Saddam Hussein awaited his imminent end last night, sentenced to hang for crimes against humanity. His last hours were punctuated by the necessary rituals: the signature on the death warrant from Iraq's Prime Minister; the leave-taking from his closest relatives; the handover of his last will and testament, the release of a valedictory letter to Iraqis, and, at the last, his transfer from US into Iraqi custody, so that his own people could do the deed.
That the US and British invasion of Iraq would entail the death of Saddam Hussein had a grim inevitability. So far as Washington was concerned, the purpose of their whole enterprise was "regime change". The question was never whether Saddam would die, but when, how and by whose hand. The toppling of his statue in central Baghdad - transparently orchestrated by the American occupiers - was a grisly precursor of what was to come. As indeed, we now see, was the ambivalence with which Iraq hailed his downfall.
It was all of a piece of this headstrong autocrat that he resisted to the last. As the planning for the US invasion reached its height, he rejected all offers of exile, preferring to stay in Iraq. He was captured alive in the most demeaning of circumstances, and further humiliated by his US captors in clips that were beamed around the world. He stood trial, by turns insisting belligerently on his right to a proper defence and refusing to recognise the authority of the court. Would that those who had suffered from his rule had been dignified with a fraction of the respect that he was accorded by the court.
From the outset, though, there was no doubt about either the verdict or the sentence. And in the end, he faced death as a disgraced leader and common criminal. He lacked the courage to die as the warrior he had set himself up to be.
Saddam Hussein does not deserve to be mourned. He had come to power in violence. His rule was capricious and cruel. The roll of his victims is long, from the Kurds in the north, to the Marsh Arabs in the south, via Shia clerics and political opponents. He was ruthless in his determination to cling to power, and he ordered the unprovoked invasion of Kuwait. Yet the manner of his demise reflects poorly on the Western powers that ousted him. Saddam was a creature of the United States. He was armed and encouraged by Washington in earlier times, in an effort to balance the regional power of Iran. What balance there might have been is now shattered. Iran is in the ascendant. Iraq itself is in chaos and no exercise in democracy has been able to override its divisions. The country has an elected president, prime minister and parliament, but these institutions lack the authority to wield power effectively.
It is understandable that Iraqis preferred to try Saddam themselves rather than deliver him to the International Criminal Court. This would have been the preferable course. As it was, the trial was a travesty of justice. To hang Saddam now is also to leave his second trial, arguably the more important one, unfinished. The Kurds will not now have the satisfaction of seeing the murderer of their kinsmen judged for that heinous crime.
There was a time when the death of Saddam might have been a solution of a kind. It might have been a clean break with the past, offering Iraq a new beginning. An open trial might have embodied the start of the rule of law. An execution might have united Iraqis. Regrettably - and to the eternal disgrace of the occupying powers - it will resolve nothing in the vortex that is today's Iraq.