Hanging Saddam: Bush, Blair have no moral authority

There can be no doubt about the moral justice of November 5 Baghdad tribunal’s judgment on Saddam Hussein. He was directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Kurds and Shias and for many more killed in the Iran-Iraq war. Yet it is quite another matter whether it is politically prudent to execute him, after the shambles of a trial that he has undergone. Washington was always determined that Saddam should die - but at the hands of his own people rather than those of Americans. President Bush has achieved the almost impossible feat of generating some sympathy for Saddam, at least in Muslim societies. The Iraqi judicial system is incapable of conducting a plausible hearing. Instead it staged a farce: judges chan-ged, defence lawyers murdered, intermina-ble rambling orations from prosecutors and defendants. Bush should have got some old Soviets to advise the locals about how to run a proper show trial.

The biggest American mistake was to capture Saddam. The moral authority of the Iraq coalition led by the US has been blown to rags since 2003. President Bush’s achievement has been to convert an almost impregnable American position in the world after 9/11 into a grievously damaged one today. It is believed that more Iraqis have died since the US invasion than were killed by Saddam Hussein. Most have fallen victim to fellow countrymen rather than to American fire. Yet this seems irrelevant, since Washington chose to assume responsibility for the country. Yet we should consider the pragmatic argument for executing Saddam. Alive, he remains a focus for the Ba’athist fanatics who spearhead the Sunni insurgency. They cling to a fantasy that one day their old leader will regain power and restore Sunni primacy. However angry many of us are with George Bush and Tony Blair, we must never succumb to an unworthy desire to see coalition policy fail merely because this would humiliate the US president and British PM. Only one question should matter now: what is the best course, not for our consciences or political satisfaction but for the Iraqis? Western actions have precipitated the descent of their country into chaos. Whatever we do must be designed to promote the restoration of order.

Many Kurds and Shias want Saddam to die. This is not only because they seek vengeance for decades of atrocities, but also because they think his removal will improve their future prospects. If Iraqis held a referendum on Saddam’s fate, most would unhesitatingly commit him to the gallows. Bush’s people in Washington say: “Our policy is to empower the Iraqis to determine their future. Allowing an Iraqi court to condemn Saddam, Iraqi executioners to kill him, is a significant step towards that objective.’’ Yet to many it is not that simple. Real power in Iraq rests in the hands of the Americans or those of local factions. The government and its institutions are almost impotent, because they face physical and political difficulties in exercising functions. The verdict on Saddam is just. Yet everything stinks about the process. Sentence on the condemned tyrant will probably be carried out before the trial of his cousin Ali Hassan al-Majeed, known as Chemical Ali. It is widely expected that the execution will be rushed so that Saddam cannot give evidence at Majeed’s trial about collusion between Washington and the former tyranny, which could grievously embarrass the US.

Once again it matters less whether this is true than that so many people around the world believe it to be so. It is dismaying to be obliged to acknowledge that Americans, British, Ba’athists, militiamen, government representatives and suicide bombers in Iraq are all perceived as coexisting on the same moral plane. Rationally, we know that Bush and Blair want virtuous things for the country: democracy and personal freedom. Yet so incompetent has been the fulfilment of their policies that the leaders of Britain and the US possess no more credible mandate than that of Iraq’s local mass murderers. To justify hanging Saddam, Bush and Blair needed moral ascendancy, which they have forfeited. His execution will appear to be another dirty deed in the endless succession that has taken place in Iraq since 2003.

Now the president will preside over a hanging that will be as much his handiwork as if he pulled the lever, with Blair performing the associated functions. In Texas this sort of thing is no big deal. But in Britain we have got out of the habit. It seems remarkable that yesterday the two major political parties of a country that abolished capital punishment 40 years ago expressed satisfaction at the prospect of a hanging. How can Britain refuse to hang its own murderers, while being so eager to support the hanging of others? Only some Iraqi Sunnis will mourn Saddam. But his execution will be widely perceived as devoid of legitimacy. This seems yet another ugly landmark in an ugly saga in which Blair has made us all complicit. Here is another triumph for the man whom the Labour party conference last month cheered to the rafters. — The Guardian