The trial of Saddam Hussein that ended Sunday with a guilty verdict and death sentence for the former Iraqi leader, once viewed as a means of reconciliation and justice, instead seemed to fuel the sectarian division that grips the country.
Some Shiite Muslims and Kurds celebrated. Some Sunni Muslim Arabs responded with anger. For many in Iraq, Hussein has ceased to be the mesmerizing patriarch who once towered over their nightmares and lives. Many interviewed Sunday and in recent months said they had laid him to rest long ago, more worried about the internecine violence racking the country.
“The verdict was right, but prolonging it faded the cheerfulness,” said Sameer Asadi, a 38-year-old taxi driver in the southern city of Basra.
Though Iraqi government officials argue that putting Hussein to death could stymie the hopes of Sunni insurgents, many of those battling U.S. and Iraqi forces have long ago dispensed with Hussein as an inspiration, perhaps even before he was found and arrested by U.S. troops nearly three years ago.
The verdict, however, will be felt by many in Iraq as another in a series of divisive jabs in the ongoing battle between Iraq’s long-oppressed majority Shiites and once-powerful Sunni Arabs now incensed over their loss of dominance.
Hussein and seven codefendants faced charges of crimes against humanity in the deaths of 148 Shiite Muslims, who were killed after an assassination attempt against the Iraqi leader in the town of Dujayl in 1982. Hussein and two other defendants received the death penalty Sunday, and those cases will be automatically appealed. Four defendants received lesser sentences, and another was acquitted. Several human rights organizations said the yearlong trial did not meet international standards for war crimes tribunals. “We’re concerned that flaws in the trial process will jeopardize much of the trial’s impact,” Miranda Sissons, head of the International Center for Transitional Justice’s Iraq program, said in a statement.
U.S. officials hailed the verdict as a triumph of “transparency” and an example of the kind of due process denied Iraqis under the former regime.
“Saddam Hussein’s trial is a milestone in the Iraqi people’s effort to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law,” President Bush told reporters in Waco, Texas. “It is a major achievement for Iraq’s young democracy and its constitutional government.”
But such lessons on the healing power of the courtroom and virtues of law may well be lost in contemporary Iraq, where the numbers of those slain each week in civil warfare dwarf the count in the Dujayl case.
As the verdict was broadcast on television, war cries broke out on both sides.
In Shiite districts of the capital, revelers pointed their AK-47s into the air and let loose a 15-minute burst of celebratory gunfire. Many held posters of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, whose followers nightly snatch Sunni Arab men off the streets and torture them with power tools before shooting them in the head.
“God avenged the killer of my sons,” said a 65-year-old woman in the Shiite city of Najaf who gave her name as Um Hassan.
She said she lost two of her four boys to Hussein’s security forces in the 1991 crackdown on a Shiite insurrection in southern Iraq. “The death penalty is not enough,” she said. “I want him to be buried alive twice as he did with my sons.”
Even Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, the ardent Islamic activist leading this fragmented country, joined in the celebration of fellow Shiites.
“This is the day where you see the dictator ... facing the penalty he deserves,” Maliki said in a televised address.
“Iraqis have the right to smile and rejoice a little for the death sentence issued against this criminal and his minions.”
In Sunni Arab towns and neighborhoods, there were sullen anger and public displays of support for the former dictator. Clashes and mortar fire in Sunni neighborhoods in the capital left at least four people dead. Sunnis held up Iraqi flags and portraits of the man they still call “our president,” humiliated that he was to be hanged like a common criminal.
“He did not throw them into a big hole and set them on fire,” Amin Adib, one of Hussein’s defense lawyers, said of the 148 victims from Dujayl. “He just gave them justice. If I were to judge Saddam Hussein I would have given him a medal for his conduct in this issue.”
Before the verdict, Khalil Dulaimi, Hussein’s lead attorney, described the tribunal examining the Dujayl case as an “Iranian court,” as if Shiite prosecutor Jaafar Mousawi and Kurdish Judge Raouf Rasheed Abdel Rahman did not even qualify as fellow Iraqis.
“The judges and the prosecution were appointed according to a sectarian criterion,” he said. “They’re all either Kurds or Shiites.”
Demonstrations in support of the deposed president broke out in Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, as well as other Sunni enclaves, despite a ban on vehicular and pedestrian traffic. In the nearby town of Ad Dawr, rioters torched the courthouse.
“This is a phony court,” said Adel Hussein, 27, a Sunni mechanic in the city of Samarra. “This court was formed on a sectarian basis and it contains the judges that are related to [Maliki’s] Dawa Party and other parties that are in the government now.”
