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Images of Hanging Make Hussein a Martyr
NY Times
January 6, 2007

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Jan. 5 — In the week since Saddam Hussein was hanged in an execution steeped in sectarian overtones, his public image in the Arab world, formerly that of a convicted dictator, has undergone a resurgence of admiration and awe.

On the streets, in newspapers and over the Internet, Mr. Hussein has emerged as a Sunni Arab hero who stood calm and composed as his Shiite executioners tormented and abused him.

"No one will ever forget the way in which Saddam was executed," President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt remarked in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot published Friday and distributed by the official Egyptian news agency. "They turned him into a martyr."

In Libya, which canceled celebrations of the feast of Id al-Adha after the execution, a government statement said a statue depicting Mr. Hussein in the gallows would be erected, along with a monument to Omar al-Mukhtar, who resisted the Italian invasion of Libya and was hanged by the Italians in 1931.

In Morocco and the Palestinian territories, demonstrators held aloft photographs of Mr. Hussein and condemned the United States.

Here in Beirut, hundreds of members of the Lebanese Baath Party and Palestinian activists marched Friday in a predominantly Sunni neighborhood behind a symbolic coffin representing that of Mr. Hussein and later offered a funeral prayer. Photographs of Mr. Hussein standing up in court, against a backdrop of the Dome of the Rock shrine in Jerusalem, were pasted on city walls near Palestinian refugee camps, praising "Saddam the martyr."

"God damn America and its spies," a banner across one major Beirut thoroughfare read. "Our condolences to the nation for the assassination of Saddam, and victory to the Iraqi resistance."

By standing up to the United States and its client government in Baghdad and dying with seeming dignity, Mr. Hussein appears to have been virtually cleansed of his past.

"Suddenly we forgot that he was a dictator and that he killed thousands of people," said Roula Haddad, 33, a Lebanese Christian. "All our hatred for him suddenly turned into sympathy, sympathy with someone who was treated unjustly by an occupation force and its collaborators."

Just a month ago Mr. Hussein was widely dismissed as a criminal who deserved the death penalty, even if his trial was seen as flawed. Much of the Middle East reacted with a collective shrug when he was found guilty of crimes against humanity in November.

But shortly after his execution last Saturday, a video emerged that showed Shiite guards taunting Mr. Hussein, who responded calmly but firmly to them. From then on, many across the region began looking at him as a martyr.

"The Arab world has been devoid of pride for a long time," said Ahmad Mazin al-Shugairi, who hosts a television show at the Middle East Broadcasting Center that promotes a moderate version of Islam in Saudi Arabia. "The way Saddam acted in court and just before he was executed, with dignity and no fear, struck a chord with Arabs who are desperate for their own leaders to have pride too."

Ayman Safadi, editor in chief of the independent Jordanian daily Al Ghad, said, "The last image for many was of Saddam taken out of a hole. That has all changed now."

At the heart of the sudden reversal of opinion was the symbolism of the hasty execution, now framed as an act of sectarian vengeance shrouded in political theater and overseen by the American occupation.

In much of the predominantly Sunni Arab world, the timing of the execution in the early hours of Id al-Adha, which is among the holiest days of the Muslim year, when violence is forbidden and when even Mr. Hussein himself sometimes released prisoners, was seen as a direct insult to the Sunni world.

The contrast between the official video aired without sound on Iraqi television of Mr. Hussein being taken to the gallows and fitted with a noose around his neck and the unauthorized grainy, chaotic recording of the same scene with sound, depicting Shiite militiamen taunting Mr. Hussein with his hands tied, damning him to hell and praising the militant Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, touched a sectarian nerve.

"He stood as strong as a mountain while he was being hanged," said Ahmed el-Ghamrawi, a former Egyptian ambassador to Iraq. "He died a strong president and lived as a strong president. This is the image people are left with."

Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian media critic and director of the online radio station Ammannet.net, said: "If Saddam had media planners, he could not have planned it better than this. Nobody could ever have imagined that Saddam would have gone down with such dignity."

Writers and commentators have stopped short of eulogizing the dictator but have looked right past his bloody history as they compare Iraq's present circumstances with Iraq under Mr. Hussein.

In Jordan, long a bastion of support for Mr. Hussein, many are lionizing him, decrying the timing of the execution and the taunts as part of a Sunni-Shiite conflict.

"Was it a coincidence that Israel, Iran and the United States all welcomed Saddam's execution?" wrote Hamadeh Faraneh, a columnist for the daily Al Rai. "Was it also a coincidence when Saddam said bravely in front of his tormentors, ‘Long live the nation,' and that Palestine is Arab, then uttered the declaration of faith? His last words expressed his depth and what he died for."

Another Jordanian journalist, Muhammad Abu Rumman, wrote in Al Ghad on Thursday: "For the vast majority Saddam is a martyr, even if he made mistakes in his first years of rule. He cleansed himself later by confronting the Americans and by rejecting to negotiate with them."

Even the pro-Saudi news media, normally critical of Mr. Hussein, chimed in with a more sentimental tone.

In the London-based pan-Arab daily Al Hayat, Bilal Khubbaiz, commenting on Iranian and Israeli praise of the execution, wrote, "Saddam, as Iraq's ruler, was an iron curtain that prevented the Iranian influence from reaching into the Arab world," as well as "a formidable party in the Arab-Israeli conflict."

Zuhayr Qusaybati, also writing in Al Hayat, said the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, "gave Saddam what he most wanted: he turned him into a martyr in the eyes of many Iraqis, who can now demand revenge."

"The height of idiocy," Mr. Qusaybati said, "is for the man who rules Baghdad under American protection not to realize the purpose of rushing the execution, and that the guillotine carries the signature of a Shiite figure as the flames of sectarian division do not spare Shiites or Sunnis in a country grieving for its butchered citizens."

In Saudi Arabia, poems eulogizing Mr. Hussein have been passed around on cellphones and in e-mail messages.

"Prepare the gun that will avenge Saddam," a poem published in a Saudi newspaper warned. "The criminal who signed the execution order without valid reason cheated us on our celebration day. How beautiful it will be when the bullet goes through the heart of him who betrayed Arabism."

Mr. Safadi, the Jordanian editor, said: "In the public's perception Saddam was terrible, but those people were worse. That final act has really jeopardized the future of Iraq immensely. And we all know this is a blow to the moderate camp in the Arab world."

Reporting was contributed by Mona el-Naggar from Cairo, Nada Bakri from Beirut, Rasheed Abou al-Samh from Jidda, Saudi Arabia, and Suha Maayeh from Amman.

Original Text