter triumph over the former Sunni elite.

"Executing Saddam means the end of a bitter chapter in the lives of Iraqis and the start of a new one," said Khilud Mohammed, a resident of the restive town of Diwaniyah, as Shiite militia fighters fired gleefully in the air.

Sunni towns also erupted, but in anger and a kind of desperation at their plight. Their demonstrations showed how tenacious Saddam's cult has remained, three-and-a-half years after his humiliating capture by US forces.

"We will continue demonstrating, not because we are Sunnis but because we are Iraqis. We loved the period when the Mujahid leader Saddam Hussein ruled," said Abdullah Zamar Hassan, a 49-year-old shopkeeper in Hawija.

Opinion was divided as to whether the verdict would increase violence in a country already wracked by inter-communal strife.

"The execution will certainly decrease terrorism in Iraq," the deputy speaker of Kurdistan parliament, Kamal Kerkukli, told the agency confidently.

"The execution will put an end to the illusion that he could come to office again."

Sunni parties warned that the opposite would happen and other commentators were more cautious.

"Iraqis have suffered from big problems and we hope this sentence will not add any others," said prominent Kurdish lawmaker Mahmud Othman.

"We hope this sentence will not lead to more divisions among the Iraqis. We hope that would not lead to repercussions and security problems," he added.

For all his bullishness about the verdict, Maliki was clearly worried about just that -- that the verdict would lead to a violence backlash from a Sunni minority already deeply suspicious of his government and its US backers.

Military leave was cancelled and Baghdad locked down by a total curfew, with only the Shiite district Sadr City allowed to express its emotion publicly.

The closure of the international airport and the Jordanian border added to the sense of foreboding.

Even before the verdict was announced, Iraqi and US casualties were already at some of their highest daily levels since the invasion.

Bush chose to focus on Iraq's success in holding any trial at all, hailing it as "a milestone in the Iraqi people's efforts to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law."

US officials often gloss over the fact that the trial was held inside the fortified Green Zone behind several layers of armed security, while the defendants were arrested by US troops and held in a US military base.

International rights watchdogs joined Iraqi Sunni commentators in decrying the interference of Maliki's government in the conduct of the case.

For many observers, the failure of the court to prove its independence from Maliki's US-backed goverment and conduct a trial seen as fair by all Iraqis has increased the danger that the verdict will deepen Iraq divides.

"It is a tragedy that people who are clearly guilty of these crimes are paraded in front of a court that does not meet minimum standards required for such a case," said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group.

"Saddam's symbolic power has enhanced with the death sentence. He is now a living martyr," Hiltermann, the think tank's Middle East director, warned.

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