Saddam’s execution is increasing Sunni-Shi`a tensions to a breaking point, not only in Iraq, but across the entire Arab World. Most observers agree that the timing and format of Saddam’s execution could not have been any worse, and editorials in Arab newspapers are trying to answer the puzzle: how could the Iraqi Government and the occupational authority manage to make a controversy out of the execution of one of the most brutal dictators the Arab World has ever known?
A telling face-off occurred today in al-Ittijah al-Mu`akis, one of the most widely watched and controversial talk shows in the Arab region, hosted by al-Jazeera’s Faysal al-Qasim. This week’s show (aired on Tuesday) was devoted to a discussion of Saddam’s execution and pitted Mish`an al-Juburi (ex-politician, currently living in exile and facing terrorism and corruption charges in Iraq) against Sadiq al-Mousawi (introduced as the head of the ‘Iraq Media Center’ –the ‘center’s’ website is currently offline). The heated episode exhibited some of the boldest sectarian language to be heard on a mainstream news channel so far. Two minutes into the episode, al-Mousawi left the studio in anger (only to return later) after al-Juburi accused him of being an ‘Iranian Safavid’ posing as an Iraqi, and showed documents that proved (according to Juburi) that Mousawi -whom Juburi charged of having changed his name- applied for Iraqi citizenship only in 2004. While al-Mousawi argued that Saddam’s execution represented the end of a hated tyrant and a rupture with a black phase in Iraq’s history; al-Juburi said that Saddam –through his execution- has become a symbol of resistance who was assassinated by the ‘Iranian enemy’. Al-Juburi added that the Iranian infiltration in Iraq through its ‘Safavid’ allies is massacring Sunnis and patriots; the episode ended with both guests exchanging insults and threats, with Mousawi accusing Juburi of inciting terrorism and Juburi calling Mousawi ‘a grandson of al-`alqami’. (A linguistic decoding is in order: ‘safavid’ (a reference to a 16th century Azeri-Turkic dynasty that ruled Iran and converted most of its population to Shi`ism) is a pejorative term used to refer to the Shi`a and accentuate their assumed ‘non-Arab’ character. The term first appeared in Alqa`ida’s literature and seems to be gaining wider usage. Likewise, ‘the grandsons of al-`Alqami’ is a pejorative term used by Sunni extremists to refer to shi`as; Mu’ayyid al-deen Ibn al-`alqami was a Shi`a Vizir of the last `Abbasid Caliph, and according to historical accounts, exaggerated by anti-Shi`a narratives, he had struck secret deals with the invading Mongol army and eased Hulagu’s sacking of Baghdad and the destruction of the `Abbasid dynasty).
In Al-Hayat, a major Pan-Arab newspaper, the liberal commentator Hazim Saghiyeh wrote calling the execution of Saddam a ‘barbaric ritual’. The ‘barbarism’ of the execution, according to Saghiya is in that the killing ‘cannot stop the injustice and aggression’ but excels in ‘resurrecting the symbolisms of the primitive mob and its instincts of revenge’. The execution, Saghiya added, is not a portal into a ‘new Iraq’, but a resurrection of ‘a very old Iraq’.
In pro-Saudi al-Sharq al-Awsat, `Abdel Rahman al-Rashid (who is also editor-in-chief of al-`Arabiya channel) said that ‘sectarian conflicts’ will be the defining character of the new year. Al-Rashid observed that in the past year sectarian tensions were so high that every event of import was analyzed through a sectarian lens. Al-Rashid saw Saddam’s execution as the latest episode in this escalation, especially with the release of the execution video which made the event look like a ‘sectarian party’.
The ‘unofficial’ video that was taken by a cell phone ‘smuggled’ into the execution chamber is causing a stir in Iraq. Az-Zaman headlined: ‘the smuggled scenes of Saddam’s execution shatter the reconciliation project’. Az-Zaman quoted Munqiz al-Far`un, the assistant public prosecutor in the Dujail trial, as saying that a ‘high ranking official’ took the short clip. The news site Elaph.com mentioned that only two ‘high ranking officials’ were in the room: Mouaffac al Rubai`i and Sami al-`Askari, al-Maliki’s political advisor. Al-`Askari admitted that ‘improprieties’ were committed during the execution, in reference to the taunting of Saddam by Sadrist guards, but said that ‘an investigation’ will be launched to address the issue.
In Al-Sharq al-Awsat, the Islamic scholar Fahmy al-Hwaidi wrote an op-ed calling for an ‘investigation into the ethnic cleansing crimes’ that are ‘currently being committed in Iraq’. Al-Hwaidi said that an investigation should be carried out to determine those responsible for the extreme sectarian violence (he claimed that around a million and a half Iraqis have been killed in the ethnic cleansing campaigns so far). Al-Hwaidi lamented the sectarian tensions ravaging Iraq and the wider Arab World and the re-emergence of sectarianism as a divisive political identity. He said that he spent his life fighting against sectarian politics, but that he now finds himself in a difficult position as a moderate Sunni. He recounted saying to the ex-prime minister of Iraq, Ibrahim Al-Ja`fari, ‘what is happening in Iraq now has reminded us that we are Sunnis, after we used to see ourselves strictly as Muslims’.