BAGHDAD, Dec. 31, 2006 -- The latest video of Saddam's execution, with a soundtrack that shows that his guards were taunting him up to the last moment before the lever was pulled and he fell to his death, has been burning through cyberspace in Iraq and across the Middle East.
It is not only the bad taste of mocking a man about to die that has been getting angry reactions here: The worst aspect is the sectarian nature of the insults.
The guards shout "Moqtada, Moqtada," as Saddam is reciting a prayer with the noose around his neck: They are referring to Moqtada al Sadr, the extremist Shiite cleric whose Mahdi Army is the most feared militia in Iraq, widely thought to operate death squads targeting Sunnis.
When Saddam responds angrily to them, saying that such behavior "has torn Iraq apart," he is voicing an opinion that most Sunnis -- but also many moderate Shiites -- would agree with.
Saddam is dead and buried now, but the sectarian divide in Iraq yawns ever wider. For months, the United States has been leaning on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to do more to crack down on the abuses of the Mahdi army and other militias. By allowing their representatives to seemingly turn the execution of a former president -- however reviled -- into a crude exercise in sectarian vengeance, Maliki's government may only further alienate Sunnis.
That is the reason there has been strong reaction from across the Arab world, and not just in Iraq. The majority of Arabs are Sunnis, and they see the apparently unstoppable rise of Shiites in Iraq, along with the growing strength of Iran, which is majority Shiite, as a serious threat.
It is almost four years since the United States deposed Saddam Hussein and his minority Sunni government, and then went on to alienate the Sunni ruling class by dismissing many of them from their posts in government and the army. The consequences of those moves are still working their way out -- and not only in a bloody sectarian conflict in Iraq.
Fear is now spreading rapidly across the entire Middle East at the specter of rising Shiite triumphalism -- of which, to many, Saddam's execution was a graphic example.