The Bush administration today sent conflicting signals about the taunting and baiting that accompanied Saddam Hussein’s execution as the White House did not join criticism of the former Iraqi president’s hanging and the state department and US military raised questions about it.
“The president is focused on the new way forward in Iraq, so these issues are best addressed out of Iraq, out of Baghdad,” deputy White House press secretary Scott Stanzel said.
“Prime Minister Maliki’s staff have already expressed their disappointment in the filmings, so I guess we’ll leave it at that.”
Stanzel said the US military and the US Embassy in Iraq had expressed misgivings about the timing of Saddam’s execution and later about “the process and what took place”.
State department spokesman Sean McCormack said US officials questioned carrying out the execution on a Muslim festival day and some procedures that were followed, such as who would sign certain documents.
He said Iraqis had raised questions about “comments made by people in the room” during the final minutes before the execution and are conducting an investigation into tape made on a mobile phone that got out and was broadcast worldwide.
“Clearly they didn’t approve of that,” McCormack said.
Iraqi state television broadcast an official video of Saturday’s execution. The video had no audio and never showed Saddam’s actual death.
A mobile-phone video was leaked, however, and showed the deposed leader being jeered in his final moments, with witnesses shouting “Go to hell” before he dropped through the gallows floor and died.
The unruly scene was broadcast on Al-Jazeera television and was posted on the internet, prompting worldwide outcry and big protests among Iraq’s minority Sunnis, who lost their preferential status when Saddam was ousted in the US-led invasion of March 2003.
Britain’s deputy prime minister John Prescott called the leaked images “unacceptable” and the Vatican decrying the footage as a “spectacle” that violated human rights.
In Baghdad, Major General William Caldwell, the US military spokesman, said Saddam’s execution would have gone differently had US officials and not Iraqis had orchestrated it.
“Would we have done things differently? Yes, we would have, but that’s not our decision. That’s the government of Iraq’s decision,” Caldwell said.
He said the United States had nothing to do with the facility where the execution took place.
“We were not involved in any searches of any people. We had nobody present,” Caldwell said.
“We did not dictate any requirements that had to be followed. This was a government of Iraq decision on how that whole process went down.”
The White House, while declining to characterise Bush’s reaction to taunting, worked to shift the focus of the debate onto the execution of Hussein, not how it took place.
“The most important thing to keep in mind: this is a guy who killed hundreds of thousands of people and received justice,” White House press secretary Tony Snow said. “He got justice.”
The conduct of the execution has brought international criticism. Mr Prescott said the manner in which Saddam was executed was “quite deplorable”. The Vatican added its outrage and allegation of a human rights violation.
Prime Minister Nouri Maliki ordered his interior ministry yesterday to investigate who made the video and how it reached television and websites for public viewing.
An adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the person believed to have recorded the execution on a mobile-phone camera was arrested today.
Some 2,500 people today commemorated Saddam Hussein and condemned his execution at Jordan’s largest pro-Saddam rally since the deposed leader was hanged on Saturday.
Participants called Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr “ignoble” and chanted “Muqtada, you are without an identity” and “We will crush your head with our boots” at the gathering called by Jordan’s professional associations and opposition parties.
Jordan is home to a large Iraqi exile community that includes two of Saddam’s daughters, but most of the attendees were Jordanian.
Tayseer al-Homsi, secretary-general of Jordan’s branch of Saddam’s Baath party, condemned Saddam’s execution in his speech to the emotional crowd.
“The evil American administration, which already assassinated Iraq, before it assassinated its legitimate president, has put its interests in the region in the circle of danger,” al-Homsi said.
“Avenging Iraq and its martyred president has become a popular and Arab demand from the (Atlantic) Ocean to the Gulf,” said al-Homsi, who was interrupted by angry slogans against the United States, the Iraqi government and Iran.