|Amid quest for justice, the seeds of future strife|
By Anne Barnard, Globe Staff | December 30, 2006
In the weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein in the spring of 2003, Iraqis brimmed with tales about the abuses they had suffered under his government.
Stories of torture and humiliation poured from the lips of victims who had kept their silence for years, and bones literally came forth from the earth as bereaved families pulled the ribs and femurs of their lost loved ones from the dirt of mass graves dug in secret for the victims of Hussein's purges.
In Baghdad in those early days, it was easy to mistake the outpouring of newly liberated speech as a sign that Iraqi society was about to embark on a reckoning with its past, the way Russia, Rwanda and South Africa had done.
In retrospect, those early cathartic expressions -- mixed as they were with cries for revenge -- held the seeds of conflict that would complicate efforts to hold Hussein accountable through nonviolent and legal means, or to convince those who once supported him that his crimes were real.
Three years after his capture and the relentless, deadly blend of insurgency and civil war that followed, the execution of Hussein leaves Iraq with nagging, unresolved conflict and enmity, rather than the crisp, clear accounting of the country's ugly past that architects of his trial had hoped for.
It might also mark a lost opportunity for reconciliation.
The wildly disparate views that Hussein's hanging provoked in Iraq provide one stark measure of its potential to further divide Iraq's increasingly polarized ethnic and sectarian communities.
"A feast-day present" for Iraqis finally taking charge of their destiny, one Shi'ite Muslim political leader called the hanging, which coincided with the Eid al-Adha holiday. But the leader of the beleaguered Sunni Muslim bloc in parliament denounced it as the meddling of the United States and Iran.
An insurgent group called it a "crime," and Hussein himself, in a farewell letter, claimed the title of "martyr" to the Iraqi cause.
The death of the dictator -- at the hands of a government that Iraqis widely view as dominated by newly empowered Shi'ites in search of revenge -- cuts short any hope that his testimony and the evidence of his crimes could clarify the historical record and provide a peaceful outlet for grief and grievances.
The proceedings against Hussein appeared to have deepened sectarian divisions rather than to have paved the way for reconciliation.
And for many critics, the trial itself fell far short of the soaring Iraqi expectations for justice and accountability that accompanied his downfall almost four years ago.
One broiling afternoon in April 2003, Munir Mahmoud Hamid, a skinny 31-year-old, chased his former boss from an Iraqi state television channel down the street.
He proclaimed to a crowd that the man had ordered him jailed and beaten, and had forced colleagues to spit on him for some alleged disrespect he had shown toward Uday Hussein, Saddam Hussein's son.
Panting and exultant, Hamid said he finally felt free to tell the story. "And," he added without taking a breath, "to get revenge."
For many other Iraqis, the drive to uncover truth was linked to the desire for revenge, a desire that could be freely indulged because the disbanding of the army, the widespread looting and breakdown of public order ensured that there was no safe space to explore those issues. Anyone who was viewed as complicit, let alone admitting complicity, risked death.
The decision by the newly appointed US envoy, L. Paul Bremer, to disband the military left half a million men unemployed and fearful that there would be no place -- and no safety -- for them in the new Iraq. They would become one wing of the insurgency, entering a marriage of convenience with extremists who soon began to target Iraqi civilians, mainly Shi'ites. That cut short honest discussions of the past, since speaking openly was to risk death.
It took another eight months to find Hussein, skinny and cowering, in a hole tunneled into the earth of a farm in what was known as the Sunni Triangle. By then an insurgency was taking hold that would grip the country so hard that basic reconstruction would falter. Almost 3,000 Americans and untold numbers of Iraqis would be dead three years later, and 150,000 US troops would still be occupying the country.
When Hussein was captured in December 2003, no one knew that sectarian rifts between Sunnis and Shi'ites would open so wide that daily life in the capital would become a kind of Russian roulette. Now, Sunni drivers hope not to be stopped at a checkpoint run by Shi'ite militiamen and vice versa, lest they end up dead in a garbage dump with holes drilled in their heads, a common form of torture.
Those killings had already begun when Hussein went on trial in November, 2005, and the tensions showed in people's reactions.
Shi'ite victims dressed their children in party dresses and watched the testimony on TV, apparently amazed to see Hussein answering to a judge. But many Sunnis called the trial a US-run kangaroo court, and many Shi'ites wondered why he was being tried at all.
"They should execute him first, and then try him," Ammar Mohammed, a 28-year-old shop owner, said then.
As ethnic killings increased, Shi'ite witnesses were afraid to appear and three of Hussein 's defense lawyers were gunned down. Shi'ites were increasingly infuriated that Hussein was allowed to make political speeches in court that emboldened insurgents. The point of a trial was largely lost on Iraqis.
To many Sunnis, Hussein is a victim -- symbolizing their victim status. But to Shi'ites, even with Hussein gone, justice has yet to be done.
Anne Barnard, the Globe's Middle East co-bureau chief, covered Iraq for three years after the US invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein.