Will Saddam Hussein turn out to be the Republicans' 11th-hour electoral weapon will the guilty verdict in Baghdad boost President George Bush and his beleaguered party? This was the question confronting politicians and pundits yesterday as America prepared to go to the polls.
Even after tomorrow's midterm elections, it will be difficult to assess what impact Saddam's death sentence had on voters. Much could also depend on whether the news triggers fresh violence in Iraq, where more than 2,800 Americans and as many as 655,000 Iraqis have died.
Mr Bush's ratings jumped when Saddam was captured near Tikrit, his birthplace, in December 2003, and they received a smaller boost when the senior al-Qa'ida fighter Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed near Baqubah in June.
While the White House appeared pleased by the announcement praising the Iraqi judicial system for its "independence" it denied the US had played any role in the timing of the verdict. "The idea is preposterous, the idea that somehow we've been scheming and plotting with the Iraqis," said the White House spokesman Tony Snow.
Asked if the White House hoped Saddam would be executed, Mr Snow replied: "We don't hope. We're not rooting. We're not holding up score cards.
"We simply think it's important that you establish a rule of law where people have their rights protected, where they have rights to appeal, where they have rights to counsel but also where victims of violence have redress."
But Richard Palk, a professor of international law at Princeton University, said: "It should come as no surprise that the final verdict in the trial seems timed to coincide with the midterm elections. The US government should be ashamed to have debased international justice by orchestrating every phase of his trial to divert domestic opinion in this country from the dismal failure of its Iraq policy."
However, senior Democrats said they believed the verdict was fair and claimed the announcement should not, and would not, affect tomorrow's outcome. Congressman Tom Lantos, the senior Democrat on the International Relations Committee, said the verdict "must not distract Americans from the more pressing issue, the need for a change in the direction of our country's policy toward Iraq, both the conduct of the war effort and our pathetic, corruption-stained attempt at reconstruction."
Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said: " Iraq is in the middle of a civil war and growing sectarian violence will be an even greater concern following this verdict."
America's other bogeyman, Osama bin Laden, issued a video just days before the nation went to the polls in 2004 denouncing Mr Bush and threatening Americans with further attacks, saying: "Bush is still deceiving you and hiding the truth from you."
President Bush celebrated Saddam's death sentence as a victory for " Iraq's young democracy" and US security, taking a break from an election campaign in which Republicans are suffering from the US public's discontent with the war.
Bush called the verdict "a milestone in the Iraqi people's efforts to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law. It's a major achievement for Iraq's young democracy and its constitutional government. Today, the victims of this regime have received a measure of the justice which many thought would never come." He emphasised that Saddam was extended rights of due process and appeal "that he denied the Iraqi people".
"Iraq has a lot of work ahead as it builds its society that delivers equal justice and protects all its citizens," Mr Bush said. "Yet history will record today's judgment as an important achievement on the path to a free and just and unified society."
Cabinet ministers in London lined up to welcome the verdict. They insisted that the decision to execute him was a decision for the Iraqi authorities, despite Britain's long-standing opposition to capital punishment.
Critics warned that executing Saddam risked turning him into a "martyr" and creating a rallying point for insurgents. Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, said: "I welcome that Saddam Hussein and the other defendants have faced justice and have been held to account ... Appalling crimes were committed."
John Reid, the Home Secretary, said the verdict represented a "major advance" for Iraq. He told the BBC the verdict was "a sovereign decision by a sovereign nation ... It is in a sense the ultimate expression of the sovereignty of Iraq. They are masters of their own destiny and they have taken a decision today as controllers of that destiny which I think all of us ought to respect."
Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader, said Saddam's " martyrdom can only add to the instability in Iraq. He should be detained for the rest of his natural life."
Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, warned that "dead martyrs are more important than live criminals".
'Justice can be done'
NOURI AL-MALIKI, PRIME MINISTER OF IRAQ: "Maybe this will help alleviate the pain of the widows and the orphans, and those ... who have paid at the hands of torturers."
GEORGE BUSH, US PRESIDENT: "Today, the victims of this regime have received a measure of the justice which many thought would never come."
HOWARD DEAN, CHAIRMAN OF THE DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE: "Growing sectarian violence will be an even greater concern following this verdict."
MARGARET BECKETT, FOREIGN SECRETARY: "Appalling crimes were committed ... Those accused of such crimes against the Iraqi people should face Iraqi justice."
WILLIAM HAGUE, SHADOW FOREIGN SECRETARY: "The fact that justice is now set to be done through an Iraqi court ... is one of the advantages that Iraq was invaded."
SIR MENZIES CAMPBELL, LIB DEM LEADER: "The conviction of Saddam Hussein will bring relief ... But it will not bring back the thousands who perished while he ruled."Reuse content