In the predawn hours of December 30, 2006, Saddam Hussein stood calmly at the gallows, as one of his three executioners—men in black ski masks and leather jackets—prepared to slip a thick yellow noose around his neck. Hussein stepped toward the platform that would soon open up beneath him.
Suddenly, the room erupted in taunts and Shiite religious chants. The Shiite guards and activists seized the moment to confront a dictator who had inflicted so much suffering on the Shiites of Iraq. As soon as the noose was around Hussein’s neck, they chanted in unison, “O God bless Muhammad and the family of Muhammad.”
Several men recited, “Muqtada, Muqtada, Muqtada,” referring to the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who had led a rebellion against US troops in Iraq.
“Muqtada,” Hussein said, smiling, adding sarcastically, “Is this your manhood?”
“Go to hell,” one man yelled.
“Long live Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr,” another group chanted. Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr had been one of the Shiite world’s leading theologians and a founder of the Dawa Party, the Shiite Islamist group to which many of Iraq’s new leaders belonged. He had been executed by Hussein in 1980, as the Baathist regime prepared for war with Iran. As a martyr, Sadr would become a symbol of Shiite defiance and resistance to Hussein’s rule.
An Iraqi prosecutor pleaded with the hecklers: “I beg you. The man is facing execution. Please stop.”
The room quieted briefly, and Hussein recited the single-line Muslim profession of faith, the shahadah (“There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God”). As he repeated it, he was hanged.
Hussein’s execution was videotaped and an edited version was broadcast by Iraqi state TV without sound. But this scene was also captured on grainy cell-phone video, with sound, and that video was broadcast throughout the Arab world. To Sunnis, the video showed that an angry, lawless mob of Shiites killed Hussein. The dictator’s calm, defiant responses to the taunting made him seem like the embodiment of law and order—at a time when Iraq desperately needed a way out of chaos. The impact of these images and sounds—of witnesses taunting Hussein in his final moments, before the dawn call to prayer—should not be underestimated: the execution created a new schism in Sunni-Shiite relations.
Aside from the leaked video, the government of then–Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made another fateful mistake: it executed Hussein at the start of Eid al-Adha, one of the two holiest Muslim holidays. Typically, Middle Eastern regimes pardon prisoners around the holiday. By refusing to delay the execution, Maliki added another insult to the Sunni world.
Hussein’s execution cemented his status as a Sunni and Arab nationalist martyr. Nine years later, he remains an important symbol for Iraq’s disillusioned Sunni Arab minority. His legacy as a supposedly strong leader who kept Iraq together, by brutal force, also reverberates for Sunnis in the wider Middle East, which is wracked by sectarian conflict and stalled revolutions.