The verdict “will incite terror operations and increase the attacks in the hotspots where Saddam is deemed a legal president,” said Abdullah Mohammed, a 44-year-old Sunni Arab in Kirkuk.
In the courtroom Sunday, the sectarian divide -- the two worldviews battling for supremacy in Iraq -- also played out. Former U.S. Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark, a member of the defense team, had submitted a brief questioning the court’s legitimacy and by extension the U.S.-led invasion and the Shiite- and Kurdish-dominated government that was elected afterward.
The judge exploded. “Out, out!” he hollered in English at Clark, who appeared befuddled as he was escorted out by several bailiffs. “Get him out. He’s coming from America to insult the Iraqi people and the court.”
Applause erupted from the visitors gallery.
After acquitting one defendant and sentencing three others to 15 years each in prison for their roles in the Dujayl killings, the judge sparred with former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, sentencing him to life in prison.
The facts, the witnesses and the testimony were all for show, a cover for a vendetta, Ramadan said.
“It is very clear that the verdict was previously set and had nothing to do with all the trial sessions,” he said.
‘God is great!’
The judge quickly handed a verdict of death by hanging to Awad Hamed Bandar, the chief judge of Hussein’s Revolutionary Court. The visitors in the gallery and Bandar began chanting “God is great!”
“God is greater than the unjust,” Bandar said as Abdel Rahman finished reading the verdict. “God is greater than the occupier. God is greater than the colonizers. God is greater than the collaborators.”
Hussein, wearing his signature black suit, walked into the courtroom with an air of somberness and gravity, casting himself as the wounded symbol of the Sunni Arab pride that was the cornerstone of his Baath Party’s ideology.
“I will listen to the judgment,” he said, looking much more downcast than he has in past court appearances. “But I will not stand up.”
A bevy of bailiffs surrounded him, forcing him to stand up. One glared at him with what appeared to be a mocking smile as the former president was sentenced to hang for crimes against humanity, including murder, imprisonment, torture, forcible imprisonment and relocation.
“Long live Iraq!” Hussein said, holding up a green Koran. “Long live the Arab nation! Down with the agents! God is great! Long live the people!”
Then Hussein, who exacerbated Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic divides by targeting Shiites and Kurds throughout the 1980s and 1990s, took on the role of healer of a country being torn asunder.
“We recommend the great Iraqi people forgive all those who strayed and we recommend the great Iraqi people not to be angry at the people of the countries that participated in occupying your country,” he said.
“Don’t push,” he told the bailiff escorting him out the courtroom. “I am your brother.”
When the final defendant, Hussein’s half brother and former head of intelligence Barzan Ibrahim Hasan, came before the judge to receive the death penalty, most expected he would regale the court with characteristic wisecracks and venom.
Instead he offered the judge a compliment one might offer an opponent at the end of a game of chess -- or a war. “Congratulations,” he said simply.
Special correspondents in Baghdad, Basra, Kirkuk, Najaf and Samarra contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
‘He is facing the punishment he deserves.’
-- Nouri Maliki
Iraqi prime minister
‘Every individual has a right to a fair trial, even people accused of crimes of the magnitude that Saddam Hussein faced, and this has not been a fair trial.’
-- Malcolm Smart
Amnesty International official
‘I hear what some Americans are calling this historical day, as a new example of democracy in Iraq and in the region. Who do they have to fool? Everybody witnesses the ongoing devastations and killings in Iraq day by day. This is no victory to anybody.’
-- Waail Khaled
Computer engineer in Cairo
‘It is in a sense the ultimate expression of the sovereignty of Iraq. They are masters of their own destiny. And they have taken a decision today as controllers of that destiny which I think all of us ought to respect.’
-- John Reid
British Home secretary
‘This sentence has already prompted a negative reaction in Iraq itself and worries in several Arab countries that the existing instability in Iraq will get worse.’
Russian Foreign Ministry statement
‘The Americans are about to vote in a midterm election, so maybe [President] Bush will use this case to tell the voters that Saddam is dead and that the Americans are safe. But actually the American people will be in more danger with the death of Saddam.’
-- Vitaya Wisethrat
Muslim cleric in Thailand
‘The idea is preposterous.’
-- Tony Snow
White House press secretary,
on whether the U.S. midterm
election was a factor in the timing
of the verdict
‘The longer we can keep Saddam alive, the longer the tribunal can have to explore some of the other crimes involving hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.’
-- Sonya Sceats
International law expert in London
‘Appalling crimes were committed by Saddam Hussein’s regime. It is right that those accused of such crimes against [Iraqis] should face Iraqi justice.’
-- Margaret Beckett
British Foreign secretary
-- Times staff and wire reports