Sunnis fear Saddam's execution will provoke sectarian violence

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The Independent Online

Jubilant celebrations for Muslims on the final day of the pilgrimage to Mecca were dampened last night by concerns that Saddam Hussein's execution could have further worsened sectarian tensions across the Middle East.

Sunni Muslim Iraqis in Mecca spoke of their fear of returning home, as a hardline, Saudi-based, Wahhabist Sunni group, the so-called World Association of Muslim Youth, sent out a stern statement to Shias that they were "a minority in the Arab world".

While more than two million pilgrims marked the end of the five-day rituals of the Haj, tensions were growing among Sunni and Shia Iraqis in Mina City, near Mecca. They had been placed in the same Iraqi camp, but separated into two groups.

Saddam was hanged at dawn on Saturday as the Muslim world began to celebrate the most important festival in the Islamic faith, the Eid al-Adha. Saddam, a member of the Sunni community, which forms a minority in Iraq, was goaded in his final moments by his Shia guards and by witnesses to the execution. According to some, the taunts have reinforced the view among Saddam's Sunni tribesmen that the execution was more about Shia revenge than Iraqi justice.

The Shias talked triumphantly of celebrating two Eids since hearing the news of the execution. The Sunni section of the camp, meanwhile, spoke worriedly about their safety when they return to Iraq today.

Many Sunnis were already speaking of Saddam as a shaheed, or martyr. His supporters insisted that it was un-Islamic to kill for the three months of the Haj period. One Sunni at the camp said: "Some Shias are happy ... but we know that America created Saddam Hussein and they have tried to make a big story that he was a Sunni man who wasn't fair to Shias." He feared returning to Baghdad following the execution.

"When America invaded Baghdad they said they would make it democratic, but every day there are 200 Sunnis being killed in the city. Do you think now Saddam is dead it will stop?" he said.

Zelal al-Faraj, a 26-year-old Saudi resident of mixed Iraqi parentage, said she now regarded Saddam as a fallen hero. "In my opinion, Saddam was a symbol for the whole Arab world. Maybe he wasn't a hero before America came in, but after what they did he became a hero for many of us," she said.

By contrast, the tone was triumphant in Shia quarters of the camp. Hussein al-Fadli said: "It was a good day for an execution. We are returning to a safer Iraq."

Khaled Almaeena, the editor of Arab News, the Middle East's most widely read English language daily newspaper, said statements dividing Shias and Sunnis were ignorant and unhelpful for the Arab world. "We must remember that Iraq was a very secular state and Saddam himself was a secular man. He suppressed Shias, but he also suppressed Kurds and some of his own people," he said.

Some US officials believe the Iraqi government acted with unseemly haste to execute Saddam, according to The New York Times. Reuters reported that the US ambassador to Baghdad urged a two-week delay in the execution, but the Iraqi pressure was overwhelming.

President George Bush returned to Washington yesterday from his ranch in Texas. Following the death of the 3,000th American soldier in Iraq on Sunday, the White House said President Bush mourned each death but would not issue a statement. Two more American soldiers were killed yesterday.

* Iraqi authorities reported yesterday that 16,273 civilians, soldiers and police died violent deaths in 2006. They said 14,298 civilians, 1,348 police and 627 soldiers fell to violence.