In Depth

Iraqis ponder lessons of history after Saddam hangs

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - When Ali Mohammed was woken by gunfire celebrating the hanging of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, he thought about the lessons of history in his country where rulers tend not to die quietly in their beds.

“When I realized Saddam had been executed I was very happy,” said the 25-year-old student from the southern city of Diwaniya.

“I started watching television and it occurred to me that the end of every president in Iraq is either execution or assassination. I find that troubling.”

Even in a region where power rarely changes hands through elections, Iraq has proved a dangerous place to rule.

Formerly part of the Ottoman Empire, it was created as a state by imperial Britain after World War One and ruled by British-backed monarchs until a military coup in 1958 when the king, crown prince and prime minister were all killed.

The man who staged that coup, Brigadier Abdul-Karim Kassem, was himself toppled and killed in 1963. The next president died in an air crash and was succeeded by his brother, who was exiled after a coup in 1968 by the Baath party.

President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, who resigned in 1979 when Saddam officially became president -- formalizing the control Saddam had already seized -- died suspiciously three years later, sparking speculation that his successor had him poisoned.

“If you think of ‘58, ‘68 and ‘79, you can now put 2006 on this list -- a propagandistic show trial, a quick execution and a claim that this marks a watershed in Iraqi history,” said Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at Queen Mary, University of London.

Saddam had intimate knowledge of assassins -- as a young man he himself fired at Kassem in 1959 in a botched bid to kill the then leader. As president, Saddam took elaborate precautions, including using body doubles. The crimes for which he was executed were reprisals for a failed assassination bid in 1982.


Businessman Atheer Abdullah, 43, said Iraq, which has the world’s third biggest oil reserves and two major rivers, should be a prosperous country but had squandered its natural wealth.

“It is a cursed country with a cursed history,” he said as he waited at Baghdad airport to fly to Jordan where he now lives.

“It’s a country that two-thirds of the population flees at every regime change and the rest are in prison or killed or living in misery.”

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has seen his fragile authority among fellow Shi’ites enhanced after he forced through Saddam’s execution just four days after the appeal court upheld his conviction over the killing and torture of Shi’ites.

But many Sunni Arabs and Saddam’s defense team have accused Maliki of political interference in the trial, which was widely criticized as unfair by international human rights groups.

Sectarian passions that have pushed Iraq toward civil war since U.S. troops overthrew Saddam in 2003 could be further inflamed by video posted on the Internet showing Shi’ite officials taunting him as he stood on the gallows on Saturday.

Iraqi state television showed film of Saddam being prepared for death, but stopped short of showing the actual moment of death. However the full video was circulated on the Internet.

Dodge said the showing of the execution “conforms to a brutal logic that Saddam Hussein used himself”.

“This isn’t even victor’s justice, this is the tawdry work of an insecure government,” Dodge said.

Amid reports that his U.S. backers are losing patience with him, Maliki has dismissed public speculation of a coup and said it would be folly to replace him.

President Bush has said the invasion of Iraq is part of a wider goal to spread democracy in the Middle East and he hailed elections in 2005 as the start of a new era.

But according to U.N. figures, more than 3,000 civilians are being killed every month in spiraling sectarian violence.

Some mourners at Saddam’s grave promised revenge.

The video of the hanging inspired some discomfort even in places such as Arbil, a Kurdish city whose people, long oppressed and attacked by Saddam, had every reason to celebrate.

“It showed that we still have the culture of revenge in Iraq,” said Sara Baban, 35. “It brought to mind the scenes of executions of Iraqi officials in years gone by.”

(Additional reporting by David Cutler in London, Mariam Karouny in Baghdad, Imad al-Khuzaie in Diwaniya and Shamal Aqrawi in Arbil)

* to see a chronology of Iraqi leaders please click on