President George W. Bush was sleeping at 9 p.m. at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, when Saddam Hussein's body plunged through the trapdoor of a gallows in Kadhimiya Prison on the outskirts of Baghdad. It was dawn in the Iraqi capital, and the 69-year-old Butcher of Baghdad wore no blindfold. He had carried a Qur'an for the last few steps before his death, looking uncertain, even afraid, according to one of the witnesses close to him, but mouthing words of defiance. He sneered at Shiite guards--the warlord Moqtada al-Sadr's men, by one account. He praised God and, as he neared the gallows, proclaimed, "Iraq without me is nothing."
Like the war that overthrew him in 2003, the hanging of Saddam Hussein did not turn out as planned. Instead of a study in modern justice, the tyrant's end looked more like the result of a sectarian show trial. From Crawford, the only comment was a muted, written statement: no proclamation of "mission accomplished," just of "an important milestone" after "a difficult year for the Iraqi people and for our troops." The best that could be said was that the trial was fairer than those Saddam gave his many enemies.
Saddam Hussein's savage totalitarian rule lasted more than three decades. Torture and murder were his métiers, both practiced without evident remorse or the slightest regret. (Telling a joke about Saddam was a capital crime in his Iraq.) His arrogance led him to disastrous misjudgments. He launched a war against Iran that lasted eight years, and one against Kuwait that ended with his humiliating defeat in Desert Storm. He dreamed of imposing himself on the region with weapons of mass destruction, and acted as though he had them even when he didn't. He kept his distance from Al Qaeda, but aided and abetted many other terrorist groups. And he annihilated would-be rebels--along with their extended families--killing tens of thousands of Shiites and Kurds with guns, bombs, chemical weapons: whatever worked. If the evil that men do lives after them, then Saddam Hussein will long endure.
But the much more complicated question for now and for the future concerns the "good" he achieved, which may well have been interred with his regime. At a terrible cost, but with ruthless efficacy, he kept Iraq unified and provided a critical balance of power against Iran. If the Middle East is to be stabilized, and American long-term interests protected, those goals are still critically important.
So as Bush searches for ways to extricate the United States from the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq, which has now cost almost 3,000 American lives and drains more than $2 billion a week from U.S. coffers, little is gained from Saddam's demise. The challenge was not how to eliminate him: he ceased to be a factor when he was dragged out of a "spider hole" three years ago. The problem remains how to replace him.
Bush and his national-security team no longer talk about transforming the Middle East, merely about strengthening the current Iraqi government so it can sustain itself without the backing of 140,000 U.S. troops. According to a senior Bush aide who declined to be named while discussing internal deliberations, the administration's new strategy for doing so, likely to be announced next week, will involve three pillars: a temporary surge of more troops, more money for jobs and reconstruction, and an attempt to broaden political support for plodding Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
But the confusion that surrounded Saddam's execution suggests just how complicated the task will be, and how little care Maliki takes to disguise the sectarian leanings of his Shiite-dominated government. After Saddam's last appeal was rejected, Maliki reportedly told the families of some of his victims that any hesitation about hanging him would be insulting. "Our respect for human rights requires us to execute him," Maliki said, "and there will be no review or delay in carrying out the sentence." As one of Maliki's top aides told NEWSWEEK privately, the prime minister's "vision for reconciliation doesn't include those who would support Saddam Hussein in any way."
Instead of working for the broad sense of healing other societies emerging from repression and war have sought, the Maliki government took a proprietary view of the suffering Saddam inflicted--as if only its supporters had felt his cruelty. During a deeply flawed trial, judges deemed too lenient were fired or pressured to resign, and three of Saddam's defense lawyers were murdered. He was finally hanged for ordering the killing of 148 Shiite men and boys in the town of Dujail in 1982 after members of Maliki's Dawa Party, which was then a clandestine terrorist organization, tried to assassinate him. The Kurds still want their day in court: Saddam massacred tens of thousands of them in a genocidal campaign that included an infamous poison-gas attack on the town of Halabjah in 1988. His fellow Sunnis and Baath Party rivals, slaughtered on his orders and even by his own hand, are not even the subject of a court case.
Washington has never had a very deep understanding of Iraq's leaders. The Bush administration was so focused on the threat that Saddam's weapons of mass destruction might pose that it brushed aside the idea he might be bluffing. (Saddam's motivation? The threat of poison gas and biological agents could deter rebels and keep Iran at bay.) The Americans vastly overestimated the support exiled politicians would receive after returning to Iraq. They also underestimated the influence of religious leaders like Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and failed to understand how sectarian Iraq's politics would become once elections were held.
After Saddam's brutally effective tyranny, any democracy might look feckless. But there has been such chaos since the dictator's fall that it's now common to hear Iraqis yearn for the order imposed by his strong-arm rule. Even some Americans share that sentiment. "I feel like we should let Saddam out of jail and say, 'Sorry, we didn't realize you were so brutal because you had to be'," a member of a U.S. Special Operations unit told NEWSWEEK after a hard day's fighting in Fallujah in 2004. (The soldier said he was under orders not to give his name.) "It's going to take someone either exceptionally cruel or exceptionally intelligent to rule this country."
