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A bitter family saga is at an end

By Matt Frei (BBC Washington correspondent)

When Saddam Hussein looked in disbelief at the over-sized noose that was fitted by masked volunteers around his neck, the man who helped to put it there by invading Iraq and toppling the dictator was soundly asleep at his ranch in Texas.

It was only nine o'clock in the evening in Crawford but George Bush was already embedded in the land of nod, with orders not to be woken until the morning.

The blithe indifference of deep slumber was the final snub to the dead man who once described himself as "Salahadin II", "the Redeemer of all the Arabs" and "the Lion of Baghdad".

Some might think that George Bush can't afford to sleep soundly these days with his approval ratings in the cellar and his policy towards Iraq in inertia.

But while the world stirred to comment, cyberspace buzzed with applause or condemnation and Cable television hyperventilated, George Bush soldiered on in sleep. He arose only at 4.40am, we are told, which is his usual time of rising.

One hour later he had a 10-minute conversation with his National Security adviser Stephen Hadley about the events in Baghdad.

Shortly thereafter the White House issued a pre-prepared written statement: "Today Saddam Hussein was executed after receiving a fair trial - the kind of justice he denied the victims of his brutal regime."

The statement, which will not be complemented by a presidential turn for the cameras, betrayed no hint of gloating or crowing. It went on to say that "bringing Saddam Hussein to justice will not end the violence in Iraq".

On one level, the hanging of Saddam Hussein is the end of a dramatic family saga that has pitted the Bushes of Texas against the Husseins of Tikrit.

Failed alliance
It is a saga that started with a tacit alliance.
When George HW Bush was vice president, Saddam Hussein was still seen as a potential partner thanks to his status as the enemy of America's enemy, Iran.

It was in 1983 that Donald Rumsfeld was dispatched to Baghdad as a friend of the Reagan administration to shake the hand of Saddam Hussein and offer America's help against the ayatollahs during the Iran Iraq War.

Alliance finally turned into animosity when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and President Bush cobbled together an international alliance of Western and Arab states to remove him from Kuwait but not from power.

"The butcher of Baghdad" began to call President Bush "the viper" and George junior, "the son of the viper".

It was at that time that the famous Al Rashid hotel in Baghdad received an elaborate mosaic of President Bush "the criminal", which patrons were forced to stomp across on entering the lobby.

Two years later Saddam Hussein tried to get President Bush assassinated.

The White House has always maintained that personal grudges had nothing to do with the invasion of Iraq.

And yet in September 2002, as preparations for war were well under way, George Bush the younger told a Houston fundraiser: "This is after all the man who tried to kill my dad."

Mafia rule
The personal side of this bitter family saga is over.

But even from his unmarked grave, Saddam Hussein will continue to haunt the Bush administration and define the legacy of the 43rd president of the United States.

Saddam had always promised to lure, fight and defeat the Americans in the cities of Iraq.

No-one thought at the time that this would happen after he had already been deposed.

But his prophetic threat is becoming reality, triggering a multi-headed insurgence that no longer fights on his behalf, and a vortex of sectarian violence that makes a conventional civil war look organised and coherent.

The brutal bloodletting, ethnic cleansing and vicious fragmentation, in which American troops now find themselves embroiled, is also a legacy of Saddam's regime.

A quarter of a century of his mafia rule, in which tribal loyalties were lavishly rewarded and anything less was severely punished helped to rot the cohesion of a young and artificial country.

The extent to which Iraq is disintegrating has taken many Iraqis by surprise. It was grossly under-estimated by the officials who planned the occupation.

President Bush and his advisers have always liked to compare the birth pangs of Iraqi democracy to the emergence of a free Germany after the World War II.

Bloodletting
But what they were dealing with was not Germany 1945 but Germany in 1648 emerging from the feudal bloodbath of the 30 years war.

Another example would have been Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

So not even the few beleaguered optimists in the Bush camp, including the president himself, believe that the execution of Saddam Hussein will stem the bloodletting and allow America to plan for a graceful exit.

The sectarian violence in Iraq has reached its own alarming momentum, in which Saddam Hussein had been reduced to a walk-on part.

The White House may boast about the new rule of law but for many ordinary Iraqis justice comes in the form of death squads, torture gangs and rogue police road blocks.

These days the wrong identity card can get you executed. This is not the kind of justice that George Bush had in mind.

So now the noose has done its deed the Pentagon is, if anything, expecting a spike in the sectarian violence.

The US State Department has put its embassies on a security alert "to prepare for demonstrations and possible attacks".

And the American public, which had long expected the execution of Saddam Hussein is waiting with growing impatience to see how exactly the president will execute his heralded "new Iraq strategy".

More troops? More money? More hope? For American soldiers December 2006 proved to be the bloodiest month of a bloody year.

Sometime in the next 10 days 3,000 US servicemen and women will have been killed by a war that was declared "accomplished" in May 2003.

Saddam Hussein is dead. His legacy lives on.