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In a world sharply divided on Iraq since the U.S.-led war began in 2003, Saddam Hussein’s death sentence unleashed fears of fresh violence, European condemnation of capital punishment and new questions about the fairness of the tribunal that ordered him to hang. Underscoring the fault lines that split the international community and widened the divide between Muslims and Christians, Islamic leaders warned that Sunday’s verdict could inflame those who revile the United States–undermining U.S. policy in the volatile Middle East and inspiring terrorists. Critics accused President Bush of deliberately arranging the timing of the sentence, handed down two days before pivotal midterm elections in which Democrats are fighting to regain control of Congress. “The hanging of Saddam Hussein will turn to hell for the Americans,” said Vitaya Wisethrat, a respected Muslim cleric in Thailand, where a bloody Islamic insurgency is raging in the country’s south. “The Saddam case is not a Muslim problem but the problem of America and its domestic politics,” he said. “The Americans are about to vote in a midterm election, so maybe Bush will use this case to tell the voters that Saddam is dead and that the Americans are safe. But actually the American people will be in more danger with the death of Saddam.” The White House praised the Iraqi judiciary for its independence and denied that the Bush administration had been “scheming” to arrange a pre-election verdict. “The idea is preposterous,” said Tony Snow, President Bush’s spokesman. Many European nations voiced their opposition to the death penalty, including France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden, and a leading Italian opposition figure called on the continent to press for Saddam’s sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment. In Pakistan, the opposition religious coalition claimed that American forces have caused more deaths in Iraq in the past 31/2 years than Saddam did during his 23-year rule, and insisted Bush should stand trial for war crimes. “Who will punish the Americans and their lackeys who have killed many more people than Saddam Hussein?” asked Hafiz Hussain Ahmed, a senior lawmaker from the Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal coalition, which is critical of Pakistan’s military cooperation with the United States. Reaction was mixed across the Arab world. Some Muslims saw the sentence as divine justice, but others denounced it as a farce. “If Saddam is condemned to death, then they must make it fair and sentence Mr. Bush to death … and they should send Israel’s Ehud Olmert to death, too, because of what he did in Lebanon,” said Ibrahim Hreish, a jeweler in Amman, Jordan. Iran, a bitter opponent of both Iraq and the U.S., praised the death sentence and said it hoped that Saddam–denounced by one lawmaker as “a vampire”–still would be tried for other crimes. Key U.S. allies–including Britain and Australia–welcomed Sunday’s verdict, which had been widely expected, and said Saddam got what he deserved for crimes against humanity committed during years of brutal dictatorship. “Appalling crimes were committed by Saddam Hussein’s regime. It is right that those accused of such crimes against the Iraqi people should face Iraqi justice,” British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said in a statement. The top Democrat on the House International Relations Committee said the verdict was just. But Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., said in a statement it “must not distract Americans from the more pressing issue: the need for a change in the direction of our country’s policy toward Iraq, both the conduct of the war effort and our pathetic, corruption-stained attempt at reconstruction.” Amnesty International questioned the fairness of the trial, and international legal experts said Saddam should be kept alive long enough to answer for other atrocities. Only then, they said, will Iraqis brutalized by years of his despotic rule see true justice done. “The longer we can keep Saddam alive, the longer the tribunal can have to explore some of the other crimes involving hundreds of thousands of Iraqis,” said Sonya Sceats, an international law expert at the Chatham House foreign affairs think tank in London. “The problem really is that this tribunal has not shown itself to be fair and impartial–not only by international standards, but by Iraqi standards,” she said. Chandra Muzaffar, president of the Malaysian-based International Movement for a Just World, also voiced concerns that Saddam’s trial “violated many established norms of international jurisprudence.” “But Saddam was undoubtedly a brutal dictator, and even though I wouldn’t subscribe to the death penalty, he deserves to be punished severely for the enormity of his crimes,” said Chandra, a well-known Muslim social commentator. Underlining the volatility, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said in Paris that he thought the trial was fair but refused to elaborate, fearing his remarks could inflame tensions. France urged Iraqis to show restraint. In Russia, the Kremlin-allied head of the international affairs committee in the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, told Ekho Moskvy radio the sentence will deepen divisions in Iraq. But the official, Konstantin Kosachyov, said he doubted that Saddam would actually be executed, calling the verdict “most of all a moral decision–retribution that modern Iraq is taking against Saddam’s regime.” Associated Press correspondents worldwide contributed to this report.

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