Saddam Hussein is dead, but not all Iraqis are celebrating. On the contrary, the way in which the various religious and ethnic groups in Iraq responded to his execution is emblematic of the difficulty of holding Iraq together as a coherent entity.
To the Shiite majority, long brutally oppressed by Saddam and all previous Sunni-dominated Iraqi regimes, Saddam’s death symbolizes their attainment of political hegemony. Moreover, their triumphalist rejoicing is a cruel reminder that when the oppressed become liberated, they can very easily turn into oppressors themselves.
To the Sunni minority, pushed from power by the American invasion and giving vent to their frustration with daily attacks on the Shi’a population and their holy sites, Saddam will remain a hero for a long time to come. The Kurds – who, like the Shi’a, were victimized by Saddam for decades – quietly cling to their de facto independence in the north, making sure that they will never again come under Arab rule.
Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri el-Maliki, representing the ruling Shi’a-Kurdish coalition, expressed the hope that the dictator’s end would help to heal the sectarian divides. But, however sincere his words may sound, reality is moving in the opposite direction, and the ugly verbal exchanges surrounding the act of execution itself will certainly do little to dispel the notion that this was “victors’ justice” – the victors being not the United States, but the Shi’a.