Mideast torn over Saddam verdict

Saddam Hussein’s death sentence on Sunday drew an outpouring of vengeful glee among the ousted Iraqi despot’s former foes in the Middle East and muted discontent from Sunni radicals.

Iraq’s Shi’ites, led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, rejoiced when the deposed president was sentenced to death by hanging for his role in ordering the deaths of 148 Shi’ite villagers in the village of Dujail in 1982.

“The Iraqi martyrs now have the right to smile,” said al-Maliki, as the verdict appeared set to further widen the bitter sectarian divide that has set the country ablaze in recent months.

The mood was similar in neighbouring Shi’ite Iran, which fought a devastating eight-year war against Saddam’s regime.

“They should really make him suffer, wrench him up and down the scaffold, everybody should spit on him,” seethed Abbas Afshar (46), a taxi driver, who said he lost dozens of comrades on the front lines of the war.

The Foreign Ministry in Tehran hailed the verdict but was careful not to give Washington any credit for toppling Saddam. “Even if Saddam and his accomplices are the agents who carried out these crimes, we cannot forget the Western protectors of Saddam who by supporting him prepared the ground for the execution of his crimes,” spokesperson Mohammad Ali Hosseini said.

But officials in Israel — arch-foe of both Saddam and Iran — declined to comment on the verdict, wary of how the key United States ally’s reaction would go down in Saddam’s homeland. “We prefer not to state our position on the matter which could be used by the rebels in Iraq who are attempting to drag Israel into the conflict there,” a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official said, asking not to be named.

In Kuwait, which Saddam invaded in 1990, a sense of satisfaction at the Iraqi dictator’s doom filled the streets.

“A life sentence would have been better than the death penalty, because he must suffer like he made others suffer,” said 46-year-old Khaled, whose brother went missing during the war.

At the Kuwait stock exchange, women ululated in joy when they heard that Saddam and two aides had been sentenced to death, witnesses said.

Kurds were keen to see the execution put on hold until Saddam is judged in a current trial for his role in the alleged genocide committed against Iraq’s Kurdish minority during the 1988 Anfal campaign.

Meanwhile, there were no such expressions of joy and satisfaction in most other Middle Eastern countries, where Saddam long symbolised Arab strength and pride.

While many Sunni governments were less than swift to comment on the verdict, the governing Palestinian movement Hamas stood out and mourned the man who championed the cause of the Palestinian people.

“We as the Palestinian people support whoever supports our people and president Saddam Hussein was one of those,” said Fawzi Barhum, spokesperson for the Islamist militant movement.

Highly popular in the Palestinian territories, Saddam gave money to the families of people killed by Israeli forces and relatives of suicide bombers when the intifada, or uprising, broke out in September 2000, until he was toppled by the US-led invasion in 2003.

In Egypt, the leader of the powerful opposition Muslim Brothers minimised the charges of crimes against humanity Saddam has been facing and lashed out at the US-led occupation of Iraq. “There is no doubt Saddam Hussein was a tyrant and a despot who harmed Iraq and generated the disastrous situation in which his country is now engulfed,” Mohammed Mehdi Akef said.

“But what are all these crimes that Saddam committed during his lifetime if you compare them to the crimes of the occupiers and those who help them? Nothing,” he said.

The verdict of the much-publicised trial, which was one of the key objectives of the US administration that sent troops into Iraq in March 2003, drew accusations of conspiracy in the war-torn country’s Sunni towns.

“The hanging of the former Iraqi president is part of an American scheme. He was a symbol of liberation in Iraq,” declared Dr Muzahim Allawi, a university professor, in Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit.

“The sentence was pre-prepared in Washington and Tel Aviv,” spat civil servant Qusay Addai, bitterly. — AFP

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