Tyrant's death won't ease the suffering
Few will shed tears over the passing of Saddam Hussein. The question is whether his execution yesterday will do anything to shorten the suffering of the Iraqi people over whom he once ruled with ruthless cruelty and brutality.
There is no question Hussein was guilty of crimes against humanity. The one that eventually landed him on the gallows, the killings of 148 men and boys in a northern Iraqi town in 1982, was singled out by his prosecutors because it was easy to prove. It was but a small extract from a bulging file of atrocities and aggression.
It includes genocide against the Kurds in the north, the brutal suppression of a Shiite uprising in the south, the use of outlawed weapons like nerve gas, the torture of political prisoners, and invasions of Iran and Kuwait that left more than a million dead and demoralised and decimated his military.
When Hussein came to power he ruled over an oil-rich country that enjoyed growing economic, political and cultural influence in the region. Three decades later he leaves behind a lawless land of violence and social dislocation that flirts with all-out civil war.
Hussein's trial, a television event around the world, was above all a chance to begin healing the wounds his regime had caused, to bring him to justice in a manner that showed a way forward to a better future.
To do this, it had to be seen as impeccably conducted and fair to a fault, the antithesis of his own rule. It had to set a precedent for the rule of law where there was none. This would not only have helped strip his brutal regime of legitimacy in the minds of Iraqis, but would have been the most powerful statement the living could make to the memory of the victims denied justice.
Such a demonstration of the rule of law amid the violent division could have helped lay the foundations of national reconciliation and unity. If the trial had been carried out as promised, it might have. Despite President George W. Bush's vow that Hussein would get 'the justice he denied to millions', it was not to be.
The conditions for such a trial, in an occupied country still torn by conflict, were far from ideal. Moreover, the United States was seen to have a hand in decisions made by the then-interim government, raising further concerns.
Human rights groups and international law experts pointed out the dangers to legal impartiality in these circumstances. Understandably there were calls for the trial to be held outside the country.
But there remained an argument for holding it in Iraq where the offences occurred and the victims lived. It was seen as important that Hussein and his co-defendants were tried by their own people.
Despite the doubts, many Iraqis saw a trial in Iraq as a way to move on from the past. The solution was to try the former leader under international law in a special Iraqi court.
The proceedings were so flawed they made a mockery of the judicial system. They were marked by political interference, a lack of impartiality from the court and inadequate protection for defence lawyers and witnesses from violence and intimidation. Three defence team lawyers were murdered. But even such evidence of attempts to intimidate the courts did not result in a proper evaluation of whether the proceedings should continue. The trial went on as if nothing had happened.
The same was true when the original chief judge was replaced during the trial, after Hussein repeatedly disrupted proceedings. A new judge seen by some as overly friendly to the US simply slipped into his chair. A tribunal source said the court was under political pressure to take a tougher line with Hussein and speed up the trial.
Politicians commented freely during the trial and were quick to give their biased views after the death sentence was handed down and before the appeal process had even begun.
Hussein's appeal against the sentence, therefore, was a chance to correct injustices by restoring properly conducted process. Instead, in a brief hearing, the appeals court upheld the sentence and ordered that it be expedited.
The last opportunity to make a difference by delivering justice according to the rule of law was lost.
The impact of Hussein's execution among ordinary Iraqis, already preoccupied with day-to-day survival and preparing for civil war, will soon be overtaken by events.
The hanging can do nothing to make the streets safer from Sunni insurgents and Shiite militiamen. It will be seen as being irrelevant or even a catalyst for worse civil strife if it further alienates members of Hussein's Baath party.
Last week began with headlines about a British raid on a police station in Basra in the south of Iraq to free 100 men facing torture and execution. Their captors were Shiites, who took over the city from their enemies after the invasion in 2003.
It is an example of how the overthrow of Hussein failed to make life better for Iraqis. At best it just put the boot on the other foot. As the White House considers a new approach to the war, we may not have seen the worst of it yet. It remains to be seen if the execution makes any difference at all.