To taunt and curse a condemned man who is about to meet his Maker is one of the lowest forms of human depravity.  The practice, commonly associated with lynching, brings to mind the quasijudicial bestialities of Dzerzhinsky and Roland Freisler’s Volksgerichtshof, Parisian tricoteuses, and various ethno-tribal atrocities down through the ages.

The hanging of Saddam Hussein in the early hours of December 30 evoked all of the above.  The vindictive gloating of his executioners, clad in black leather jackets and balaklava helmets like members of a death squad, was captured on a clandestine camera.  They shouted, “Go to hell!” as the deposed dictator stood on the gallows with the noose around his neck.  Hardly audible above the uproar, but standing erect and composed, Saddam responded by condemning the “traitors” and the “gallows of shame.”  An official was heard appealing for calm, but the Shiite guards and witnesses responded by chanting, “Moqtada! Moqtada! Moqtada!”—the name of the radical Shiite cleric whose private militia has killed hundreds of Sunni Arabs and whose supporters are believed to have infiltrated Iraq’s security services.  “Moqtada,” Saddam replied, smiling contemptuously.  “Is this how real men behave?”

The mayhem continued through the execution itself.  A shout of “The tyrant has fallen!  May Allah curse him!” was heard as Saddam’s body swung lifeless, his neck broken and his eyes popped out.  On balance, as the New York Times has noted, Saddam—a mass murderer—appeared dignified and restrained, and his executioners, representing the Shiites who were his principal victims, looked like bullying street thugs.

It was an ugly spectacle but worthy of the judicial process preceding it.  Its integrity was compromised from the outset when Ahmad Chalabi, now disgraced but still on the Iraqi Governing Council at the time of the former dictator’s capture, made the unambiguous statement, “Saddam will be punished for his crimes”: He did not qualify the statement with “if found guilty,” and he did not have a jail sentence in mind.  Mouwafak al-Rabii, a Shiite member of the council, added that Saddam should be “resurrected hundreds of times and killed again.”

The trial itself was as good as their word.  Rules for presenting evidence and introducing witnesses were improvised in a manner reminiscent of The Hague Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.  Political interference in the case never stopped: One presiding judge resigned in protest after being accused by the government of excessive leniency to the accused, and another was summarily fired by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for the same reason.  The court’s independence was further undermined by the lack of protection for defense witnesses and lawyers, several of whom were killed by persons unknown but widely assumed to be connected to Moqtada and the Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry.  Even the upholding of the death sentence was announced by Mouwafak al-Rubaie, Iraq’s national-security advisor, before the appeals court itself had a chance to do so.

In the final week of December, Al-Maliki violated a series of constitutional, legal, and religious norms to ensure a speedy execution.  Iraq’s constitution demanded the approval of the hanging by the three-man presidency council.  Yet President Jalal Talabani—who opposes the death sentence on principle and who, as a Kurd, wanted to see Saddam tried for additional crimes against his people—refused to sign the decree upholding the sentence.  In addition, a Saddam-era law stipulated that no executions can be carried out during the Eid al-Adha holiday, which began for Iraqi Sunnis on December 30, and for Shiites on December 31.  Al-Maliki “resolved” that problem by calling the marjaiya, the supreme religious council of Iraqi Shiites in Najaf.  The ayatollahs duly decreed that the execution was in order.

In December 2003, at the time of Sad-dam’s arrest, it was claimed in Washington that his trial by an Iraqi court would be “cathartic” and contribute to the country’s stability.  What the world witnessed instead, on December 30, was a scene paradigmatic of the country herself almost four years after “Operation Iraqi Freedom”: a violent, lawless, hopelessly divided place that is doomed to sink deeper into a civil war.

Saddam’s hanging will be remembered as a landmark event in the history of that war.  The trial, and especially the execution, are now widely seen as Shiite revenge not only on Saddam but on his fellow Sunnis.  The consequences are already clear.  The sectarian strife is getting bloodier by the day, and a dignified American exit is even less likely than at this time last year.  A viable exit strategy demands the development of a working rapport with Iraq’s six million Sunnis, who provide the backbone of the insurgency.  By seeing that they cannot expect fairness or justice from this or any other Shiite-dominated government, those Sunnis who have taken up arms will have their resolve stiffened; and many others will be more motivated than before to join their ranks.

Caught between the Sunni rock and the Shiite hard place—both of his own making—Mr. Bush has decided to throw in his lot with the Shiite majority.  His partners, Mr. Al-Maliki included, are steeped in an Islamic ideology that would make the late Ayatollah Khomeini proud.  They are controlled from Tehran more effectively than anyone in Washington wants to admit.  They can hardly believe their luck that American arms, blood, and treasure have given them what they could never hope to achieve on their own.  In the meantime, the war will continue, and, although we do not know how it will end, we can predict with near certainty that the winner will be Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.