Iraq Probes Disorder At Hussein Execution

An Arabic-language Web site posted this apparent cellphone image of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein taken just before his hanging on Saturday. The distribution of such images was sharply condemned in Iraq and abroad.
An Arabic-language Web site posted this apparent cellphone image of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein taken just before his hanging on Saturday. The distribution of such images was sharply condemned in Iraq and abroad. (Web Site Image Via Associated Press)
By Sudarsan Raghavan and Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 3, 2007

BAGHDAD, Jan. 2 -- As thousands of Saddam Hussein's supporters protested in Sunni Arab enclaves across Iraq, the Shiite-led government said it had launched an investigation into the chaotic scene at his execution, captured on video, which has deepened the nation's sectarian rift and sparked condemnation around the world.

Iraqi officials said a committee from the Interior Ministry would likely question everyone, including senior Iraqi officials, who was present at the hanging, where witnesses mocked and jeered the ousted president as he stood at the gallows. Hours later, grainy video of the event, taken with a cellphone camera, was broadcast around the world, bringing more pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to take action.

The video triggered outrage, in Iraq and abroad, at the undignified and disorderly moments before Hussein's hanging. Iraq's Sunnis declared the execution an act of Shiite revenge. The Vatican, in its official newspaper, called the images from the hanging "a spectacle" that violated human rights and could harm Iraq's process of reconciliation. The Italian government, which like all members of the European Union opposes the death penalty, said after the appearance of the video that it would push at the United Nations for a worldwide moratorium on capital punishment.

U.S. officials have declined to comment publicly, but have privately expressed concern at the hastiness of the execution, which came just four days after an appeals court upheld Hussein's death sentence.

The video was the latest example of how amateurs using modern technology are exposing abuses and holding the powerful to account. The investigation, officials said, would focus not only on who hurled the taunts but also on how the video was leaked, damaging the government's credibility. Maliki's political adviser, Sadiq al-Rikabi, said the prime minister was "disappointed about that film."

"He took the subject very seriously," Rikabi said. "The prime minister tried his best to implement the execution very respectfully."

In the video, one person yells, "Go to hell," at Hussein while another voice is heard chanting, "Moqtada, Moqtada, Moqtada," referring to Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric whose father and two brothers were assassinated by Hussein's regime. The taunts provoked Hussein to hurl insults. Later, images of Hussein's swinging body were plastered on dozens of Web sites. On the video-sharing site Youtube.com, a search using the terms "Saddam Hussein hanging" generated 1,559 results Tuesday night.

The probe could implicate senior Iraqi officials. Munqith al-Faroun, the deputy prosecutor in Hussein's trial, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that he saw two official observers using their cellphones to record Hussein's last moments. The two men, he said, were "recording through their mobiles openly." He said he did not know them but would recognize them if he saw them again.

Maliki aides said they did not think any officials were behind the video.

"I think [it was] one of the guards, but let us leave everything to the inquiry," Rikabi said.

"I am confident that they were not the guards, for I checked the guards. I kept them under my eye," Faroun said. "They were not people who came off the street." Iraqi officials had been flown in by two U.S. helicopters from the Green Zone an hour before the execution.

Faroun, who could be heard in the video appealing for calm, said he had considered walking out during the disorderly moments, which would have halted the execution because his presence was required by law. But soon the room quieted.

"If there were other violations, I would have stepped out," he said. "I did not make a threat. But it was in my mind. If I noticed another violation, I would have stopped the execution and taken other measures," he added, without being specific.

Faroun said he did not know how the video cellphones were taken into the execution room at the former military intelligence headquarters, where Hussein's government had tortured and killed his opponents. Everyone at the hanging, Faroun said, was searched and had their phones taken. "Even my cellphone, which had no camera, was taken," he said.

The Reuters news agency, meanwhile, reported that U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad had urged Maliki to postpone the execution for two weeks until after the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha but that he relented after Maliki produced documents legally authorizing the execution. U.S. officials declined to comment on the report.

In Hussein's home town of Tikrit, peaceful protests continued for the third straight day. Tuesday morning, several thousand demonstrators marched to the nearby village of Auja, where Hussein is buried. Firing guns into the air, they chanted, "Revenge, revenge," and, "We shall always remain Baathists," referring to Hussein's outlawed Baath Party. The protesters carried portraits of the former leader depicting him as the hero of the Arab Nation.

Thousands more Sunnis protested in the northern city of Mosul, while in Baghdad, similar but smaller demonstrations have taken place in several mainly Sunni neighborhoods.

"This action really put a great difficulty in front of us," said Alaa Maki, an influential Sunni politician, referring to the execution and video. "So many people now are having strong reactions against the Shiites, and they're doing shouts here and there and saying Saddam is a hero. This will not benefit the building of the political process."

He added that Maliki needed to take decisive action against Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia. "Now he's in a very critical state," Maki said of the prime minister. "My advice to him is he has to sign -- as he signed the execution of Saddam -- he has to sign the pulling out of weapons of the Mahdi Army and the militias. Otherwise, he's a prime minister for Shiites. Not only for Shiites but for al-Sadr and the people of all the militias."

Rikabi scoffed at the criticism from Sunnis that the execution showed Maliki's inability to control militias. "This is not related to the militias," he said. "You can't judge the ability of the prime minister by this."

"To be honest with you, many people try to defend Saddam," he said. "They can't say, 'Oh, Saddam was a very good president. Why did you kill him?' So they try to find some small mistakes here or there."

On Tuesday, the U.S. military reported that an American soldier was killed and three others were wounded when a roadside bomb exploded near their patrol southwest of Baghdad on Monday. The soldiers were in a village talking to residents about sectarian violence in the area. An interpreter was among the three injured.

Special correspondents Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad and Muhanned Saif Aldin in Tikrit contributed to this report.


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