Saddam Hussein yells

Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein yells at the court as he receives his verdict. (David Furst / AFP/Getty Images / November 5, 2006)

I WAS SITTING with President Jalal Talabani of Iraq earlier this month when Iraqi television was broadcasting the trial of Saddam Hussein. The hearings had shifted into their second phase, concerning the mass murder of Iraq's Kurdish minority in the 1980s, and video footage of gassing and shooting had been played in court, to ram home the anguished statements of numberless survivors.

There was something both satisfying and unsettling about the juxtaposition. It is fitting that Iraq's first-ever elected president is a Kurd, but I couldn't help noticing that he didn't much want to be drawn out on the subject. The party that he leads — the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan — is an affiliate of the Socialist International, which opposes the death penalty. In the grimmest days of the "Anfal" — Saddam Hussein's Koran-inspired name for the genocide — one of the Kurds' best friends was Danielle Mitterrand, wife of the late president of France, whose most lasting monument will be his abolition of the guillotine. It was she who had proposed to the Iraqi opposition that it should become the first Middle Eastern government to do away with capital punishment.

This did not happen, of course. Instead, the death penalty remains on the books in Iraq, and the execution of Hussein took place at dawn on Saturday. (It is probably not a coincidence that the verdict of the Iraqi appeals court against Hussein specifically stated that nobody — including the president of the country — had the right to commute the sentence of death).

It's too bad. There are a number of things that should cause qualms about both the trial and the sentence of Hussein. For instance, both were caught up in the sectarianism that now dominates everything in Iraq. To some, it is enough that Hussein was convicted of massacring the inhabitants of a Shiite village, Dujail, in 1982, and his hanging need not have anything specifically to do with his much larger and even crueler crimes against Kurdistan, Kuwait, Iran and the Iraqi people more generally.

Further, it's unclear what benefits his execution brings. I have heard of Shiite politicians who say that Hussein's death will help repress the Sunni insurgency by depriving it of a figurehead and rallying point and by destroying the chance of a Baathist restoration. This seems to me the most extreme foolishness and stupidity. There was no chance in any case of Hussein returning to power, and it seems just as likely, if not more so, that his execution will actually inflame violence rather than calm it. (While speaking of "execution," many of these same Shiite leaders are linked to death squads that murder their fellow Iraqis every single day and night.)

Almost every transfer of power in Baghdad for the last half a century has been accompanied by the killing of the previous incumbents. British-backed Prime Minister Nuri Said was dragged through the streets and torn to shreds in 1958; his remains were then dug up and run over by cars. I remember as a boy seeing one of his replacements, the pro-communist Abdul Karim Qassim, on television, his head lolling after the attentions of a Baathist firing squad.

The most lurid of all these moments, in this most bitter and harsh society, came with the sadistic video that Hussein himself made of the purge of his party after his seizure of power. Nobody who has seen that footage — of terrified men dragged by goons from the room, while the survivors weep with fear and relief and Hussein indulges in a luxurious cigar — is likely to forget it. And this atrocity was only the curtain raiser to further orgies of mass murder and torture of which we have unimpeachable evidence from the regime's own archives.

"After such knowledge," as T.S. Eliot asked in "Gerontion," "what forgiveness?"

Jonathan Randal, a former Washington Post correspondent, repeated this question in the title of one of the best books on the subject of the Kurds. For many Iraqis, nothing could possibly begin to cancel the recent past except an act of exemplary vengeance. And — to argue against myself further — for many other Iraqis, there could be no security or peace of mind while Hussein continued to breathe. It was rather the same with Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania, where citizens could not get the oppressor out of their minds and where a new start was not thinkable to many until he was certified as dead.

This, in essence, also was the psychological underlay of the Nuremburg war crimes trials: The beasts had to die, and to be seen to have died. One could not bear to live on the same planet as them, and the memory of their victims would be profaned if they were long outlived by their murderers.

It is for this combination of fear, insecurity and agony that some favored the execution of Hussein in public, or at least on television. Without this assurance (or perhaps, even with it) many citizens would have difficulty believing that the tyrant was actually gone. This moves us almost into the realm of exorcism — as if there were not enough "faith-based" horror in Iraq as things already stand.

But Iraq is not going to be free of beasts just because Hussein has gone through the trapdoor. And some of the beasts who still roam the country will be the ones applauding the loudest.

(In this connection, it might have been better for a certain Ginger Cruz, an official at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, to have kept quiet instead of loudly seconding a verdict that doesn't call for any comment from her. The Embassy should be concentrating on the job of combing the torturers and assassins out of the Iraqi police force that American taxpayers are subsidizing.)

Commenting on the killing of Nuri Said in 1958, that great student of Mesopotamia, Freya Stark, reflected on "the savagery for which Iraq in her long history has ever been notorious … the pendulum swing of murder, ancient and long familiar, which has made the pattern from the day when the first Ali was stabbed in Kufa, and probably long before. Even the massacre of the Prophet's family is no novelty on that soil."

It would have been no offense to justice if Hussein had been sentenced to spend the rest of his days in prison without the possibility of parole, but it would represent a break with that sanguinary tradition. And it might be no bad thing if Americans, especially those who supported the breaking of his death grip on Iraqi society, found ways of conveying their distaste for this rushed and vindictive — and partial — version of a process of reckoning that ought to have been sober, meticulous and untainted.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author of "A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq."