Fire of hatred

Published : Jan 26, 2007 00:00 IST

The execution strengthens sectarian polarisation in West Asia and is likely to result in a bloodbath.


THE unruly execution of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has set off a firestorm that is likely to inflame sectarian animosities in West Asia. For most observers in the region, Saddam's execution had little to do with legality, fairness or justice. Instead it turned out to be an emotionally charged spectacle where Iraqi Shias took revenge on a secular Sunni leader, who had ruled with an iron fist for nearly 35 years.

It is evident that Saddam's executioners were Shias, and they were apparently followers of Moqtada al-Sadr - a firebrand Shia cleric known for his hostility towards Saddam, and the Baath party which he led. Al-Sadr has also stood opposed to Al Qaeda, which established a firm footing in Iraq following the United States-led invasion of the country in March 2003.The now-famous clandestine video of Saddam's execution, recorded by a mobile phone, reveals one of the witnesses at the hanging chanting "Moqtada, Moqtada, Moqtada".

Some of the events that followed the execution also reveal the political affiliations of those who carried out the death sentence. It has been reported that al-Sadr was presented the noose that was used to carry out the execution. Despite his attempt to distance himself from the events that preceded the hanging, few believe that the executioners would have acted so without the knowledge or sanction of a higher authority. The video-recording of the hanging, which hit the Internet and Arab satellite stations by nightfall on December 30, has gone a long way in transforming Saddam's image. From a quarrelsome dictator, Saddam has become a symbol of Sunni resistance to foreign rule. The American occupation of Iraq as well as the proximity of the present Shia leadership to Iran has reinforced this image. A wide section of Sunnis see Saddam as a victim of plots hatched in Washington and Teheran against Sunni Arabs.

Writing in the pan-Arab daily Asharq Alawsat, columnist Mshari al-Zaydi explains how Saddam rose to become a symbol of Sunni aspirations in Iraq, where the influence of Shia Iran has risen dramatically. He points out that unlike other communities, the Sunnis have not had a face to symbolise their resistance. The current crop of Sunni leaders, such as hardline cleric Harith al-Dari, are "non-convincing figures".

However, Saddam became an "object of hope" during his trial, where his fiery defiance could not go unnoticed. After his execution, Saddam's appeal has spread widely in West Asia's Sunni heartland. His death has made a significant impact in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, two important countries in the region.

There has been widespread criticism in the Islamic world over the timing of the execution - on Eid al-Adha, the Muslim festival embodying forgiveness and compassion. The date of the hanging also acquired a sharp sectarian edge. Unlike the Sunnis, for whom festivities had begun on the day of the execution, December 30, Eid celebrations under the Shia calendar started only a day later. Iraq's Shia-led government was, therefore, accused of deliberately affronting Sunnis by not observing the sanctity of the occasion.

Saddam's execution on Eid made the maximum impression in Saudi Arabia, where millions of Muslims had congregated for the Haj. Responding to the sentiment, a presenter at Saudi Arabia's state-run Ikhbariya television said on December 30: "There is a feeling of surprise and disapproval that the verdict has been applied during the holy month and the first day of Eid al-Adha." In an apparent reference to the Iraqi government, he pointed out: "Leaders of Islamic countries should show respect to this blessed occasion...not demean it. It had been expected that the trial of a former President, who ruled for a considerable length of time, would last longer... demonstrate more precision, and not be politicised."

Many of the Arab tribes in Saudi Arabia have been deeply offended by the execution. Reuters quoted Turki Rasheed, who hails from a major Arab tribe, as saying: "This was a death squad that did this (Saddam's execution), a mob... . The best thing was the way he [Saddam] handled the situation. He fought them with this body language, with his eyes and his talk. He became a hero."

The recognition of Saddam as "a hero" by some of the Saudi tribes is significant, as it is likely to help boost Saddam's image of a "martyr" throughout the region. This is because many of the tribes in Saudi Arabia have active cross-border links. For instance, members of the Shamaar tribe reside in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and other parts of the region. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Ghazi al-Yawer, an important leader of the Shamaar tribe, became the country's interim President. Similarly, the Aniza tribe has clans spread across Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the Gulf countries, Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Turkey and Egypt. Inter-tribal linkages in the Arab world, therefore, go a long way in contributing to the region's politicisation.

Some of the Wahhabi sects, which have promoted Sunni extremist ideology in the region, have also responded to Saddam's execution. For some of them, the former President's hanging became an occasion to demonise Shias.

"The timing shows how much Shias hate Sunnis in Iraq and all the Islamic world," Nasser al-Omar, one of the leading authorities of Wahhabi Islam, commented on his website. Al-Omar also called Shias "Safavids" - the name of a 15th-century dynasty that made Shia Islam Iran's state religion. Shias, he said, were "sons of Ibn Alqami", referring to a Shia minister, who, according to some Sunnis, connived with the Mongols to attack Baghdad in 1258.

