The execution of Saddam Hussein took place at the beginning of Eid al-Adha, the Muslim religious feast that marks the sacrifice the prophet Abraham was prepared to make when God ordered him to kill his son. The symbolism is powerful but twofold: while Iraqi Shi’ites will regard Saddam’s death as a sign that God backs their leadership, Sunnis may see Saddam as a martyr. Eid al-Adha is celebrated with the slaughter of a lamb, representing the innocent blood of the young Ishmael, which Abraham was willing to shed in the name of God.
Saddam was hanged in a rush for a relatively "minor" crime in his career as dictator (the Dujail massacre in 1982) and during the trial for one of his major crimes (the attempted genocide of the Kurds). Saddam was a dictator to all Iraqis, and the Kurds should have had their chance to bring him to justice. In the new Iraq, however, the ruling Shi’ites seem to ignore the concerns of other ethnic groups. Behind this rushed execution there is the long shadow of Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shi’ite cleric who controls about 30 members of parliament. This a key support group for the shaky Maliki government. Iraqi sources confirm that it was the most radical Shi’ites in the Iraqi parliament who demanded the execution be performed on such an important religious holiday. The purpose was not to carry out justice but to satisfy the need for revenge, revenge for Saddam’s persecution of the Shi’ites and, at the same time, for the ongoing Sunni suicide missions. This feeling of revenge is evident in the street celebrations in Sadr City, as well as those among Iraqi exiles in the United States.
In the following weeks, many Iraqis will die as a consequence of Saddam’s execution. Many will probably die while celebrating Eid, as happened in Kufa just hours after the execution took place. Violence will escalate, Shi’ite militias will clash with Sunnis insurgents, and suicide bombers will hit mosques where preachers like Sadr exploit the death of Saddam Hussein to their own advantage. More American and coalition soldiers will also die, for the real winners of the execution are the radical Shi’ites. Today, Iraq is further away from peace and democracy than ever before. So was it really worth executing Saddam Hussein?
Deng Xiaoping would say that it was not. In a staged trial in 1981, he publicly humiliated the Gang of Four, who had sentenced him to death in 1976. The world watched mesmerized as Chinese Communist justice unfolded. As the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution were publicly displayed, those who had been the most powerful people in China were stripped of their personalities. Who can forget Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, crying that all she did was for Mao, that she was Mao’s loyal dog? At the end of the trial, the convicted were denied a public execution because such an act would have confirmed their former power. Instead they were locked inside a Chinese jail where they died or committed suicide, as was the case with Jiang Qing. In today’s capitalist China, the memory of the power of the Gang of Four during Mao’s life has almost faded away; all that people remember is their trial and public humiliation.
Killing Saddam on the eve of the Eid will ensure that each year when the feast is about to start his followers will remember and celebrate him as a martyr. His death will not be linked with the victory of the Shi’ites in Iraq but with the slaughter of the innocent lamb. His legacy will last forever in the imagination of Sunni Muslims. Sadr may use the execution in his inflammatory sermons, he may claim victory to his followers, but it will be a short victory, as short as the one claimed by George Bush beneath the "Mission Accomplished" banner. Revenge is not a good route to peace and democracy, a lesson we are about to learn once more.