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The Significance of Saddam Gone

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
December 26, 2006

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Coming soon are two events worth noting that should affect the outcome of the war in Iraq: the hanging of Saddam Hussein and a major speech by President Bush in which he is expected to announce a strategy readjustment in Iraq.

The death of Saddam, whose appeal was rejected by the court (BBC), is expected to be viewed with relief by the bulk of Iraq’s population but scorned by the nation’s Sunnis. They say the trial was a political show, the court a product of an illegitimate U.S.-backed Shiite government. They are partially correct. Human rights groups heaped criticism on the court for its legal shortcomings and lack of security. Several international lawyers objected to staging the trial in war-torn Baghdad, preferring instead either an international or a hybrid tribunal (half international, half domestic). Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch condemned the court’s use of the death penalty, even for a tyrant like Saddam, because it violates international law. “[I]t is morally reprehensible to treat a helpless person in custody as a pawn, his life to be snuffed out for some utilitarian purpose,” says Roth in this CFR Online Debate. “That's true regardless of how awful his crimes may have been or how laudable the purpose of execution may be.”

Yet the court has received some praise. Michael P. Scharf of Case Western University School of Law commended the court’s opinion for its surprisingly detailed factual findings and sophisticated legal analysis. A Pentagon spokeman said Iraq’s judicial system "has followed its rules and processes and come up with its conclusion" (Reuters).

What effect, if any, Saddam’s death will have on the Sunni-led insurgency or the escalating internecine violence in Iraq remains unclear. Some experts say it might provide a needed boost to the government in Baghdad at a time of growing disunity and disfunction. Yet others say it could spark greater unrest among Iraq’s Sunni population (many who believe they make up some 60 percent, not 20 percent, of Iraq’s population, writes journalist Christian Caryl in the New York Review of Books) and dissuade them from joining a Shiite-run government. Moreover, it may further embolden Iraq’s Shiites and their various militias to ratchet up the reprisal killings agains their fellow Sunnis. Or, as the Economist speculates, Saddam's execution may have little impact. After all, according to its website, "the ongoing misery of daily killings is driven by many more forces than fighters loyal to their former leader."

Meanwhile, in January President Bush is expected to unveil his new strategy to win—or at least avoid losing—the war in Iraq. There is growing talk of a “surge” of some thirty thousand U.S. forces in Iraq to secure the capital, as suggested by Frederick W. Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute. Yet leading Democrats on Capitol Hill, including Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE), promise to fight against any deployments of more U.S. forces to Iraq (AP).

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