BAGHDAD — The footage of the execution of Saddam Hussein has generated controversy in Iraq that is refusing to die down.
Footage of Saddam’s last moments, taken by an onlooker with a mobile phone, shows the former dictator appearing calm and composed while dealing with taunts from witnesses below him. The audio reveals several men praising the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Mohammed Bakr al-Sadr, founder of the Shia Dawa Party, who was killed by Saddam in 1980.
“Peace be upon Muhammad and his followers,” shouted someone near the person who filmed the events. “Curse his enemies and make victorious his son Muqtada! Muqtada! Muqtada.” These chants are commonly used by members of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia..
There has been a huge international backlash to the footage. In India millions of Muslims demonstrated against the execution being carried out during the sacred festival of Eid.
Across Iraq, Shias seem mostly pleased. “Of course things will be better now that Saddam is dead,” Saed Abdul-Hussain, a cleric from the Shia dominated city Najaf told IPS in Baghdad. “It is like hitting the snake on the head and I hope his followers will hand over their weapons and accept the fact that they lost.”
But few believe that Saddam was inspiring the armed resistance.
“Who is Saddam and why would he affect anything after his death,” a 55-year-old teacher from Fallujah told IPS. “The idea of his leading the resistance from jail is too ridiculous for a sane man to believe. We know that Mujahideen (holy warriors) are the only ones who will kick the occupation out of the country.”
Others believe unity between Iraqis is the only answer to the occupation.
“Saddam was terminated the day he was captured by occupation forces,” Salah al-Dulaimy from Ramadi told IPS. “Things will continue to be as bad as they are for both Iraqis and Americans because nothing has really changed. A president who was removed from power four years ago is just an ordinary man although the way he was executed and the timing of the execution was a blessing to so many Iraqis, who realised the necessity of being united no matter what religion and sect they belong to.”
Facing broadening criticism over release of the mobile phone footage, the Iraqi government arrested a guard accused of filming the execution. Iraqi officials said on Wednesday that the execution chamber was infiltrated by outsiders bent on inflaming sectarian tensions.
“Whoever leaked this video meant to harm national reconciliation and drive a wedge between Shias and Sunnis,” National Security Adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, who was among 20 officials and other witnesses present at the execution at dawn last Saturday told reporters.
Rubaie later insisted that there was nothing improper about the shouting from the crowd, or the fact that executioners and officials danced around Saddam’s body. “This is the tradition of the Iraqis, when they do something, they dance around the body and they express their feelings,” he said in an interview to CNN.
A senior Interior Ministry official told reporters that the hanging was supposed to be carried out by hangmen employed by the Interior Ministry but that “militias” had managed to infiltrate the executioners’ team.
The airing of the footage has further damaged the government of embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and possibilities of reconciliation between political and sectarian groups in Iraq.
On Thursday the Iraqi government postponed the hanging of two of Saddam Hussein’s companions. Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikrit, Saddam’s half brother and former intelligence chief, along with Awad Ahmed al-Bandar, head of Saddam’s revolutionary court, were to have been hanged Thursday.
A senior official from Maliki’s office told a reporter that the executions were postponed “due to international pressure.”
U.S. Presidential press secretary Tony Snow, formerly of Fox News, dismissed calls to join international condemnation of Saddam Hussein’s execution. “The government is investigating the conduct of some people within the chamber and I think we’ll leave it at that,” Snow told reporters. “But the one thing you got to keep in mind is that you got justice.”
The U.S. military claims it had no control over the events at the execution, despite handing Saddam over to Iraqi authorities just minutes before the footage was taken. The U.S. military then transported the body to Tikrit where it was later buried.
Many Iraqis simply want the bloodshed and chaos that has engulfed their country to end.
“I just pray to Allah to stop the bleeding that started when those strangers came into our country,” 65-year-old Ahmed Alwan from Baghdad told IPS. “There is no future for us to think about under such a mess, and killing Saddam will just add more hatred between Iraqis, especially with the savage comments that appeared on the video.”
Most Iraqis seem skeptical of the current U.S.-backed Iraqi government, which has been unable to restore even basic services, let alone security.
“Our government thought they could fool us again by killing the man,” 30-year-old grocer Atwan in the Hurriya district of Baghdad told IPS. “We have had enough and what we demand is a real change, or else we will take another course regardless of what our religious and political leaders tell us. What we want is a better life and real brotherhood between Iraqis.”
(Ali al-Fadhily is our Baghdad correspondent. Dahr Jamail is our specialist writer who has spent eight months reporting from inside Iraq and has been covering the Middle East for several years.)