Middle East Debates Timing of Saddam's Execution

The U.S. military and Iraqi security forces have been braced for retaliatory violence after the execution of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. But so far, at least, the daily death toll has been lower than usual. But there has been a debate in the region about the timing of the execution.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News, and Happy New Year to everyone. I'm Renee Montagne.

It was relatively quiet in Iraq this weekend as the country celebrated the most important holiday of the Muslim Calendar and absorbed the news of Saddam Hussein's execution. The U.S. military and Iraqi security forces have been braced for retaliatory violence from Saddam supporters. That may yet come. But so far at least, the death toll has been lower than usual.

One of the things that seemed to interest Iraqis and others in the Middle East about Saddam's execution was its timing.

NPR's Corey Flintoff joins us now from Baghdad. Hello, Happy New Year to you, Corey.

COREY FLINTOFF: Good morning. Happy New Year, Renee.

MONTAGNE: You know, we know that you celebrated there in Baghdad many hours earlier than people here in America. So I gather it's been a quiet day.

FLINTOFF: It has been. For one thing, it's Eid al-Adha, the Muslim feast of the sacrifice. And that's a holiday that keeps people pretty much at home here. Iraqis I've talked with about Saddam's death say it was a major topic of conversation, but nobody seems to have been really electrified by the news. Several people told me that Saddam was just no longer that relevant.

MONTAGNE: What about the issue of timing that we mentioned? Opinions in the media from other Arab countries seemed to think that the timing was important.

FLINTOFF: Yes. Arab satellite TV commentators just generally condemned the timing, saying that it was inappropriate to kill this man at the start of an important religious observance. Of course, these came from predominantly Sunni Muslim countries. For Sunnis, the holiday begins a day earlier than it does for Shiites. And Iraqi law says a condemned prisoner can't be executed on one of his or her religious holidays.

Saddam is a Sunni and he was executed on the day that Sunnis begin their celebration. Some people felt that this was a sign that Iraq is now operating according to the Shiite religious calendar and not the Sunni one. They say it's one more sign to Iraqi Sunnis that they can't expect any accommodation from the majority Shiite government and they may as well fight for their lives.

MONTAGNE: And opinion within Iraq, especially Shiite opinion?

FLINTOFF: Well, several people I spoke with thought that Shias are about equally divided. Some thought that it was time for Saddam to die, just get this thing over with. And also to put an end to any of his loyalists' hopes of somehow bringing him back to power.

Others seemed to feel that this was a bad time, something that exacerbates the sectarian divide that's pushing country into civil war. Iraqi Kurds seem to be divided as well. Although more wanted Saddam to finish the current genocide trial, not because they had any question about his guilt, but because they feel it's the only chance for them to bear witness to what happened in the late 1980s. Saddam's forces killed Kurdish villagers with poison gas, displaced tens of thousands of Kurds and destroyed their villages.

MONTAGNE: Will that trial go on, Corey, with the other defendants? I mean, one of them is Saddam's cousin, a man known as Chemical Ali.

FLINTOFF: Yes, it will go on. But many people feel that without Saddam to focus the public's attention, this whole process will just be forgotten.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Corey Flintoff speaking from Baghdad. Thanks, Corey.

FLINTOFF: Thank you, Renee.

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