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Saddam remains divisive

Sunday, December 31, 2006 

Saddam Hussein was dead, but his legacy was more alive than ever.

As Iraqis across the country learned that the former dictator had been hanged, the bitter remains of his rule defined their responses.

For Shiites, long oppressed, it was a moment of intense release.

"This chapter of Iraqi history is over," said Mouwaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, speaking on national television early Saturday. "Let us forget it and live with each other."

Sunni Arabs were skeptical. After three years of grinding violence and abuses by the Shiite government security forces, trust has all but fallen away, and few feel genuinely represented by the government. Most, in fact, are afraid of it.

"I'm not part of their world," said Yusra Abdul Aziz, a teacher in the Sunni Arab enclave of Mansour. "They are not speaking about Iraq. They are speaking about themselves."

Their reactions showed just how far Iraqis have drifted apart in the three years since Saddam's capture. And while he has long faded from relevance in the life of everyday Iraq, in many ways the country is living the legacy that he built.

The new Iraq appears capable of inflicting only more of the abuse it suffered for so long, perpetuating it with overwhelming brutality. People disappear in the night. Bodies with drill holes surface in trash heaps. Government forces moonlight as killing squads.

As vicious as he was, Saddam also held the country firmly together. Beyond military control, there was a subtle social glue: Iraqis of all sects loved to hate Saddam together. Now that he is gone, Shiites are afraid to joke with Sunnis about him, and Sunnis feel they are being blamed for his crimes.

Ahmed Hillu, a tailor, whose suits hung on the walls of his narrow shop in Sadr City like a mute chorus, recalled watching from a hiding spot in an empty area in northeastern Baghdad as elite members of Saddam's regime gunned down large groups of Shiite opposition members. He was 6 at the time. That area, an old dam called Qasr Attash, is now one of the most common body- dumping grounds for Shiite militias.

Saddam spared almost no one in his murderous ways, but Shiites were particularly abused as a group. That systematic mistreatment seems to have left lasting scars that carry through to the current day, infusing neophyte leaders with an uncompromising and emotional approach to running things.

"When they put the rope on his neck, did he remember how many innocent people he killed?" said Husam Abdul Hussein Jasim, a watch store owner in Sadr City, on whose wall were swinging synchronized pendulums. "He's like a Satan."

Hillu, sitting behind a counter piled high with a television, plastic flowers and cellphone cards, said: "He didn't represent anything for me. He was just a death grip imposed on our neck."

Even though their oppressor had been hanged, Shiites in northeastern Baghdad were giving no parties. Blocks had none of their usual bustle. Even the office of the cleric Moktada al-Sadr was closed.

The response was markedly different from the reaction after the November verdict and sentencing of Saddam to death, when Silly String and sweets were plied in equal measure.

For some Iraqis, previous humiliations were enough to feel justice had been done. Smeisam, a teacher in the largely Shiite area of Binouk, said her mother, whose parents had been murdered by the regime, said the moment of revenge came sweetly for her when she saw the footage of American soldiers pulling Saddam out of the spider hole near Tikrit in December 2003.

Her husband, Mukaram, was completely unsentimental.

"Truly I feel nothing," he said. "He executed so many people. Now it is his turn. For me he died when he was arrested, so he was not important at all."

Indeed, the violence left behind has taken on a life of its own. In Kufa, a Shiite holy city south of Baghdad, a bomb in a fish market killed 34 people on Saturday, the Iraqi authorities said, and a mob on the scene killed a man suspected of being the bomber.

In the Hurriya district of Baghdad, a series of car bombs killed 36 people.

Depressing new realities did not dampen the Shiites' joy, but they were still subdued in expressing it. Hillu, who lost two brothers to Saddam, said that he brought boxes of cookies and chocolate to his neighbors in the morning, when he learned about the execution.

If Shiites saw the hanging as a gift, most Sunnis were revolted that, in what appeared to be a violation of Iraqi law, the execution was scheduled on a holiday of forgiveness.

"Actually, I felt angry," Abdul Aziz said. "It's not a proper time. I assure you, those who are feeling that this is a good time and a good judgment, they are not Iraqis."

Others, namely Kurds, opposed the quick hanging. Now Saddam will not testify in other important genocide cases, especially the trial over the Anfal military campaign against the Kurds, in which he is accused of unleashing mass killings and chemical attacks that killed tens of thousands of villagers.

"The truth of what happened in al- Anfal has been buried," said Abu Abdul Rahman, a Kurdish taxi driver. "What happened in al-Anfal? Who took part in it?"

Wisam A. Habeeb contributed reporting.


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