The individual thought to have taped Saddam Hussein’s hanging has been arrested in Iraq. The footage, taken on a cellphone (at least one other video was made, according to an Iraqi prosecutor), has been leaked onto the Internet and was aired on Al-Jazzeera amongst other stations.

The video differs from the official video of Hussein’s death in that it includes audio and it’s clear that the former Iraqi president is being insulted by officials present at his hanging.

The government is upset at the video leak and at the uproar it has created in the Sunni population. However, the fault is not with the official who taped the execution. If Iraq is to operate as a democracy with rule of law and fair trials, as President Bush put it last week, then it cannot act like it did with Saddam Hussein. Not only was the sentencing of Hussein questionable, but its execution has now been shown to be motivated by personal feeelings.
The personal concerns of those present at the hanging should not have been voiced; as officials of the Iraqi government, it was not their place to make insulting remarks.

It is very sad to see the official who taped the assassination and leaked it arrested as the individual simply made the truth transparent and available. The leaked video contradicted official reports of Hussein’s execution.

But it seems that the new democratic Iraq does not value a free media. After all, the government had already closed down two privately owned television stations in November, with another station just closed following Hussein’s hanging.

When the US went to war with Iraq a few years ago, it cited the possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) by Saddam Hussein’s regime as a reason for the war. Since the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, there has been no proof of WMD in the country. Luckily, the US (as well as Britain, Italy and Australia) had plans for democracy in Iraq, which culminated in the so-called Purple Revolution of the January 2005 elections. Surprisingly, those elections did not result in much violence and outlooks were positive.

But 2006 saw the violence in Iraq grow to huge proportions, some saying the country was in a state of civil war. US troops have had trouble subduing the violence and more troops may be on the way, with the Bush Administration circulating the idea of a surge option. An exit from Iraq was an option a few months ago, but it now seems farfetched.

Yet the US could use its troops elsewhere. In a major failure of US foreign policy, North Korea tested a nuclear weapon in early October. While the US was busy figuring out what to do in Iraq, North Korea (DPRK) quietly brought its nuclear program to a new level. While rhetoric against the DPRK continued, it never seemed that the US was pro-active about negotiating with the alienated regime. After all, the US’ financial sanctions were working and were putting North Korea into a position of no exit. So the Korean leadership went ahead and made the US listen by detonating its nuclear weapon.

More conspicuous perhaps is the case of Iran. The Iranians have been progressing with their civilian nuclear program and are openly enriching uranium, which could very well mean that they too are developing a nuclear weapon. If the US wanted to use its military as a deterrent with Iran, it cannot, because now its troops are very much stuck in Iraq.

Furthermore, Iran is increasingly becoming an active regional player that may be needed for stability in Iraq. Iran has already met with Iraqi President Talabani and has plans on co-operating with Syria to stabilize Iraq. But it also wants US forces out of the region. So any negotiations — direct or indirect — that the US has with Iran will be connected with the future of Iraq, and the US’ role in it. Not the scenario that President Bush was hoping for.

And to end the year, Iraq has executed its former president Saddam Hussein. While the conviction of Hussein is the work of an Iraqi court (and the sentencing carried out by Iraqis), it is hard to divorce the trial from US interests or US meddling. After all, why did Hussein’s dialogue with justice have to start with the Dujail trial and his crimes against humanity not include the Iran-Iraq war (where chemical weapons, likely provided by the US via Germany, were employed)? Why was Hussein in US custody until his hanging? Doesn’t that make him a Prisoner of War, as his lawyers argued on Friday? And why was Saddam Hussein treated to a dubious trial, which a leading US human rights organization has called flawed? That, of course, was the verdict of Human Rights Watch. The US President, however, seems content with the hanging citing a fair trial and as well as Iraqi rule of law.

Would the Iraqi leadership really hang its dictator during Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the the Sacrifice, when the Arabs are supposed to pardon? That would be the biggest mistake for any new government, and its hard to conceive that the sentence was carried out without US encouragement if not enticement.

