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Saddam's Lingering Impact

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
January 3, 2007

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It was perhaps inevitable that Saddam Hussein would be mourned as a martyr by Iraq's Sunni Arabs. But the lurid circumstances (NYT) surrounding his execution— rushed to the gallows the morning of a Muslim holiday, secretly videoed, and taunted by masked guards—reverberated throughout the wider Middle East. This has stoked fears that Iraq may be lost to an Iran-influenced and vengeful brand of Shiism. Indeed, the death of the Iraqi dictator may only reinforce the sectarian divide (CNN) that threatens to unravel the region's balance of power, argues CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Vali R. Nasr. Understanding this rising tide of Shiism (TIME.com), he adds, is paramount to forging a successful U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Saddam's execution and the trial that preceded it drew condemnation (Economist.com) from many Arabs. The U.S.-backed judicial process, they argued, was legally flawed from the start and the haphazard manner in which Saddam was hanged only backed up their beliefs. Moreover, it drew ire from Iraqi Kurdish officials who wanted Saddam kept alive to stand trial for gassing thousands of Kurds in the late 1980s.

His hanging was supposed to symbolize an important milestone and, U.S. officials hoped, send a message to his supporters that the Shiite-led government in Baghdad was firmly in charge. Instead it prompted outrage, at home and abroad, as well as an embarrassing government investigation into the abusive behavior of Saddam's executioners. "Instead of a study in modern justice, the tyrant's end looked more like the result of a sectarian show trial," writes Newsweek's Christopher Dickey.

More importantly, the event calls into question the motives of Iraq's new leadership. With President Bush set to give a major speech announcing a new strategy on Iraq—he is rumored to favor deployment of a temporary surge (BBC) of 20,000 to 30,000 forces — there are fresh questions about the feasibility of the current government and the sincerity of its efforts to reconcile with Sunnis and restore their presence in Iraqi politics.

Adding to this trouble, as CFR President Richard N. Haass articulates in Newsweek International, is Washington's waning ability to influence events inside or outside Iraq. "The American era in the Middle East is over," he writes, warning that the region "will remain troubled for decades." Yet others discount the theory that "linkages" exist between Iraq and other regional disputes and dismiss worries of a Shiite-Sunni war spreading beyond Iraq's borders. "Arab leaders are interested first and foremost in survival," writes Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, "which means protecting their national interests (WashPost), not subscribing to romantic notions of ethnic or religious ideology."

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