RIYADH â€” Saddam Hussein’s unruly execution on the feast of Eid Al Adha by masked Shiite hangmen taunting him on the gallows has revived Sunni Arab fears that the Iraqi government is run by vengeful sectarian Shiites backed by Iran.
Feelings run particularly high in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the two main bastions of Sunni Islam.
For clerics from Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi branch of Islam, the execution proved that Iraqi Shiites, in alliance with Iran, are infidels who have declared war on Sunni Islam.
For ordinary Saudis, it was an affront to their sense of Arab tribal honour.
“This was a death squad that did this, a mob. But we should thank the high-level government officials who were there for filming it and allowing us to see the truth,” said Turki Rasheed, who hails from a major Saudi tribe.
“But the best thing was the way Saddam handled the situation. He fought them with this body language, with his eyes and his talk. He became a hero,” he said.
The unofficial film of Saddam’s hanging, apparently filmed on a mobile phone, showed Shiite officials bullying Saddam, chanting the name of Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr and cursing him just before he was hanged.
Saddam, standing on the scaffold, appeared dignified in the face of jeering and insults, making the execution look like an act of revenge and not justice for crimes against humanity.
The US-allied Iraqi government says it is investigating how footage of the execution managed to reach the media. The grainy clips shown on Arab television resembled infamous beheading videos by Sunni Iraqi insurgent groups like Al Qaeda.
Some Saudis have been passing around a flood of pro-Saddam poetry on mobile phone text messages. One Gulf newspaper carried a poem that Saudis suspect was penned by a government official.
One piece of verse threatened revenge for Saddam’s death.
“Prepare the gun that will avenge Saddam. The criminal who signed the execution order without valid reason cheated us on our celebration day. How beautiful it will be when the bullet goes through the heart of him who betrayed Arabism,” it said.
Baghdad put Saddam to death on Eid Al Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, which falls within the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and is the most important day in the Islamic calendar.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia both criticised Iraq over the timing, which provoked an outpouring of pro-Saddam feeling in Egypt too.
“Everyone inside and outside Iraq understands the poor timing as a message aimed at humiliating every Arab,” Makram Mohammad Ahmed said in Egypt’s main daily Al Ahram on Wednesday.
Several hundred people gathered at the Egyptian lawyers’ syndicate building in Cairo on Wednesday to say prayers for the soul of a man who for three decades ran one of the most brutal dictatorships of modern times.
Saudi clerics, who have stepped up their anti-Shiite rhetoric in recent months as sectarian violence takes Iraq to the brink of civil war, were also indignant over the execution, although they had despised Saddam as a heretical secular tyrant.
“The timing shows how much Shiites hate Sunnis in Iraq and all the Islamic world,” Nasser Al Omar, one of the leading authorities of Wahhabi Islam, said this week on his website.
“They want to link Saddam to Sunni Islam, blame Sunnis for his mistakes and show his execution as a victory for Shiites.” Saudi Arabia has made clear it wants US forces to remain in Iraq for fear of massacres of Sunnis by Shiites.
Omar employed sectarian language used by groups such as Al Qaeda in Iraq, describing Shiites as “Safavids” after a 15th-century dynasty that madeÂ Â Shiism the state religion in Iran, and “sons of Ibn Alqami” after a Shiite minister who Sunnis say connived to let the Mongols sack Baghdad in 1258.
Saudis are thought to make up a significant proportion of the Arab fighters who joined Al Qaeda in Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion that ended Saddam’s rule and brought Shiites to power.
Al Qaeda â€” which is inspired by Wahhabi ideology and headed by a Saudi, Osama Ben Laden â€” has used suicide bombings to wreak carnage among Shiite civilians in Iraq. Shiites say attacks on Sunnis are revenge for the suicide bombs.