That's a little too facile. While the U.S.-led invasion was the catalyst, the core problems in Iraq are ones Saddam helped to create. He violently despised and suppressed all authority but his own; it's little wonder that the leaders who followed could not approach his stature. Born to an impoverished mother in a rural village near the town of Tikrit in 1937, he never knew his father and was raised by an uncle who served in the Iraqi Army. He was rejected by the military academy, and slipped into the violent and conspiratorial politics of the Arab-nationalist Baath Party. At the age of 22, he took part in a failed attempt to murder the then President Abdel Karim Kassem in the streets of Baghdad. By the time the Baath Party seized power in 1968, Saddam was its rising star, effectively ruling the country from his position as vice president.
In 1979, at the age of 42, he took the top job for himself and quickly moved to eliminate all opposition. At a Baath Party congress, he charged dozens of rivals with treason. One by one they were forced to leave the hall and face immediate execution. They screamed and shouted, pleaded and cried. Slightly bored, he sat behind a desk on the stage sipping a glass of water and smoking Cuban cigars. Then he had a video of the meeting distributed throughout the Arab world to show what happened to anyone who might even think about challenging his rule.
The 1979 Iranian revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini gave Saddam an opening to the West. Few U.S. officials had illusions about his murderous regime, but Washington was fixated on the threat posed by Tehran. U.S. diplomats were being held hostage. Khomeini was preaching jihad, and "Shiite fundamentalism" seemed to threaten the whole region. So, few objections were raised when Saddam set about murdering Shiite leaders inside Iraq who might, or might not, sympathize with the mullahs in Iran. Then his decision to invade the Islamic Republic looked like a good way to weaken Tehran.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan sent Donald Rumsfeld as a special envoy to Baghdad to forge a working alliance with Saddam. By the mid-1980s, U.S. satellite intelligence was helping the Iraqis focus chemical-weapon attacks on Iranian troops. So strong was Washington's "tilt" toward Saddam that in 1987, when one of his jet fighters launched a missile strike on a U.S. frigate in the Persian Gulf, killing 37 sailors, the United States accepted his excuses and responded by stepping up pressure on his enemies in Iran.
Though the Iran-Iraq War ended in stalemate in 1988, the West's support emboldened Saddam. He asserted his power and influence all over the region, convinced that the United States would back his play. He hunted down enemies in neighboring states. He stepped up support for Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, who was often resident in Baghdad. As Saddam pressed his secret program to develop atomic weapons, he publicly threatened to incinerate Israel. Still, by 1990, high-level U.S. delegations coveting lucrative commercial agreements were regular visitors to Baghdad.
His mistake was to invade the oil-rich emirate of Kuwait, which he claimed should have been part of Iraq all along. His envoys said he'd gotten the nod from Washington. But his new conquest put Saddam in a position to threaten Saudi Arabia and dominate the world oil market. When he refused to pull back, the ad-ministration of President George H.W. Bush forged an international coalition of Western powers and Arab countries to demolish his forces in 1991's Desert Storm.
Inside Iraq, however, neither the hundreds of thousands killed fighting Iran nor the crushing defeat in Kuwait fazed Saddam. When the Kurds rose up against him in the late 1980s, he used chemical weapons against them. When they tried to revolt again in 1991, just the threat that such horrors would be unleashed sent them fleeing from their homes by the hundreds of thousands. In southern Iraq, Shiites encouraged by the Bush 41 administration and helped by Iran attacked the remnants of Saddam's armed forces after Desert Storm. Saddam's response: mass murder. The U.S.-led coalition stood back. Saddam hung on.
But the foundations of the modern nation he had tried to build began to crumble under the pressure of sanctions and international isolation. By the time the United States invaded in 2003, Iraq's economy and institutions, including its armed forces, were fragile shells of what they'd been 15 years before. Shia and Kurdish leaders, many of them already in exile, started cultivating policymakers in Washington, even as they lost touch with Iraqis on the ground. In Baghdad, Saddam adopted a new religiosity, playing to Sunni fundamentalists. The already poor Shia grew poorer and more disenfranchised; the political culture grew more corrupt.
When George W. Bush decided to eliminate Saddam once and for all in 2003, Bush personalized the war, and for understandable reasons. Saddam was a useful symbol--a seeming madman. Hadn't he tried to kill Bush's retired father on a visit to Kuwait in 1993? And Saddam so dominated Iraq that it was much easier to sell the threat when you could put his sinister face on it. But that also led to the misconception that removing him would solve all problems--the notion that all Iraqis wanted was "freedom," even though for generations under totalitarian rule they had no clear idea what that meant. Because so many Iraqis hated Saddam, Washington wrongly figured they would welcome invading Americans. Instead, the U.S.-led occupation opened the way for multiple insurgencies.
The moment when Saddam Hussein's capture could be hailed as a turning point in the conflict is long past. Having focused the world's attention on the evil of this one man, the Bush administration treated him as a kind of totem, declaring new victories when his statue was pulled down by U.S. Marines in Baghdad, when he was dragged out of the hole where he was hiding several months later, when he was put on trial and when he was convicted. But the execution? A "milestone" on a long and dangerous road.
Here, then, is the tragedy of America's involvement in Iraq, now and in the future: what Saddam achieved for his country came at a terrible cost, and of the countless problems he created and perpetuated, his death solves none.