The hanging itself will not change how things go in Iraq. Hussein was no longer in control. If anything, the execution may make things more difficult, as Hussein still has supporters in Iraq and the insult of hanging him on the first day of Eid al-Adha may add fire to the discontent.

And US foreign policy seems stuck on Iraq, with the US incapable of facing up to North Korea and Iran. After all, it looks like the six-party talks with North Korea will require more than what US negotiator Christopher Hill is ready to offer, and will probably require the help of China. And there seems to be no clear policy for dealing with Iran, though the US was successful in passing a UN Security Council resolution condemning Iran’s nuclear enrichment.

As expected, Saddam Hussein has been hanged in Iraq. The execution was slated to happen before the New Year and the former president’s late attempts to appeal the verdict were unsuccessful, with a US judge rejecting his appeal saying that Hussein was not in US custody.

Hussein’s legal team had argued that he was a Prisoner of War and thus should have remained in US custody. That would annul the Iraqi court’s decision.

The defense makes sense with Hussein having been captured as part of the US’ war on Hussein’s regime. Considering the flawed trial which convicted Hussein to the death, the hanging is quite contentious. Furthermore, it is something that can spur violence with parts of Iraq still behind the former president.

The execution comes on the eve of the Eid al-Adha holiday (which coincides with the Hajj), and this may be intentional, with officials possibly hoping that Hajj pilgrimage will subdue potential violence.

An Iraqi Democracy

December 4, 2006

The Iraqi project, led by Britain and the US, is increasingly coming under fire from all directions.

While it is not a surprise to see outgoing UN Secretary General Kofi Annan speak about the devastating shortcomings of Iraq, it is somewhat unexpected to see a Donald Rumsfeld memo stating that US tactics in Iraq are “not working well enough” and that a shift in policy must ensue.

The revelation of the memo comes after both Human Rights Watch and a panel of UN experts criticized the Dujail trial of Saddam Hussein as being flawed and unfair. The UN panel even called the Hussein’s detention illegal. While the Dujail trial was not a direct consequence of US or British tactics — the former Iraqi leader was tried by the new Iraqi government — it does raise serious questions about an Iraqi democracy.

Ultimately, the Iraqi project’s goal was to bring democracy to the Middle East with Iraq as a starting point. And Iraq did get an electoral democracy with real elections and a real voter turnout. But democracy is more; it is fundamental for any democracy to have a judiciary that is independent and, in the end, fair. If Human Rights Watch is right in that Saddam Hussein did not receive a “fair trial” — and their report is quite compelling — then there’s a lot more work to be done in Iraq, in addition to ending the ongoing civil war in the country. It is imperative to address the problems with the Iraqi High Tribunal (IHT), which has been scrutinized for its poor handling of the Dujail trial. If these current standards remain, then Iraq will not get past an electoral democracy and can easily slip back into totalitarianism.

A democracy is also about the ability of different factions to work in concert, despite differences. In that sense, Kofi Annan’s characterization of the ongoing conflict within Iraq as “much worse” than a civil war is quite alarming: the Iraqi project has actually destabilized the country, if one compares it to pre-occupation Iraq with violence rampant and not declining. Part of this could be US forces “not working well enough” as Rumsfeld’s memo states, but it’s also a question of choosing the right model of democracy. After all, Lebanon lived through years of civil war, until it came to a model that accommodated its Druze, Christian and Muslim parties. This does not mean that the current model in Iraq does not work; it just means that necessary adjustments must be made, and that elected officials like PM Maliki must be ready to work with opponents in order for the government (and democracy) to truly flourish.

Britain and the US will likely exit from Iraq within the next year and this may actually increase the likeliness of the success of an Iraqi democracy. Whether Britain or the US intend to or not, they are influencing the direction of Iraq’s democracy. And the democracy in Iraq is more likely to succeed if it is chosen and embraced by Iraqis themselves. With a British-US exit, on the surface, nothing may change, except a sense of ownership and a stake in the democracy, which is something hard to experience when your country is under occupation.

The biggest dilemma for the US right now is the civil war and what role the US will play in it, because by participating, the US will have to pick sides, and, once again, influence the direction of the democracy.