SADDAM Hussein died yesterday by hanging. That much we know. But the political post-mortem will not establish the facts so easily. Crucially, whose decision was it to show such indecent haste in arranging his execution? The Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, signed the death warrant, but was this his own decision, freely taken, or was he under pressure from the United States and, if so, for what reason?

The date chosen, 30 December, was a strange one for a number of considerations. It coincided with the Id al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, a time when forgiveness is at the forefront of most Arab minds. It also coincided with the start of the Hajj, the massive Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Further, although according to Iraqi law no execution can take place on a holiday, both yesterday and today mark an important Muslim festival. One thing seems clear: the day that Saddam Hussein died will henceforth be indelibly linked annually for millions by association with unchanging Muslim remembrances. This surely cannot have been what the Iraqi government wanted, however devious it may be. Even less can that government have wanted to give the impression that it chose the date under pressure from Washington.

Nonetheless it is entirely possible that the White House arbitrarily decided on the date for its own reasons without even thinking of its religious associations. Whatever the explanation, Saddam Hussein's desire for martyrdom has been greatly furthered.


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