Iraq braced for violence if Saddam gets death penalty

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The Independent Online

Iraqis are bracing themselves for a fresh wave of violence if, as expected, the High Court in Baghdad gives its verdict in the trial of the former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein tomorrow and sentences him to death.

The Defence Ministry has cancelled leave for all military officers and a curfew may be imposed on Baghdad to limit the violence.

US officials are reported by some Iraqi officials to have urged privately that the verdict be announced tomorrow in order to improve the standing of President George Bush's administration in the midterm elections two days later. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein in April 2003 and his capture on 13 December the same year were the highpoints of the US-led invasion of Iraq. On the other hand, the passing of a death sentence on the former Iraqi leader could provoke more bloody attacks on US troops just as Americans are going to the polls.

The High Court will issue a verdict in the trial of Saddam and seven co-defendants for the massacre in 1982 of 148 people in Dujail, a village north of Baghdad where there had been an attempt to kill Saddam Hussein. He is currently standing trial separately for the massacre of tens of thousands of Kurds in the 1980s.

So far, the trial, which has been running for more than nine months, has not produced the political dividends expected by the US or the Iraqi government. In terms of the stability of Iraq, it has been largely counter-productive. During his long imprisonment, Saddam had begun to fade from the people minds in Iraq.

During his trial, however, he has been visible day after day on live television, berating the Iraqi prosecutors and judges for being pawns of the Americans.

For much of the Arab Sunni community to which he belongs it has made him, once more, a hero. Kurds and Shia who suffered under his rule generally want to see him executed.

Opinion in Baghdad divided yesterday along sectarian lines. Mohammed Khalid, 41, a Sunni former official in the Communications Ministry, told The Independent that he was now unemployed since "my ministry was taken over by Shia people and the Mehdi Army." He thinks that if Saddam is to be executed, the Shia "who suffered a lot from him will be happy and the Sunni will be unhappy because they loved him. There will be a lot of violence in Sunni neighbourhoods if they sentence him to die."

Laith Sadiq, 33, a Shia living in a Sunni district in west Baghdad, said he would move house next week whatever happens, though he has yet to receive a threat. "I hope he goes to his death," he said. "Killing people was Saddam's hobby." A police commando at a checkpoint nearby said he wanted Saddam to be found guilty but added grimly that he hoped he was not on duty when the verdict was announced because "there is going to be a lot of shooting".

Mohammed, 66, a retired teacher, who is Sunni, has an entirely different view. He believes Saddam Hussein is innocent. He said: "The one who should be executed is George Bush. If Saddam is executed then the Sunni will want revenge."

But Marwan, his son, said: "It would be wrong to think that people here are obsessed with what happens to Saddam. On the contrary, they worry about what happens to themselves and their families."

Regardless of Saddam's fate, violence in Baghdad is increasing. 54 bodies bearing signs of torture were found yesterday.