Impact of Hussein’s death likely to be limited

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Times Staff Writer

Many Iraqis and Americans have looked forward to the day when justice would catch up with Saddam Hussein. Yet, when it arrived today, it seemed to be much less than the historic turning point many once had anticipated.

With Iraq beset by violence and turmoil, the former dictator’s demise no longer appeared to signal the beginning of new order. After a trial marked by disruption and controversy, the execution seemed only another reminder that the country’s divisions remain deep and seemingly insoluble nearly four years after the U.S.-led invasion.

“If everything had followed the coalition plan, if everything were calm now, this could have been the biggest event of the year, maybe the biggest event in the post-invasion,” said Henri J. Barkey, a former State Department official and Mideast specialist.


“This is not just a sideshow. But everyday existence is so grave and grim, it’s not what it might have been.”

Ever since Hussein was toppled from power, Bush administration officials have pinned their hopes on a procession of developments -- the elections, the capture of the former leader and the killing of terrorist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, to name a few -- to reshape opinions in the United States and Iraq about the American mission.

But though some of the events have affected public opinion, none has so far succeeded in convincing most Americans that things have fundamentally changed for the better.

“I just don’t see this as a big turning point,” said Daniel P. Serwer, a former U.S. diplomat and State Department official now at the U.S. Institute for Peace.

Even among some in the Bush administration, the potential for a positive reaction to Hussein ‘s death was considered limited.

One U.S. official said he believed that the execution would serve as a reminder that Hussein had been a danger to Iraqis as well as the region. But the official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, acknowledged that the development’s effect was likely to be “limited,” in part because of the continuing difficulties in Iraq, and in part because it had been foreseen for some time.


Any positive reaction among Americans also is likely to muted by disenchantment over the number of U.S. troops who have died in Iraq.

In Iraq, the execution of Hussein has commanded attention, but it may not outlast the daily struggle faced by most Iraqis.

“People in Iraq today are concerned with very basic things these days. Will this put more food on the table, make the streets safer, put more electricity in the wires?” Serwer asked. “The answer is likely not. So many people will not see this as that big.”

Two years ago, it appeared that Iraqis were beginning a dialogue about their common history and Hussein’s place in it.

If the country had made greater steps toward a unified view of their history, Hussein’s execution might have more weight, said Nathan Brown, a specialist in Arab politics at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

But with the country increasingly fractured along sectarian lines, “this is a bit more of a sideshow than it would have been,” Brown said.


Hussein’s execution also would have carried more significance had his trial been carried out differently, some experts said.

Barkey, who is now at Lehigh University, believes the Iraqis made a major mistake in deciding to put Hussein on trial for the killings of 148 Shiite men and boys from the town of Dujayl after a 1982 assassination attempt there, rather than for the chemical weapons attacks in the country’s north that are thought to have killed as many as 100,000 Kurds.

By executing Hussein for “a relatively minor crime ... you’re leaving this important chapter open,” said Barkey. The attacks on Kurds were clear violations of international law, he said.

“It’s one of the reasons the United States went to war, and yet they’re leaving that unresolved,” Barkey said. “It’s very problematic.”

He said that decision has left many Kurds feeling that “they are being cheated -- they have not received justice.”

Juan R. Cole, a Mideast specialist at the University of Michigan, said the nature of the trial also tended to further divide Iraqis, rather than heal wounds.


Because the charges concerned Hussein’s reprisals against members of a revolutionary Shiite party, Dawa -- which happens to be the party of the current and previous Iraqi prime ministers -- the execution could appear to many Sunnis as simple score-settling.

“This can be read as the Dawa party and a Kurdish judge taking revenge on Saddam,” Cole said. “To the Sunnis it will look like just one more slap in the face.... This is the opposite of national healing and will just deepen the divisions.”

Cole said he expected adverse Sunni reaction to the execution, noting that about 20 demonstrators were killed in Sunni-dominated Baqubah after Hussein ‘s verdict was announced.

Even so, he agreed that the execution’s political significance would be limited.

“It won’t change anything on the ground,” he said.