Someone has to say it: The hanging of Saddam Hussein was an act of barbarism that makes a mockery of President Bush’s claim it was “an important milestone on Iraq’s course to becoming a democracy.”

Instead, the rushed, illegal and unruly execution of a former U.S. ally after his conviction in a kangaroo court blurred the line between terrorist and terrorized as effectively as Saddam’s own evil propaganda ever did.

In the most generous interpretation, the frantic killing of Saddam abetted by the United States was the third act in a morality play of misplaced vengeance for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — in which the first act was the invasion of Iraq, based on trumped-up lies linking it to al-Qaida, and the second was the killing of the tyrant’s sons, whose bloody corpses were hypocritically displayed to the world like war scalps.

At worst, the handling of Saddam is just another example of an Imperial America under President Bush that recognizes no boundaries of national sovereignty or any restraint of international law. A nation that posed no threat to U.S. security was conquered for a range of base motives, from oil plunder to industrial profits to naked political gain. Of course, these are the same rationales that despots always use to explain their murderous wars, such as Saddam’s genocidal invasion of Iran and greedy occupation of Kuwait.

The president says the execution was warranted because Saddam received a fair trial even after Bush decided to bypass an international tribunal designed to handle such trials of national rulers and instead turn Saddam over to Iraq’s dominant partisan faction in the midst of a nascent civil war. While Saddam’s guilt of “crimes against humanity” may have been accurate, it was not, in fact, established by his trial, which was pushed through even as his lawyers were being assassinated. This, quite opposite to the spirit of the Nuremberg war crime trials (established by the United States but not repeated today by President Bush), where the accused had competent and unintimidated attorneys, free to make a complete case.

The trial dealt only with alleged crimes that occurred in the Shiite village of Dujail after an assassination attempt on Saddam. His bloody reprisals occurred 15 months before Donald Rumsfeld, then President Ronald Reagan’s emissary, traveled to Baghdad to initiate an alliance with Saddam. Rumsfeld conceded in classified memos that he was familiar with Saddam’s unsavory past, yet advocated forming an alliance with the dictator.

In fact, the most heinous crimes allegedly committed by Saddam, including the use of poison gas against Shiite Iraqis he suspected of being sympathetic to his Shiite enemies in Iran, were carried out during the years that he was our ally. With the United States having now put Iraqi Shiites with long political, military and ideological ties to those same Iranian ayatollahs into power in Baghdad, the bizarre circle of this foreign policy disaster is now complete, with Saddam’s broken neck a fitting coda.

The video images now broadcast widely on the Internet show, as The New York Times reported, that the execution proceedings deteriorated “into a sectarian free-for-all that had the effect . . . of making [Saddam] appear dignified and restrained, and his executioners, representing Shiites, who were his principal victims, seem like bullying street thugs.” As the executioners chanted “Moqtada! Moqtada! Moqtada!,” in reference to death squad leader Moqtada al Sadr, Saddam may have claimed for his Sunni followers an undeserved martyrdom.

“Is that how real men behave?” Saddam asked, smiling contemptuously. In the end, Sadr was presented figuratively with the head of Saddam by reluctant U.S. officials — the former dictator was in U.S. custody, after all — in order to placate the Shiite radicals running Iraq, even though Iraqi law bans executions on this past weekend’s religious holiday and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani refused to sign a decree upholding the death sentence, as is required by the country’s new constitution.

Fittingly, U.S. officials appeared in this spectacle as hapless Keystone Kops, morally implicated by their tepid support of a lynch mob. It perfectly mirrors decades of U.S. meddling in the history of Iraq, beginning with U.S. support for Saddam’s Baath Party when it overthrew Iraqi nationalist Abdul Karim Qassem because we feared he was tilting ever so slightly to the Soviets. In fact, Saddam, like Osama bin Laden and the other Islamist fanatics our CIA recruited and helped to wage holy war against the Soviets, was a monster at least partially of our creation.

Those deeply unsavory connections between Saddam and the United States would have been exposed in any honest trial. Presumably, this is the real reason why the Bush administration so assiduously undermined any equitable judicial accounting of Saddam’s criminality, right through his shamefully and illegally rushed execution.

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