BAGHDAD, Iraq—The taunts and insults hurled at Saddam Hussein minutes before his execution Saturday have prompted some U.S. officials and Iraqi politicians to conclude that Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's government is led by Shiite Muslim radicals and can't be counted on to disarm Shiite militias.
Several U.S. officials in Baghdad and Washington told McClatchy Newspapers that, practically speaking, the Bush administration no longer can expect Maliki to tackle the militias because Saddam's hanging exposed the depth of the government's sectarianism.
The scene at the execution "confirms everyone's worst speculations about the government: It is sectarian and incompetent," said a U.S. official who agreed to speak under a promise of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. The militias and Maliki's government are intertwined "so much that you don't know for sure from issue to issue what is the militia and what is the government," the official said.
That assessment underscores the Bush administration's challenge as it considers sending thousands of additional U.S. troops to confront Iraq's growing sectarian violence.
President Bush, who's expected to announce a new Iraq policy next week, has vowed to support Maliki, who came to power via U.S.-sponsored elections. He's pushing Maliki to disarm the militias, especially the Mahdi Army of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Many blame the Mahdi Army, which fought two bloody campaigns against U.S. forces in 2004, for much of the violence that's engulfing Baghdad.
However, a jerky cell-phone video of Saddam's execution showed that Sadr supporters were involved. Amid Shiite chants, at least one witness to the execution can be heard chanting "Muqtada, Muqtada, Muqtada."
Someone also can be heard yelling the name of Sadr's uncle, Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, who's considered the intellectual behind Maliki's Dawa Party.
Sadr's father, the Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, was a prominent Saddam opponent who was murdered in 1999, reportedly on Saddam's orders.
Some accounts of the execution indicate that Maliki's national security adviser, Mowafek al Rubaie, quizzed Saddam about the Sadr murder before Saddam, who was a Sunni Muslim, was hanged.
An official videotape of the execution didn't include audio.
Links between the Sadrists and the Dawa party have long been a topic of speculation here, with Iraqi and U.S. officials agreeing that Maliki rose to his position largely with the support of the Sadrists, who control the largest bloc of seats in Iraq's 275-member legislature.
Sadrists also control four ministries—including health, agriculture and transportation—and Mahdi Army members are widely believed to have infiltrated Iraq's security services. The recent report by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group described the country's Facilities Protection Services, a security force charged with protecting government buildings, as "a source of funding and jobs for the Mahdi Army."
But the scene at the execution, captured by a cell phone and posted on the Internet, was the starkest example yet of the ties between Maliki's government and Sadr's militia.
Mithal Alusi, a secular parliament member who took part in the government's deliberations about Saddam's execution, said the video made it clear that the Maliki government was harboring militia members whom it didn't control. He called the display of emotions a warning that the government must cut its connections to the militias.
"What happened was a clear and lasting warning to Maliki to rid the security services of militias," said Alusi, one of a handful of secular politicians in the government, who said he supported the decision to hang Saddam quickly. "Why not now?" he answered when asked about the timing of the execution.
But he was critical of the behavior of guards and other witnesses. "This was evidence that those militiamen have forgotten they are official security members," Alusi said.
U.S. and Iraqi officials attempted Wednesday to portray the scene at the execution as unauthorized. The Iraqi government said it had detained a guard who made the cell-phone video, though it didn't release his name. Iraqi government officials differed on who the guards were and how they'd been picked to take part.
Bush ignored a shouted question on the topic Wednesday during a brief appearance in the White House rose garden. Aides said the president hadn't watched the cell-phone video.
"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," White House spokesman Tony Snow said, after refusing to characterize Bush's reaction to the unseemly elements of the execution.
"The (Iraqi) government is investigating the conduct of some people within the chamber, and I think we'll leave it at that," Snow said.
The sectarian nature of Saddam's final moments seemed to increase protests over his execution, something that would have been inconceivable in the days before his death, when the vast majority of Iraqis agreed that he was a brutal dictator who deserved to die.
On Wednesday, crowds continued to congregate near Saddam's hometown of al Awja, where his body was buried in a hall used for funeral gatherings. Witnesses said American forces asked police stationed south of nearby Tikrit to remove black banners that residents had placed on their homes and mosques as a sign of mourning. The police refused, the witnesses said.
In Tikrit, some police officers distributed photos of Saddam.
The Iraqi Special Tribunal convicted Saddam and two co-defendants Nov. 5 and sentenced them to death for ordering 148 people executed in reprisal for an unsuccessful assassination attempt against the dictator in 1982. Last week an appeals court upheld the sentences, and under Iraqi law they had to be executed within 30 days.
The two other former officials—Barzan al Tikriti, Saddam's half-brother, who was then the head of intelligence, and Awad Hameed al Bandar, the former head of the revolutionary court—will be executed this week, said Baha Araji, a Sadrist parliamentarian who attended Saddam's execution.
The Iraqi government said it was still working out the details for executing the two men.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20070103 Maliki profile, 20070103 Iraq codefendants