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Execution sparks broad support for Saddam in Arab world

CAIRO, Egypt — After Saddam Hussein’s execution, a wave of sympathy and support for the former Iraqi dictator swept the Arab world, with some proclaiming him a martyr and comparing him to heroes of Arab nationalism.
    Praise for Saddam has only grown since his Dec. 30 hanging — when he answered insults and taunts with disdain — overshadowing the memories among many quarters of the atrocities committed by his regime.
    The independent Egyptian newspaper Al-Karama splashed Saddam’s photo over a full page Monday, with an Iraqi flag behind him, declaring him an ‘‘Arab martyr.’’
    ‘‘He lived as hero, died as a man,’’ another Egyptian opposition newspaper, Al-Osboa, proclaimed in a headline, showing a photo of Saddam at the gallows.
    The praise has angered the governments of Iraq and Kuwait, which Saddam’s soldiers invaded in 1990. On Monday, Kuwaiti lawmakers denounced Arab countries where Saddam has been lauded as a hero and demanded the government reconsider ties and financial aid to them.
    Indignation over the execution in the Sunni Arab world has increased resentment of the United States and Iraq’s Shiite-led government. It could fuel support for Iraq’s Sunni Arab insurgency and complicate U.S. efforts to enlist Arab nations in efforts to reconcile Iraq’s warring Sunni and Shiite communities.
    In large part, it was the unruly scene at the gallows that catapulted Saddam to hero’s status. In video footage smuggled out of the execution room, Shiite executioners are heard shouting curses at Saddam — who stands erect, and smiles contemptuously. ‘‘Is this manly?’’ he retorts.
    Another leaked video — this one showing Saddam Hussein’s corpse with a gaping neck wound minutes after the hanging — was posted on the Internet early Tuesday.
    ‘‘A new film of the late immortal martyr, President Saddam Hussein,’’ the web site said in a headline over a link to the video, apparently taken with a camera phone.
    The latest video is likely to add to the anger generated by the original, which has come to symbolize dignified Sunni Arab resistance in the face of humiliation at the hands of a Shiite government. Some Arabs regard that government as illegitimate because it is backed by the U.S. military presence and closely allied to mainly Shiite Iran.
    Some media reports compared Saddam to another hero of Arab nationalism against Western domination: Omar al-Mokhtar, the leader of resistance against Italy’s military occupation of Libya, who was executed by hanging in 1931.
    Egypt’s nationalist weekly newspaper Al-Arabi published a cartoon Sunday showing an open book with pictures of Saddam and al-Mokhtar on facing pages.
    The reaction was in contrast to the shock that followed Saddam’s capture by U.S. troops in December 2003. At the time, Saddam was shown bearded and bedraggled in photos as he was pulled out of a hole by U.S. troops.
    The images sparked debate across the Middle East. Many pointed out his weakness in the face of U.S. forces, and over the years that followed, Arab media dealt more frankly with the mass killings carried out by Saddam’s regime. Languishing in U.S. custody, Saddam faded into irrelevance, and coverage of his trial waned in Arab media.
    But after the execution, even some Arabs critical of Saddam said he had achieved a heroic status, despite his record of crimes and atrocities.
    ‘‘Five sublime minutes at the hanging rope created the myth,’’ columnist Abdel-Halim Qandil wrote in Al-Karama. ‘‘The story of Saddam the bloody dictator was over, replaced by Saddam’s image similar to Omar al-Mokhtar.’’
    Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a U.S. ally, suggested the execution could worsen the situation in Iraq.
    ‘‘It was disgraceful and very painful,’’ Mubarak said in an interview with Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot. ‘‘They (the Iraqi government) have made him into a martyr, while the problems within Iraq remain.’’
    On Saturday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki denounced other governments for criticizing the execution, accusing them of meddling in Iraqi affairs.
    But the execution deepened opposition in the Arab world — where the majority of the population are Sunni Muslims — against Iraq’s Shiite-led government.
    Many also blamed the United States, which handed Saddam over for execution — even though U.S. officials said they tried to persuade al-Maliki to postpone the hanging and later criticized the way it was carried out.
    On Friday, hundreds in the Egyptian capital demonstrated after prayers at al-Azhar Mosque, chanting against the United States and allied Arab governments, expressing support for the Iraqi insurgency.
    In Jordan, columnist Ibrahim Jaber Ibrahim lashed out at the Iraqi prime minister, deriding him as ‘‘Emperor al-Maliki, standing on a precious Persian carpet’’ — a reference to the Iraqi Shiites’ close ties Persian Iran.
    Talal Salman, publisher of the Lebanese daily As-Safir, warned that the al-Maliki government’s ‘‘vindictiveness, political blindness and shortsightedness ... are establishing divisions that will spare no one, whether in Iraq or in the territories around it, including all the Arabs.’’
    Still, some voices in the Arab media insisted Saddam’s crimes should not be ignored.
    ‘‘One can’t but be surprised at shameful Arab weeping (for Saddam) ... glorifying him and considering him a hero and martyr,’’ wrote Palestinian writer Khaled al-Horoub in the United Arab Emirates daily Al-Itihad on Monday.
    He warned that other Arab dictators will manage ‘‘to hide (their) crimes behind volatile speeches that stir up people’s feelings but destroy their present and future.’’
    Sami Moubayed wrote in the daily Oman Times, that he ‘‘tried hard’’ to sympathize with Saddam while watching the execution. ‘‘But I could not find a single thing worth praising about Saddam.’’
    ‘‘However, the fact that he was executed under the watchful eye of the United States, at a time when Iraq is occupied, makes him a national hero to the Arabs,’’ he wrote.

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