Execution antics a setback for U.S. policy

? This is a column I never expected to write. I never expected to say that the Iraqis who put Saddam Hussein to death made the sadistic dictator look almost noble by their own depraved standards of behavior in that moment.

The mishandled execution carries a larger message that President Bush must absorb for the decisive address he plans to give on Iraq as early as next week: If Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his aides cannot control a gallows chamber containing 20 people, how can they hope to manage a country that is disintegrating under the weight of religious and ethnic hatreds?

Was Maliki’s office complicit in a grisly in-your-face payback by the prime minister’s Dawa Party for Saddam’s atrocities against its founders and Iraqis at large? Or – and this could be worse – did Maliki’s people fail to foresee the consequences of their rush to rid themselves of this troublesome prisoner? Either way, the result is a sharp setback for a strategy that depends on national unity to underpin an orderly, secure U.S. exit from Iraq.

Iraqi national unity – as conceived and manipulated by the Bush administration for its own ends – has turned out to be fool’s gold. (Unfortunately, I did expect to write that, and did so several times in the past year.) Bush now faces the prospect of an insurgent “government” declaring control over Anbar province and other Sunni-dominated areas in a matter of months – with open support from Iraq’s Arab neighbors – if current trends continue.

The urgent issues raised by Saddam’s execution are political ones rather than judicial or moral ones. In a moral sense, there is no such thing as a dignified execution. So it is pointless to have wished for one for Saddam Hussein. The taking of a life, even one as despicable as his was, is a tragic moment.

But by turning the execution into an occasion for settling 30-year-old scores, Saddam’s executioners prevented it from being the chapter-ending event in Iraqi history that it should have been. They also inadvertently exposed the damaging inconsistencies of a U.S. policy that has repeatedly assumed that national unity encompassing Iraq’s Shiite majority, its once-privileged Sunni minority and the Kurdish tribes of the north could be brought by Washington to the Iraqis, group by group.

While Washington sought to placate the Sunnis with political compromises and constitutional amendments that were either meaningless or beyond U.S. ability to deliver, the Sunnis responded with a “vote and fight” campaign to regain complete power.

Past American complicity with Saddam contributed to the rising fears among Shiites of being abandoned again, and to their own savage drive for revenge and protection through retaliatory atrocity. And as recently as November, senior U.S. officials visited Kurdistan to lecture the semi-independent Kurds on why they should be happy to surrender, for the sake of national unity, much of the prosperity and protection they have achieved. The Kurds smiled and promised nothing.

The White House hoped to form a bloc of “moderate” Shiites and Kurds in an “80 percent solution” that would either encourage or force Maliki to renounce the political alliance his Dawa Party has with the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Instead of helping Maliki to maintain Shiite unity and co-opt Sadr’s forces into a political role, U.S. officials made clear they would not rest until Sadr was destroyed.

That is one reason the outbursts praising Sadr at Saddam’s hanging were so damaging. They demonstrated the continuing close links between Dawa and Sadr – and the U.S. failure to change them in any meaningful way.

Bush now faces a far more radicalized situation than he did when he endorsed the national unity effort nearly a year ago. Announcing that he is putting an additional 30,000 U.S. troops into Iraq in pursuit of the same chimeras he has been chasing will not postpone disaster. He must instead set radical political goals.

“He should announce that the United States will turn over the Green Zone to the Iraqi government,” an Iraqi friend – who lives outside the U.S.-protected enclave that contains the American embassy and homes and offices of Iraqi leaders – said by telephone from Baghdad. “Our leaders meet there and say things are fine, protected from what their followers are doing to each other elsewhere. That might force them to get to work on the political settlement we need.”

This symbolic proposal is meant to encourage the United States to step back from trying to impose an outside blueprint on Iraq’s warring factions. Those factions must now find an internal balance on their own – or watch their country quickly split into three warring entities.