Rough justice

AT FIRST, British Prime Minister Tony Blair's reaction to Saddam Hussein's imminent hanging sounds a little wishy-washy. Blair reiterated his own opposition to capital punishment but also said the sentence "does give us a very clear reminder of the total and barbaric brutality of that regime."

Wishy-washy or not -- and when it comes to Iraq, thoughtful equivocation is preferable to false certainty -- Blair got it right. If one opposes capital punishment as a matter of principle, as we do, putting Hussein to death is of course objectionable. So was executing Adolf Eichmann and Timothy McVeigh. Rather than dwell on generic objections to capital punishment, a futile exercise given Iraqi law, Blair emphasized the sentence's significance as a judgment on the former Iraqi leader's misrule.

That said, both the sentence and the trial that produced it can be described as very rough justice. By British and U.S. standards, there were lapses in the trial that convicted Hussein of ordering the murders of 148 residents of a Shiite village in 1982. It's also troubling that the Iraqi appeals court that ruled Tuesday that Hussein should be hanged within 30 days took only three weeks to rule on detailed arguments submitted by his lawyers.

The most practical argument for sparing Hussein's life is rooted not in procedural scruples or a rejection of the death penalty but in political strategy. Ideally, Hussein would have been convicted against the backdrop of an Iraqi government regarded as legitimate by all segments of society, including Sunnis who prospered under the despot's rule. The current Shiite-led government in Baghdad falls sadly short of that description.

Assuming that Iraq's president or vice president could commute Hussein's sentence -- and the appeals court insists that its ruling can't be altered -- the best argument for mercy is that it might appease Sunnis who regard Prime Minister Nouri Maliki as partial to his fellow Shiites. At the same time, sparing Hussein could further destabilize Iraq by outraging both Shiites and Kurds. Tens of thousands of the latter group died in a military campaign that forms the basis of a separate genocide charge against Hussein.

As with so much about Iraq, there is no simple answer to the question of whether the nation would be better off if the condemned keeps his date with the hangman. Hussein claims that he is prepared to join the ranks of "the true men and martyrs." Iraq's leaders need to ask themselves if that "martyrdom" will come, and if so whether it will be at too high a price.

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