Saddam on death row

He could hang by the end of the year. But is Baghdad or Washington setting the timetable?
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Saddam Hussein's death sentence last weekend is widely assumed to have been timed for maximum benefit to the Republicans in the US mid-term elections. That ploy having failed, however, the timing of the former dictator's execution might appear to be a matter of Iraqi politics.

The Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, suggested in a BBC interview last week that Saddam could be hanged before the end of the year, ignoring any appeal process. But the decision on when the fallen despot goes to the gallows is unlikely to be taken by Mr Maliki.

In the courtroom in Baghdad, Saddam has been in his element. After two years in solitary confinement, he was able once more to be a dominant figure. Always a role player, he could portray himself as the wounded lion, finally brought to bay by his enemies.

Saddam's reaction to his sentence of death seemed carefully rehearsed. He has taken to carrying a Koran, and once had the trial stopped so that he could pray. At one stage he claimed he had been beaten and tortured, but the allegation was made only once. It may have been made to pre-empt accusations of torture made against him by the people of Dujail.

A better guide to his conditions of imprisonment is a conversation with co-defendants accidentally picked up by microphones. Saddam is overheard saying: "I don't care for the food. I only eat what I like." He confirmed that he is closely confined. "I walk through four iron gates to get to the area where I can take my morning walk." He added that the space was about 30ft long and "there's an eye on me 24 hours a day".

But Saddam was not the only person play-acting in court. Ostensibly the trial is an all-Iraqi affair. But while the former Iraqi leader is legally in the custody of Iraq, he is in practice being held by US guards.

American officials were quick to say last week that the conduct of the trial is determined by Iraqis. In reality its day-to-day arrangements are run largely by the US embassy and the US Regime Crimes Liaison Office. American security men guard the court, and American and British legal experts act as advisers.

"It is an extremely expensive business even to bring Saddam to court each day," an Iraqi lawyer told The Independent on Sunday. The US has spent millions of dollars collecting evidence, training judges and furnishing the court.

The degree of covert US involvement in the trial helps to explain why the court delivered its verdict last Sunday before the mid-term election two days later. News of his death sentence was almost certainly intended by the White House to influence voters.

Saddam may also find that his histrionics in court will do nothing to improve his reputation. While the Sunnis feel he is being victimised, the Kurds want to hang him, and most Shia feel the same way. But most Iraqis say that their problem is staying alive themselves.