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End of a ruthless era

Iraq | Saddam's death closes a door on dictatorship and opens new debate about Iraq's future

Issue: "Endings & beginnings," Jan. 13, 2007

As a somber, black-clad Saddam Hussein marched to the gallows in the early morning hours of Dec. 30, Ralph Ayar thought about his father. Ayar, now 55 and living outside Detroit, was only 12 years old when members of Saddam's Baath Party arrested his father in the family's northern Iraqi village of Tel Kief. His crime: friendly connections to local Kurds, an ethnic group despised by the government. "They gave him no trial," Ayar told WORLD. "They led him straight from the jail to the gallows."

Ayar remembers listening with his family, including his mother, three brothers, and two sisters, as Baathist officials rounded up fellow villagers to witness the hanging in the public square: "It was devastating. . . . To this day it's devastating."

Decades later, several dozen members of Ayar's extended family, all Chaldean Catholics, gathered around a television at a cousin's home near Detroit to watch coverage of Saddam's execution. The mood, he said, was celebratory: "I believe justice was served."

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The Ayars weren't alone. At the news of Saddam's death, celebrations rang throughout Detroit, a city with one of the largest concentrations of Iraqi immigrants and refugees in the country. Many fled to America to escape Saddam's brutal regime. Hundreds of Iraqi-Americans in neighboring Dearborn danced, waved Iraqi flags, and chanted: "No more Saddam!"

Saddam was executed in Baghdad just after 6 a.m. Dec. 30-three years and 17 days after the dictator emerged from an eight-foot hole in the ground outside Tikrit and told U.S. forces, "My name is Saddam Hussein. I am the president of Iraq and I want to negotiate."

Negotiations ended for the 69-year-old last month when an Iraqi court sentenced Saddam to death for ordering the deaths of 148 Shiite men in the village of Dujail. Iraq's highest court rejected an appeal on Dec. 25 and ordered that he be executed within 30 days, even though he faced additional charges stemming from a campaign to wipe out Kurds in the north.

The U.S. military, which held Saddam in solitary confinement at a base near Baghdad, turned him over to Iraqis at 5:30 a.m. "This process was carried out by Iraqis from A-Z," said Iraq's National Security Advisor and a witness, Mowaffak al-Rubaie. "It went like a blink of an eye. I couldn't imagine it faster than this." He said Saddam's death marked "the day Iraq is finished with a whole era of ruthlessness."

But for some the end of an era is the beginning of fresh controversy as Iraqi officials quickly launched an investigation into a bootlegged video of Saddam's execution-apparently filmed via cell phone by one of the 25 witnesses who attended the hanging. It portrayed guards taunting Saddam just before the gallows trapdoor opened beneath his feet: "You have destroyed us. You have killed us. You have made us live in destitution." As Saddam retorted, the masked guard cursed, "God damn you." Saddam replied, "God damn you."

For Saddam, whose time in captivity was marked by courtroom tirades and steadfast lack of remorse, that his end should likewise be less than dignified-and marked by violence-was no surprise. Within hours of the execution at least 75 people died in nine bombing attacks, most of the kind Sunni insurgents who have remained loyal to Saddam carry out against Shiite targets. At a popular fish market in Kufa, a Shiite holy city, a car bomb killed 34 and wounded 38 on Dec. 31.

But far more Iraqis turned out to cheer Saddam's death, echoing exiles in the United States. "Here in Iraq most of us feel that today justice has been served. Those who mourn him are a few," said Iraqi blogger Mohammed Tammouz. No one, he said, believes violence will end overnight. "His orphans are still murdering our people in cold blood trying to deny us the right to build a model of life away from the culture of death the dictator created," Tammouz wrote on his blog, Iraq the Model, the day of Saddam's execution.

"The people who have been feeding violence, thinking maybe one day Saddam can make peace in Iraq, now that thought has to end, and that's good," said Insaf Safou, an Iraqi now living in Toronto. Safou, a physics teacher, had to flee Iraq with her family after she refused to inflate grades for children of Baath Party members. Safou's husband was forced to serve in Saddam's army for 12 years. A chef at one of Saddam's 170 palaces, he coordinated the preparation of a daily menu to be duplicated at each and every palace, so that no matter where Saddam showed up to dine, he could expect the same meal. "Iraqis dreaded and feared Saddam, or they believed he was the only solution, but no Iraqi was unaffected by his rule," Safou said.

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