Bush hails verdict as milestone for Iraq

Updated: 2006-11-06 06:50

GRAND ISLAND, Neb. - US President Bush celebrated Saddam Hussein's death sentence as a victory for " Iraq's young democracy" and US security, taking a break from an election campaign in which Republicans are suffering from public discontent with the Iraq war.

President Bush prepares to make a a statement about former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's conviction Sunday Nov. 5, 2006, in Waco Texas. Bush spoke before leaving on a day of campaiging.
President Bush prepares to make a a statement about former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's conviction Sunday Nov. 5, 2006, in Waco Texas. Bush spoke before leaving on a day of campaiging. [AP]

White House spokesman Tony Snow decried as "absolutely crazy" any notion that Sunday's end to Saddam's nine-month trial was timed to produce positive news on the divisive, unpopular war two days before Americans vote. The United States has always denied direct involvement in the trial, though suspicions persisted throughout the proceedings.

Snow didn't entirely set politics aside, asserting that US voters "ought to be heartened" by the verdict and its broader implications about the progress the administration insists is evident in Iraq.

"This is getting the Iraqis to stand up on their own," Snow said. "You can't have civil society without rule of law."

Bush painted Saddam's conviction and sentence as vindication of the sacrifices made by American soldiers in Iraq. More than 2,800 members of the US military have died since the US-led invasion in March 2003.

"They've sacrificed for the security of the United States," said the president, who spoke to reporters for two minutes in Texas before flying to campaign appearances on behalf of imperiled Republicans in Nebraska and Kansas. "Without their courage and skill, today's verdict would not have happened."

Aides said Bush would also herald the verdict during the campaign events that took him Sunday afternoon to two of America's reddest states, where Democrats have seen last-minute opportunities to snatch House seats from GOP hands.

An Iraqi court convicted Saddam earlier Sunday and sentenced him to hang for ordering the torture and murder of nearly 150 Shiites from the city of Dujail in 1982. Six subordinates were also found guilty of crimes against humanity, which came after what Saddam said was an assassination attempt against him.

Shiites rejoiced at the death sentence for the former dictator who terrorized their population. But Saddam's fellow Sunnis paraded through his hometown in protest. With sectarian violence already pushing Iraq to the brink of civil war, presidential counselor Dan Bartlett said Bush is confident US forces and Iraqi soldiers were prepared to contain any spike in bloodshed.

Democrats - hoping for large gains that could put them in control of the House and possibly the Senate - moved quickly to both applaud the sentence and repeat their campaign-trail argument that Bush's leadership on Iraq has been a failure.

A history of Election Day disappointments and a constantly shifting pre-election landscape appeared to have Democrats a bit jittery. New York Sen. Charles Schumer, in charge of Democratic campaign efforts in the Senate, said, "I don't think (Saddam's) conviction makes much of a difference in this election even though it's a very good thing that happened."

"The failure of President Bush and his administration to have a plan in place before the war started to complete the mission successfully was a disservice to our troops, and has come at a huge cost in casualties suffered, the degradation of our military's readiness and in hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., poised to become House speaker if Democrats wrest the majority from the GOP. "The scope of that failure is not lessened by the results of Saddam's trial."

Countered House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., "The United States and the world are safer because Saddam Hussein sits on death row, not in a palace in Baghdad plotting to harm millions of innocent Americans and Iraqis."

But one Republican said Saddam's verdict must be viewed in the context of the difficult situation in Iraq.

"Saddam Hussein's trial is a step forward because it was a result of a legal system in operation, not a dictator in operation, so that's the good news," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on CNN's "Late Edition." "But when you look at the institutions of government in Iraq, they're all under siege. ... We just need a strategy to provide better security to get this right."

Bush called the verdict "a milestone in the Iraqi people's efforts to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law."

"It's a major achievement for Iraq's young democracy and its constitutional government," the president said. "Today, the victims of this regime have received a measure of the justice which many thought would never come."

He emphasized that Saddam was extended rights of due process and appeal "that he denied the Iraqi people."

"Iraq has a lot of work ahead as it builds its society that delivers equal justice and protects all its citizens," Bush said. "Yet history will record today's judgment as an important achievement on the path to a free and just and unified society."

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