In Saudi Arabia, Saddam's execution has triggered a flood of poems that mobile phone users have been receiving as text messages. One Gulf newspaper carried a poem that advocated revenge. "Prepare the gun that will avenge Saddam. The criminal who signed the execution order without valid reason cheated us on our celebration day. How beautiful it will be when the bullet goes through the heart of him who betrayed Arabism," it said.

Even prior to Saddam's execution, Saudi Arabia had been signalling intervention to counter Iranian influence in Iraq. Some analysts in the region point out that the conflict in Lebanon in the summer of 2006 was the "tipping point" which has led to greater Saudi assertion in its neighbourhood. Saudis perceived the success of the Shia militant group, Hizbollah, an Iranian ally, in countering Israeli attacks in southern Israel as yet another expression of Teheran's growing influence in the region.

The fact that Iran made inroads into Palestinian territories through the militant group Hamas has also alarmed Riyadh.

Observers say that important countries with majority Sunni populations, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, are now coordinating their activities to counter the spread of Iranian and Shia influence in West Asia. Saudi Arabia is the lead player in this exercise, but Jordan is often the "voice" articulating Sunni interests and concerns.

Saudi Arabia's intentions to play its part in Iraq became apparent when it invited hardline Sunni leader Harith al-Dhari to the Makkah conference on Iraq in October last year. A month later al-Dhari was the guest of Jordan's King Abdullah II in Amman.

Piqued by al-Dhari's interaction with the top Sunni leaders of the region, the Iraqi government issued an arrest warrant against him.

Jordan has been a vocal critic of the growing Iranian influence in the region, including Iraq. Two years ago, King Abdullah had issued a warning that a Shia "crescent" was rising in an area stretching from Iran to Lebanon. A senior Jordanian official has been quoted as saying that "[Iran] is operating through its local allies in Iraq and through Hizbollah and Hamas. It is engaging with the marginalised Shia communities in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait to turn them into arrows that can challenge their government's legitimacy and authority."

After Saddam's execution, the Jordanian government has allowed, if not encouraged, protest demonstrations in Amman. On January 5, thousands of demonstrators, mostly Sunnis, marched in the Jordanian capital, condemning American and Shia influence in the Arab world. The protesters denounced Iran's perceived involvement in Saddam's hanging. Many chanted the slogan, "Death to America and to Iran".

Egypt has recognised that Saddam's undignified hanging has turned him into a "martyr" in the Sunni heartland. Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak was quoted as saying, "No one will ever forget the way in which Saddam was executed. They turned him into a martyr."

On January 8, the Egyptian newspaper Al-Karama carried a full-page picture of Saddam, declaring that he was an "Arab martyr". Another Egyptian newspaper, Al-Osboa, said that Saddam had "lived as a hero, died as a man". An accompanying picture showed the former President standing at the gallows.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, comparisons are being drawn between Saddam and Omar Mukhtar, the legendary Arab resistance fighter whom the Italians hanged in 1931. Libya's President Muammar Gaddafi, an erstwhile friend of Saddam, declared a three-day mourning in his country following the execution. Libyan television showed a Hollywood film on Omar Mukhtar shortly after the hanging.

The Libyan government has also decided to raise a statue of Saddam Hussein alongside that of Omar Mukhtar. With Saddam emerging as the symbol of Sunni reassertion, Shia groups in Iraq and elsewhere are bound to dig in their heels. Iran, on its part, is unlikely to dilute its support for Shias, who have been historically marginalised from leadership positions in the Arab world.

Iran exercises deep influence among Iraqi Shia groups. The 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran set the stage for redefining Teheran's relationship with Iraqi Shias. The advent of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s strengthened these bonds. Saddam's crackdown on Shias during this phase triggered a flood of refugees into Iran. Many in Iraq's present crop of Shia leaders, including Abdulaziz al-Hakim, had taken refuge in Iran then. Al-Hakim now heads the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which was formed with Iranian support. Iran's Revolutionary Guards were intensely involved in arming and training the Badr Corps, the SCIRI's armed wing. Members of this group have a prominent presence in the Iraqi armed forces and have been accused of carrying out sectarian attacks. Iran also has close ties with the semi-secret armed wing of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party.

With Saddam's execution strengthening the Sunni-Shia polarisation, social tensions in Iraq and elsewhere in the region are bound to escalate. These are likely to degenerate into a sectarian bloodbath, as both groups are well armed and at the present moment, in no mood to reconcile their differences.

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