ONCE UPON A TIME, the death of Saddam Hussein would have been an epochal event for Iraq, the Middle East and the world. Now there is some question whether it will even matter in Baghdad.
No one really expects Hussein's execution, which took place today, to change much in Iraq. His hanging was carried out in haste and in secret, in part because Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and other officials were worried that Sunni or Shiite factions would use it as an occasion for attacks or bombings. Violence may indeed spike in the aftermath of Hussein's death, but he has become little more than a symbol to such insurgents, who do not lack for excuses to justify their viciousness.
Nor can Hussein's death be expected to be much of a factor in Washington. Some will claim that it vindicates one of the original purposes of the war. But President Bush's deliberations about the "way forward" in Iraq will continue apace, as will debate about troop levels, diplomatic overtures and other strategies to allow the U.S. to leave Iraq but continue the war against terrorism.
The curious irrelevance of Hussein to today's Iraq could hardly have been predicted five years ago. It would be a mistake, however, to forget his terrible relevance to Iraq's history.
A student of Stalin, Hussein borrowed many of the Russian dictator's tactics, from assassinations and imprisonments of political enemies to ironclad control of the state security apparatus. On his hands are the death of countless Iraqis -- hundreds of thousands in a disastrous and inconclusive war with Iran, untold numbers of others in attacks he ordered against his own citizens.
One of those massacres, the killing of 148 men and boys in a Shiite town after an attempt was made on his life there in 1982, sealed Hussein's fate. His execution followed his conviction for ordering their deaths, and though the trial was imperfect, Hussein freely admitted his responsibility for the murders. His death robs another trial, for the gassing of as many as 180,000 Kurds in 1987 and 1988, of its defendant.
It is absurd to regret the death of a man so brutal. His removal from power was heartening to defenders of human rights everywhere. Yet it's worth asking, as U.S. troops go on heightened alert in Baghdad, whether Hussein's death represents progress or yet another anticlimax for Iraq. When his regime was toppled in the spring of 2003, and again at his ignominious capture three years ago, Iraqis and U.S. troops -- not to mention Washington policymakers -- allowed themselves to hope that they had reached some kind of turning point in the war.
No one voices such unrealistic optimism anymore. Hussein's irrelevance was one of the main achievements of the war in Iraq. It is also one of the main reasons why that war continues.