A Scaffold's Dark Portrait of Iraq

By Eugene Robinson (THE WASHINGTON POST, 02/01/07):

Since history is written by those who rule, the annals of the U.S.-supported Iraqi government record that the deposed dictator Saddam Hussein was given a fair trial, sentenced to death for the mass murder of innocent Shiite civilians and duly executed by hanging on Dec. 30, 2006, in accordance with Iraqi law. A tragic era was brought to an end, according to the official history, opening the way for a brighter tomorrow.

But the dark, remorseless, unflinching cellphone video of the execution that quickly surfaced on the Internet tells an alternate history, one that is neither tidy nor hopeful -- and that demonstrates, not just by its content but by its very existence, that forces other than the current beleaguered government intend to be the final authors of Iraqi history. That's because they intend to be the ones in charge.

The grainy footage was apparently captured surreptitiously by someone whose vantage point was near the foot of the gallows. Anyone thinking of watching it should be warned that the camera does not shirk from the inevitable "money shot" -- the grotesque moment when the trap door opens and Saddam Hussein's life is terminated. It's history as snuff film.

The most revelatory moment comes when the condemned tyrant -- unhooded, unbowed, still acting as if he expects the deference owed to a legitimate head of state, especially one who rules by terror -- gives a religious exhortation. A voice responds by speaking a name that is also a taunt: "Moqtada, Moqtada, Moqtada."

The reference is to the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who leads what is generally described as the biggest, best-equipped and most powerful of Iraq's many sectarian militias -- and whose father, a widely revered cleric, was ordered killed by Hussein. The message is clear: Hear this, Sunni dog. Iraq is a Shiite country now, and payback is sweet.

Hussein can't believe the impertinence. "Moqtada?" he asks, as if he's trying to catch the thread of a narrative that no longer makes sense.

In the dictator's curses against "the Americans" and "the Persians," it is impossible not to hear echoes of the time when Hussein was the one who wrote Iraq's history. For years, the Reagan administration gave him military and intelligence support to keep the hated Persians from defeating his outnumbered forces in the Iran-Iraq war. In 1983, Donald Rumsfeld was dispatched to visit Baghdad as a special envoy; he smiled broadly as he shook the tyrant's hand.

Naturally, that's not an episode from Iraq's recent history that the current government will care to highlight. Nor is this Iraqi regime's official history of the tyrant's execution likely to dwell on the fact that it was the Americans who captured him in the first place. And since the government doesn't like to acknowledge how little of the country it controls and how utterly unreliable its security forces are, not much emphasis will be given to how the Americans had to hold the tyrant in custody all this time to guarantee against lynching or escape, finally handing him over just hours before he was to be legally killed.

I wonder about the man who called out "Moqtada, Moqtada, Moqtada," though. I wonder if future historians of the Shiite ascendancy will so easily forget the U.S. "tilt" toward Hussein during the war, or America's nonchalant acceptance of the way Hussein's Sunni regime oppressed, persecuted and massacred majority Shiites all those years, or the way America encouraged Shiites to rise up against Hussein after the Persian Gulf War and then backed off and watched as he sent helicopter gunships to slaughter them.

And I wonder about the man -- I assume it was a man -- who filmed Hussein's execution with his cellphone and showed it to the world. I wonder how he got past what had to be super-tight security, and I wonder what his motivation was.

Is it possible he was working for the government, which wanted to send a message of solidarity to Moqtada al-Sadr, who needs to be kept inside the tent if the government is to survive? Was this jittery, spooky, haunting video a promise to militant Shiites that they will remain large and in charge? Or is that too wheels-within-wheels even for the nest of vipers that is today's Iraq?

One alternative is that the anonymous videographer wanted to show Sunni insurgents -- and the rest of the Muslim world, in which Sunnis far outnumber Shiites -- just how much is at stake in the civil war, and why Sunnis view the insurgency as a matter of survival. His message might have been this: If they can hang the fearsome Saddam Hussein like a dog, they can do the same to any of us.