Yesterday I just summed up Arab media reaction to Saddam's execution. I'll do more of that as it develops. Right now, let me step back and offer some of my own thoughts. For all the procedural absurdity of the trial and its manifold shortcomings, there is no serious doubt about Saddam's responsibility for enough horrors and crimes against humanity to justify a guilty verdict. I don't support the death penalty on principle, but if anyone deserves to hang it's Saddam. And that isn't just obligatory rhetoric - the horrors committed against the Iraqi people by Saddam should be recognized and his crimes punished, away from political footballs on either side. I just wish that it had been done is such a way as to support rather than undermine international human rights norms and international legal institutions. But I'm more interested in the political implications for Iraq than about those other questions. What does his execution, and especially its timing, signify about the future of Iraq and about American policy shifts?
Overall, I don't think that the execution will really change all that much on the ground. Saddam is not particularly relevant to the insurgency, and his removal will have more effect on the psyche of the exile-dominated Iraqi government and on some Americans than on anything else. It will probably lead to a short-term surge of violence, but let's face it: things are terrible and getting worse, and it may be hard even to seperate out more violence from what's been happening. The execution is clearly seen as sectarian - Shia and Kurds celebrate, Sunnis rage - and as American in provenance.... but that will also tend to reinforce existing dynamics rather than create new ones. The most important impact would be driving the Sunni political class out of the political process, but I can see the calculation here (whether right or wrong): either their self-interest will bring them back to the process... or else that process has already failed so it doesn't much matter.
All that said, the incredibly rapid pace and odd timing of the deed demands explanation. Today's Times confirms what al-Jazeera reported yesterday, that the timing was determined with American participation - so the Shia line that they wanted Saddam's execution to be a national holiday rings hollow. One possibility is simply security related: doing it this quickly and under cover of darkness was aimed at preventing any spectacular attack on the site or elsewhere pegged to his death. That's possible. But my hunch is that there is something more going on.
Saddam in custody was useful primarily as a bargaining chip with the Sunni community - a carrot to keep the ex-Baathists engaged in the process. His removal suggests that the Americans have decided to bring that effort to an end, and are indeed about to embark on the much-debated new strategy. Saddam's extremely rapid execution strikes me as clearing the decks rather than as any kind of culmination. There was no real effort even to cash in the chip: no public ceremony, no political momentum around it. He was simply discarded. And that strikes me as the single most important political fact about these events.
More important than the "surge" or "escalation" or "dribble" of new American troops, Saddam's execution seems to suggest that the target will indeed be some variation of the Shia Option - aligning with Shia parties to try and crush the Sunni insurgency first. I don't think this is a very good idea, as I've written before, but then I don't think the US has any good options in Iraq anymore.