*** this post has been and will be updated - scroll to bottom of post ***
I'm still on vacation (to the extent that splitting days between working frantically on several articles and taking care of kids counts as vacation), but I was curious as to how the news of Saddam's imminent execution was playing in the Arab media. It is being widely reported that the execution will take place tomorrow, and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has said that nothing can reverse the decision. (I saw a banner on al-Arabiya saying that Saddam had already been transfered to Iraqi custody, but haven't seen confirmation of that yet - and al-Jazeera's banner continues to say that the transfer has not yet happened. UPDATE - now AP is reporting that it has happened.). To be blunt: it's hard to find anyone in the Arab media who thinks this is a good idea - not out of love for Saddam but out of fear for the consequences inside of Iraq and out of disgust with the perceived illegitimacy of the process. (*)
Ghassan Cherbel summed up a common view in his al-Hayat column yesterday which argued that "the fate of Saddam Hussein the person is not important." It is absurd to defend Saddam, he writes, given his well-known crimes, even if - echoing a very common theme in the Arab debates - Iraq's condition today is worse than under Saddam. But executing Saddam today amounts to a death sentence against Iraq itself. Saddam was a horrible dictator, but at least during his rule Iraq existed - and from Cherbel's Arab nationalist perspective, the destruction of Iraq is the worst of all.
Al-Quds al-Arabi focuses on the ways in which Saddam's execution will inflame the Iraqi internal situation. It describes the decision by the Americans to execute Saddam at this time as yet another strategic error in a long line of American strategic errors. It argues that the execution will put an end to any hope of political dialogue with the Sunni community, and will have a very negative impact on American - (Sunni) Arab relations far beyond Iraq. It predicts a dramatic escalation in the size and destructiveness of attacks on American targets, as the Baathist insurgency seeks revenge and abandons any faith in the political process (which it has in fact threatened, in a statement reported in al-Quds al-Arabi yesterday).
The transfer of Saddam from American to Iraqi authority is fooling nobody at all. Tahir al-Udwan, a prominent Jordanian journalist, writes that Saddam's execution will be and should be judged as an American act, regardless of who actually executes him. The trial lacks all legal legitimacy, he writes, and can not be taken seriously as a legal exercise (relatedly, I saw Tareq Aziz's lawyer on al-Arabiya arguing that the execution is actually illegal under Iraqi law - which requires 30 days in between sentencing and the execution). Echoing Cherbel's formulation above (and many other Arab commentators) Udwan writes that Iraq itself is being snuffed out by the same forces which will hang Saddam. Al-Quds al-Arabi editor Abd al-Bari Atwan (in the course of a depressing essay which claims that Saddam will go to his death with head held high) similarly argues that Saddam's execution comes at the hands of the same forces which have turned Iraq into a bloody mass grave.
While both al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya are covering the story heavily (while continuing to air their usual programming and not going 24-7 in their coverage), my impression is that I've seen somewhat more coverage on al-Arabiya than on al-Jazeera (though al-Jazeera seems to be catching up). Yesterday al-Arabiya aired a number of "man on the street" interviews with Iraqis about the decision, and right now is covering it heavily - and is running a "breaking news banner" on "Saddam's Execution" regularly through it's other programming, which al-Jazeera is not doing. During it's 3:00 (EST) news brief, al-Jazeera interviewed someone from Saddam's defense team and someone from the court. Its coverage is focusing on the legality of the decision and on its likely political impact, while leaving little doubt that it is an American rather than Iraqi decision (framing the story within the famous footage of his statue being toppled, for instance). Overall, the coverage seemed a bit subdued, though it's unclear whether that's due to the relatively low-key host (Khadija bin Qana) or a policy decision - certainly not inflammatory or inciting, at least at this point.
What about the al-Qaeda reaction? On the al-Tajdeed forum, a long post defending Saddam received responses such as: "yes Saddam deserves to die, like all the other treasonous Arab leaders"; and "We ask God that Saddam be executed today rather than tomorrow. I can't wait for the strong reaction by the nationalist Iraqi insurgency... ha ha ha LOL LOL" (yes, they really do write like that sometimes). I'm on the lookout for something more official.
Finally, executing Saddam on the Eid al-Adha (also known as the "Feast of Sacrifice") is staggeringly stupid. I did find one Shia MP endorsing the idea because Saddam's execution should be a national holiday... but I haven't seen any Sunnis (in Iraq or elsewhere) sharing the sentiment. Since the main objection to his execution is its likely impact on the Iraqi Sunni community, doing the deed on the Eid seems calculated to inflame that community and to galvanize those who would put a sectarian and religious narrative on his murder. Where a primary goal of American policy is (or should be) splitting the nationalist Iraqi insurgency from the al-Qaeda jihadists, this choice seems calculated to drive them together and to offer resonance for those who would want to claim his execution as a martyrdom. Just really stupid timing, unless driving the Sunni community away from the political process and inflaming the sectarian war is in fact the point.
UPDATE, 7:45 EST: al-Jazeera says that it has been invited to attend Saddam's hanging within the next three hours, before 6 AM Baghdad time, and that according to an unnamed Iraqi official the timing was determined in a meeting between the Iraqis and the Americans. One really does have to wonder about the timing: even if Saddam were to be executed, what was so urgent?
UPDATE 2: Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed, of the Saudi al-Sharq al-Awsat and al-Arabiya, does take a different line in tomorrow morning's edition: why has it taken so long to dispose of Saddam, he asks? When he fell, he was a hero to nobody, but all these years of a farcical trial amidst Iraq's bloody descent have brought on unfavorable comparisons for the new Iraq and have turned Saddam into a symbol of resistance for too many. A trial could have aired his crimes and fostered national reconcilaition, but that didn't happen, and now he will be executed under cover of darkness - but whether it's on the Eid or after, the sooner the better in his opinion.
(*) in response to an emailed query, note that this post refers only to the *Arab* media, and primarily to the transnational Arab media. I would expect there to be a wider range of views in the Iraqi media - especially Kurdish and Shia sectarian media - but I didn't look at those. Will happily link if/when someone else does!