Reaction divided over sentence

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The Independent Online

Arabs were sharply divided today over the death sentence against Saddam Hussein, with some praising the verdict as heavenly justice but others - sharply critical of the US - claiming the decision was unfair.

Some analysts said the message behind the sentencing is that Washington is determined to continue its mission in Iraq and will not be intimidated by insurgents fighting it.

"If there had been no verdict, or if the verdict had been commuted, then it would have consolidated all talk about US failure in Iraq," said Dawood al-Shirian, a Saudi journalist.

On the street, reaction was mixed. Some Arabs felt that Saddam, as a leader, should have had the freedom to run his country as he saw fit. They pointed to the rise of violence since he was removed from power by the US-led invasion in April 2003.

"If Saddam is condemned to death, then they must make it fair and sentence Mr. (US President George) Bush to death ... and they should send Israel's Ehud Olmert to death too because of what he did in Lebanon. If this is fair, let Saddam go to death," said Amman jeweller Ibrahim Hreish, speaking passionately about the verdict.

"If Mr. Bush made the world a better place in the past four years, then let Saddam go to death," he said.

Ziad al-Khasawneh, the former head of Saddam's defense team said the death sentence had been expected right from the start of the trial.

"It was pre-planned. What has taken place in this trial right from the outset until today's verdict is illegal and is meant to undermine the legitimate president of Iraq and give legitimacy instead to the US occupation of an Arab country," said al-Khasawneh, a Jordanian who sympathizes with the now-defunct Arab Baath Socialist Party in Iraq.

Iraqis living abroad were also divided over the sentencing of their former president, who ruled Iraq with an iron fist for almost three decades.

"He deserves the death penalty," shouted Salah Hassan, 50, a Sunni Muslim Iraqi businessman who lives in Jordan.

"He is the cause of the bloodshed taking place in my country now," he said as he sipped black tea at a smoked-filled coffee shop in the bustling and narrow streets of downtown Amman. "Saddam is a criminal and sentencing him to hang is just a very soft punishment."

But Jassim Ali, a 29-year-old unemployed Shiite Iraqi who lives in Jordan, called the sentencing unfair.

"It's too harsh. Why is Saddam being tried?" he said. "The ones who should be tried and sentenced to death are the current Iraqi government leaders. They're traitors. They're American puppets."

In Kuwait, the tiny emirate that Saddam occupied from August 1990 to February 1991, many were jubilant.

"This is justice from heaven. He should have been hanged a long time ago. This is the smallest punishment for someone who executed tens of thousands of people," said Abdul-Ridha Aseeri, who heads the political science department at Kuwait University.

Aseeri said the sentence "should be a lesson to other Arab leaderships," but he would not name any.

"For the first time in modern history, an Arab ruler or former ruler is put on trial," Aseeri said.

Kholoud al-Feeli, 40, a Kuwaiti communications specialist, wanted Saddam to rot in jail instead of being hanged.

"Death to him is merciful. I wanted life in prison. He will die but people (he hurt) will continue to suffer," she said.

Meanwhile the Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, said that Saddam's trial was fair, but would not comment on the guilty verdict or death sentence for fear it could inflame tensions in his volatile nation.

"I think the trial was fair," Talabani said from his hotel in Paris, where he is on a six-day visit.

He would not respond to the verdict which automatically goes to appeal. "I must respect the independence of the Iraqi judiciary ... because my comments could affect the situation," he said.

"The hanging of Saddam Hussein will turn to hell for the Americans," said Vitaya Wisethrat, a respected Muslim cleric in Thailand, where a bloody Islamic insurgency is raging in the country's south.

"The Saddam case is not a Muslim problem but the problem of America and its domestic politics," he said.

"The Americans are about to vote in a midterm election, so maybe Bush will use this case to tell the voters that Saddam is dead and that the Americans are safe. But actually the American people will be in more danger with the death of Saddam."

Today's verdict, which had been widely expected, was welcomed by key US allies, who said Saddam got what he deserved for crimes against humanity committed during years of brutal dictatorship.

"I welcome that Saddam Hussein and the other defendants have faced justice and have been held to account for their crimes," British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said in a statement. "Appalling crimes were committed by Saddam Hussein's regime. It is right that those accused of such crimes against the Iraqi people should face Iraqi justice."

Australia's foreign minister, Alexander Downer, called Saddam "an evil tyrant" and said the death sentence - which will be subject to an automatic appeal before he can be hanged - came as no surprise.

But Amnesty International questioned the fairness of the trial, and international legal experts said Saddam should be kept alive long enough to answer for other atrocities. Only then, they said, will Iraqis brutalised by years of his despotic rule see true justice done.

"The longer we can keep Saddam alive, the longer the tribunal can have to explore some of the other crimes involving hundreds of thousands of Iraqis," said Sonya Sceats, an international law expert at the Chatham House foreign affairs think tank in London.

"The problem really is that this tribunal has not shown itself to be fair and impartial - not only by international standards, but by Iraqi standards. There is significant evidence of political pressure," she said.

Chandra Muzaffar, president of the Malaysian-based International Movement for a Just World, also voiced concerns that Saddam's trial was flawed because it "violated many established norms of international jurisprudence, such as in the way the court was constituted and how the charges were brought against Saddam."

"But Saddam was undoubtedly a brutal dictator, and even though I wouldn't subscribe to the death penalty, he deserves to be punished severely for the enormity of his crimes," said Chandra, a well-known Muslim social commentator.

Chandra said there was bound to be a violent reaction in Iraq to the verdict.

"We would expect a reaction from the resistance in Iraq, whether it is immediate or not, in the form of suicide bombings or other violence," he said.

In Russia, the Kremlin-allied head of the international affairs committee in the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, told Ekho Moskvy radio the sentence will deepen divisions in Iraq.

But the official, Konstantin Kosachyov, said he doubted that Saddam would actually be executed.

"A death sentence will apparently split Iraqi society even further," Kosachyov said. "On the other hand, it seems to me that the death sentence against Saddam Hussein will probably not be carried out. It will be stopped one way or another, either by the president of Iraq or by other means. It is most of all a moral decision - retribution that modern Iraq is taking against Saddam's regime."

Some saw the verdict as intentionally timed to coincide with Tuesday's pivotal midterm elections in the US Congress, where Democrats are fighting to regain control.

"The Bush administration, which has lost the trust of the American people, needs some sort of victory," said Abbas Khalaf, Iraq's ambassador to Russia during the Saddam era, denouncing the proceedings as "a purely political trial."

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain,

said: "There are concerns about whether Saddam Hussein was ever going to

receive a fair trial in Iraq given the sectarian tension that are rife. Several

of his defence lawyers were assassinated during the proceedings and that we

stated at the out set we preferred for him to tried in an international court.

"Furthermore, there will be many in the Muslim world who will be asking when those responsible for launching the calamitous war in Iraq, in which tens of thousands on innocent people have died, will also be brought to justice."

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