U.S. tries to distance itself from Saddam hanging

The United States said it told Iraq it was concerned about the timing and procedures for Saddam Hussein’s execution before he was hanged, but insisted the former dictator got justice.

As the row sparked by a video of Saddam being taunted at the gallows raised new questions about the Iraqi government’s capacity to forge reconciliation, top US officials tried to refocus debate on Saddam’s crimes.

“He got justice,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said.

“There seems to be a lot of concern about the last two minutes of Saddam Hussein’s life and less about the first 69 (years), in which he murdered hundreds of thousands of people. That’s why he was executed.”

The video, shot on a mobile phone and posted on the Internet, showed Saddam being mocked by Shiite captors as the noose was placed around his neck. One observer made a mocking reference to one of the former leader’s fiercest foes, Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

The White House said US officials in Iraq raised concerns over arrangements for the execution, both before and after it was carried out, and noted that Iraq’s government had launched an inquiry into the way it was handled.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that the Iraqi government was sovereign and had to make its own decisions on the execution.

“We did raise with them issues related to procedure and timing,” McCormack said, following reports Washington was concerned about the execution coinciding with a major Islamic festival.

But officials said questions over the manner of the hanging should not call into question the integrity of Saddam’s trial. Despite US concerns, Saddam was handed over to his Iraqi executioners by American military guards who had been responsible for keeping him in custody.

“The most important thing to realize is that Saddam Hussein was executed after a long trial — a long and public trial, that met international standards,” Snow said.

“This is a man who killed hundreds of thousands and was executed for it according to the laws of the country and in accordance with legal traditions that have met international scrutiny.”

Snow added that President George W. Bush knew US diplomats had expressed concerns to the Iraqi government, and was aware of the plans for Saddam’s execution.

The New York Times reported Wednesday a senior US official had offered to discuss the execution with the paper, in an apparent sign of administration concern the drama could unleash a new storm of criticism over Iraq.

The official said he had intervened with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Friday night and earlier last week to try to delay the hanging, but had never received a full explanation as to why Saddam had to be executed so quickly after the death sentence was upheld by an appeals court.

One Maliki theory was that insurgents could mount a mass kidnapping to bargain for Saddam’s release, the official said, adding he was “disappointed and distressed” at the behavior of those who witnessed the hanging.

Scott Stanzel, another White House spokesman said President George W. Bush had not seen the video. McCormack said he didn’t know if Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had.

In Iraq, military spokesman Major General William Caldwell said the United States may have handled things differently had it been in charge of arrangements.

Iraqi authorities have arrested one of the guards at the execution as part of a probe into how the film ended up on the Internet, Haider Majeed, a official in Maliki’s media office said.

Caldwell offered new insight into Saddam’s final moments with his US captors before he was handed over.

“He was courteous as he always had been to his US military police guards. His characterization did change at the prison facility when the Iraqi guards were assuming control of him, but he was still dignified towards us.”

Saddam was overthrown in March 2003 by a US-led invasion and captured nine months later by US commandos. On November 5, 2006 he was convicted of crimes against humanity in the judicial murder of 148 Shiite villagers.

On December 26 his death sentence was upheld by an appeal chamber. Maliki signed his death warrant on December 29 and he was executed before down on the following day, triggering protests by his remaining Sunni supporters.

Copyright © 2007 Agence France Presse