It takes real genius to create a martyr out of Saddam Hussein. Here is a man dyed deep with the blood of his own people who refused to fight for him during the United States-led invasion three-and-a-half years ago. His tomb in his home village of Awja is already becoming a place of pilgrimage for the five million Sunni Arabs of Iraq who are at the core of the uprising.
During his trial, Saddam himself was clearly trying to position himself to be a martyr in the cause of Iraqi independence and unity and Arab nationalism. His manifest failure to do anything effective for these causes during the quarter of a century he misruled Iraq should have made his task difficult. But an execution which vied in barbarity with a sectarian lynching in the backstreets of Belfast 30 years ago is elevating him to heroic status in the eyes of the Sunni – the community to which most Arabs belong – across the Middle East.
The old nostrum of Winston Churchill that “grass may grow on the battlefield but never under the gallows” is likely to prove as true in Iraq as it has done so frequently in the rest of the world. Nor is the US likely to be successful in claiming that the execution was purely an Iraqi affair.
Many Iraqis recall that the announcement of the verdict on Saddam sentencing him to death was conveniently switched last year to 5 November, the last daily news cycle before the US mid-term elections. The US largely orchestrated the trial from behind the scenes. Yesterday the Iraqi government arrested an official who supervised the execution for making the mobile-phone video that has stirred so much controversy.
The Iraqi Shia and Kurds are overwhelmingly delighted that Saddam is in his grave. But the timing of his death at the start of the Eid al-Adha feast makes his killing appear like a deliberate affront to the Sunni community. The execution of his half-brother Barzan in the next few days will confirm it in its sense that it is the target of an assault by the majority Shia.
Why was the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki so keen to kill Saddam Hussein? First, there is the entirely understandable desire for revenge. Members of the old opposition to Saddam Hussein are often blamed for their past ineffectiveness but most lost family members to his torture chambers and execution squads. Every family in Iraq lost a member to his disastrous wars or his savage repressions.
There is also a fear among Shia leaders that the US might suddenly change sides. This is not as outlandish as it might at first appear. The US has been cultivating the Sunni in Iraq for the past 18 months. It has sought talks with the insurgents. It has tried to reverse the de-Baathification campaign. US commentators and politicians blithely talk about eliminating the anti-American Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and fighting his militia, the Mehdi Army. No wonder Shias feel that it is better to get Saddam under the ground just as quickly as possible. Americans may have forgotten that they were once allied to him but Iraqis have not.
When Saddam fell Iraqis expected life to get better. They hoped to live like Saudis and Kuwaitis. They knew he had ruined his country by hot and cold wars. When he came to power as president in 1979, Iraq had large oil revenues, vast oil reserves, a well-educated people and a competent administration. By invading Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990, he reduced his nation to poverty. This was made worse by the economic siege imposed by 13 years of UN sanctions.
But life did not get better after 2003. Face-to-face interviews with 2,000 Iraqi adults by the Iraq Centre for Research and Strategic Studies in November revealed that 90 per cent of them said the situation in their country had been better before the US-led invasion. Only 5 per cent of people said it was better today. The survey was carried out in Baghdad, in the wholly Sunni Anbar province and the entirely Shia Najaf province. It does not include the Kurds, who remain favourable to the occupation.
This does not mean that Iraqis want Saddam back. But it is clearly true that the chances of dying violently in Iraq are far greater today everywhere in the country outside the three Kurdish provinces than they were in 2002. The myth put about by Republican neoconservatives that large parts of Iraq enjoyed pastoral calm post-war but were ignored by the liberal media was always a fiction. None of the neocons who claim that the good news from Iraq was being suppressed ever made any effort to visit those Iraqi provinces which they claimed were at peace.
Saddam should not have been a hard act to follow. It was not inevitable that the country should revert to Hobbesian anarchy. At first the US and Britain did not care what Iraqis thought. Their victory over the Iraqi army – and earlier over the Taliban in Afghanistan – had been too easy. They installed a semi-colonial regime. By the time they realised that the guerrilla war was serious it was too late.
It could get worse yet. The so-called “surge” in US troop levels by 20,000 to 30,000 men on top of the 145,000 soldiers already in the country is unlikely to produce many dividends. It seems primarily designed so that President George Bush does not have to admit defeat or take hard choices about talking to Iran and Syria. But these reinforcements might tempt the US to assault the Mehdi Army.
Somehow many senior US officials have convinced themselves that it is Mr Sadr, revered by millions of Shia, who is the obstacle to a moderate Iraqi government. In fact his legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary Shia Iraqis, the great majority of the population, is far greater than the “moderate” politicians whom the US has in its pocket and who seldom venture out of the Green Zone. Mr Sadr is a supporter of Mr Maliki, whose relations with Washington are ambivalent.
An attack on the Shia militia men of the Mehdi Army could finally lead to the collapse of Iraq into total anarchy. Saddam must already be laughing in his grave.
Patrick Cockburn is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq’, published by Verso in October.