Blunders Turn Saddam From Villain to Martyr

In a statement issued after the execution of Saddam Hussein, President Bush said that bringing Saddam to justice "is an important milestone" of Iraq's evolution into a democracy and ally in the war on terror.

However, as hostile reactions by Sunni Muslims spread throughout the region and the U.S. military death toll surpassed 3,000, one must wonder if Saddam's execution is extremely dangerous and more of a setback to national unity than anything else.

Instead of making a clean break with Iraq's bloody past, current Iraqi leaders are blinded by sectarian loyalties and a primal desire to eliminate their former tormentors. They have not learned the lessons of their country's tragic past -- where executing rulers after deeply flawed trials fed a spirit of vendetta and birthed new violence.

Since the army overthrew the royal regime in 1958, Iraq has set a world record in the killing of its strongmen. Saddam and his henchmen perfected this murderous practice.

Iraq's blood-soaked modern history has tormented the land and its people, and caused a rift within and among its ethnic and religious communities. Political stability was only bought at exorbitant human and social costs.

One had hoped that the new Iraq would be built on a more humane and democratic foundation than the old, but as we have seen in other key decisions, the Iraqi leadership and the Bush administration are oblivious to the broader legal, moral and political ramifications inherent in Saddam's execution.

By all standards, Saddam's sentence is widely seen as illegitimate, as his trial was neither fair nor impartial. After his capture by U.S. troops in an underground hideout in 2003, Iraqi leaders said they wanted him dead -- sooner rather than later. They clamored with one another for his blood, even though human rights organizations questioned the credibility of the court's proceedings. Bush aides lavishly praised the trial and final denouement.

Ironically, Saddam was already politically dead and his bitter legacy disgraced. But now, his hanging, coupled with his defiance, has turned him into a "martyr" among Sunni Muslims worldwide, with leading religious authorities saying that Saddam was a freedom fighter defending his country against the American occupation.

Saddam must be laughing in his grave -- transformed into a war hero and symbol of resistance after death, thanks to the blunders of the Bush administration and Shiite-led government.

The hanging of Saddam, which occurred on the day of Eid al-Adha (one of the two most important Islamic holidays), embittered Sunni opinion against America. Forbidden in Islam, the execution is widely seen as an "insult" and "humiliation" carried out on one of their holiest days.

Although Bush officials kept a low profile, saying that the execution was an Iraqi operation, few in the Sunni heartland accept this. There is a popular belief that the Bush administration engineered Saddam's death. "Who captured Saddam? Who legitimized his deeply flawed trial? Who handed Saddam to his Iraqi executioners?" and, "America will rue the day when it handed Saddam over to his Shiite executioners," can both be heard on Arab streets.

In the end, tribal vengeance triumphed over the rule of law, humanity and toleration.

New video of Saddam's execution, broadcast by Al-Jazeera satellite television throughout Arab countries, has a soundtrack of his guards apparently taunting him while he appears to smile at them from the gallows. Some witnesses, including the executioner, could not resist celebrating and dancing around Saddam's body after the hanging.

"This is a natural reaction," said Iraqi national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie, justifying the vindictive conduct of officials and witnesses because they had suffered under Saddam's rule.

The new Iraq resembles the one under Saddam. Calls for revenge in parts of Iraq as well as the greater Sunni-dominated Arab world are adding pressure to a wider Sunni-Shiite civil war.

Rebuilding a broken society requires wisdom, forgiveness and inclusiveness -- qualities in short supply in Baghdad's Green Zone and the Bush White House. A litany of strategic blunders -- dissolving the Iraqi army, cleansing the government of Baathists, allowing armed Shiite militias to infiltrate the security forces, and now the hanging of Saddam -- has fractured Iraq along communal and ethnic lines.

Iraqis must reflect deeply on the future of their country. Will they overcome their dictators' bitter legacies? Will they put national interests over narrow sectarian concerns? Will they unite and bid farewell to foreign occupiers and meddlers?

Iraqi leaders need to take urgent steps -- particularly they need to purge their security services of armed militias and make them more inclusive, to begin the process of healing and reconciliation before it is too late. If they continue on their destructive path, the new Iraq might look worse than the one under Saddam.

Fawaz A. Gerges, an ABC News consultant, is a Carnegie Scholar and visiting professor at the American University in Cairo, and the author of "Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy." He also holds the Christian Johnson chair in Middle East and International affairs at Sarah Lawrence College.