Saddam Hussein deserves no one’s pity. But as anyone who has seen the graphic cellphone video of his hanging can testify, his execution bore little resemblance to dispassionate, state-administered justice. The condemned dictator appeared to have been delivered from United States military custody into the hands of a Shiite lynch mob.
For the Bush administration, which insists it went to war in Iraq to implant democracy and justice, those globally viewed images were a shaming embarrassment. Unfortunately, all Americans will be blamed, while the Iraqi people are now likely to suffer still more. What should have been a symbolic passage out of Iraq’s darkest era will instead fuel a grim new era of spiraling sectarian vengeance.
The ugly episode shows why Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is never likely to produce the national unity government that Washington keeps demanding and that Iraq so desperately needs.
Mr. Maliki is now scrambling to extricate himself from the public relations disaster. Yesterday, his office announced the arrest of a guard who allegedly took the unauthorized video. But the fundamental blame belongs to Mr. Maliki, who personally orchestrated the timing and circumstances of last Saturday’s execution.
Mr. Maliki ignored pleas for delay from Washington and the legal niceties of Iraq’s Constitution. He rushed to deliver Mr. Hussein’s death as a holiday gift to his hard-line Shiite constituency, especially followers of the radical cleric and militia leader Moktada al-Sadr, who were allowed to chant abuse at the condemned dictator while he stood at the gallows with the noose around his neck.
Mr. Maliki’s usual cheerleaders, President Bush and Britain’s prime minister, Tony Blair, have distanced themselves from this repellent spectacle. Yet the Bush administration again finds that it has little credibility to lecture anyone on the basic dignity due to detainees. The Washington Post reported yesterday on an internal F.B.I. investigation that revealed a pattern of deliberate taunting of the religious beliefs of Muslim prisoners at Guantánamo.
As Mr. Bush prepares his latest plan for Iraq, he must face up to bleak realities. As of January, 2007, Iraq lacks an army capable of standing on its own. It lacks a justice system that puts the rule of law over political expediency, while its police force is dominated by sectarian militias and thugs. Most crucially, it lacks a government committed to protect the rights and personal safety of all Iraqis.
Most Americans, whatever their view of the war, understand that the rule of Saddam Hussein brought a murderous curse and untold suffering upon the Iraqi people. Mr. Hussein has now gone to his grave. But the outrageous manner of his killing, deliberately mimicking his own depraved methods, assures that his cruelty will outlive him.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company