US sends mixed messages on Saddam's execution

Iraqi authorities have reported the arrests of two guards and an official who supervised Saddam Hussein's hanging and said the guard force was infiltrated by outsiders who taunted the former leader and shot the video showing his body dangling at the end of a rope.

Iraqi authorities have reported the arrests of two guards and an official who supervised Saddam Hussein's hanging and said the guard force was infiltrated by outsiders who taunted the former leader and shot the video showing his body dangling at the end of a rope.

The unauthorised video, which ignited protests by Saddam’s fellow Sunni Arabs in various Iraqi cities, threatens to turn the ousted dictator into a martyr.

Saddam was shown never bowing his head as he faced death, and asking the hecklers if they were acting in a manly way.

The Bush administration sent conflicting signals yesterday about the taunting and baiting that accompanied the execution, with the White House declining to join criticism of the procedure and the State Department and US military publicly raising questions about it.

Saddam, who was convicted for the killings of 148 Shiites, was dignified and courteous to his American jailers up to the moment he was handed over to the Iraqis outside the execution chamber, a US military spokesman said.

He “was courteous, as he always had been, to his US military police guards”, Major General William Caldwell said. “He spoke very well to our military police, as he always had. And when getting off there at the prison site, he said farewell to his interpreter. He thanked the military police squad, the lieutenant, the squad leader, the medical doctor we had present, and the colonel that was on site.”

Although Saddam “was still dignified toward us”, Caldwell said his demeanour changed “at the prison facility when the Iraqi guards were assuming control of him”.

National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie and two other top officials variously reported one to three men were being questioned in the investigation into who heckled Saddam as he was minutes from death and took mobile phone pictures of his execution.

“The investigation has already had an arrest warrant against one person and two to follow,” al-Rubaie told CNN. He said the guard force at the execution was infiltrated by an Arab television station or another outsider.

The clandestine footage appeared on Al-Jazeera television and websites just hours after Saddam was hanged on Saturday. The tumultuous scenes quickly overshadowed an official execution video, which was mute and showed none of the uproar among those on the floor of the chamber below the gallows.

Sami al-Askeri, a Shiite lawmaker who advises prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, said two “Justice Ministry guards were being questioned. The investigation committee is interrogating the men. If it is found that any official was involved, he will face legal measures.”

A second key al-Maliki adviser said: “In the past few hours, the government has arrested the person who videotaped Saddam’s execution. He was an official who supervised the execution and now he is under investigation.”

Prosecutor Munqith al-Faroon, one of 14 official witnesses to the execution, said he saw two government officials using camera phones at the hanging.

“I saw two of the government officials who were … present during the execution taking all the video of the execution, using the lights that were there for the official taping of the execution,” he said. “They used mobile phone cameras. I do not know their names, but I would remember their faces.”

Caldwell said no Americans were present for the hanging and that the tumultuous execution would have gone differently had the Americans been in charge.

As the storm over the handling of the hanging gained strength, Caldwell was among several US officials who suggested displeasure with the conduct of the execution.

“If you are asking me: ’Would we have done things differently?’ Yes, we would have. But that’s not our decision. That’s the government of Iraq’s decision,” the general said.

The White House declined to join in the criticism.

“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 concerns about the timing of the execution and about “the process and what took place”.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said US officials had questioned holding the execution on a Muslim festival day, the opening of Eid al-Adha, as well as some procedures.

US Embassy spokesman Lou Fintor said Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and his diplomatic team “did engage the government of Iraq on issues relating to procedures involved in the timing of the execution (of Saddam), given the upcoming holy days. While the government of Iraq gave consideration to US concerns, all decisions made regarding the execution were Iraqi decisions based on their own considerations.”

Yesterday’s remarks by US officials were the first public confirmation of reports that the Americans had questioned the timing of the hanging.

The second-guessing over the conduct of the execution came as Iraqi and Arab media and an Iraqi government official said preparations were under way to hang two of Saddam’s co-defendants in the next few days but that the details still have to be worked out with the American military.

A Cabinet official said the two men would hang ”at the beginning of next week”.

Caldwell said those executions, like Saddam’s, were the responsibility of the Iraqi government. “It’s a sovereign nation. It’s their system. They make those decisions.”

Saddam’s half brother Barzan Ibrahim, a former intelligence chief, and Awad Hamed al-Bandar, the former chief justice of the Revolutionary Court, were originally scheduled to hang with Saddam.

However, their execution was delayed until after Eid al-Adha, which ended yesterday for Iraq’s majority Shiites.

Al-Arabiya satellite television and Al-Furat TV, run by Iraq’s major Shiite Muslim political organisation, both reported that Ibrahim and al-Bandar would go to the gallows today. However, Mariam al-Rays, an al-Maliki adviser, called such reports “baseless”.

In Washington, US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts denied a request by a lawyer for Bandar to block the US military from transferring custody of the condemned man to Iraqi authorities.

UN human rights chief Louise Arbour, backed by new Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, appealed to Iraqi president Jalal Talabani to prevent the execution of Ibrahim and al-Bandar, saying she was concerned with “the fairness and impartiality” of their trials.

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