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Last Updated: Monday, 6 November 2006, 03:05 GMT
Season of bitter verdicts is upon US
By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

American election campaigns and those who cover them are obsessed with "surprises".

Saddam Hussein in court
Saddam's sentence: This year's surprise

There was the Mark Foley "October surprise" over his inappropriate e-mails to teenage pages, and the "one week to go" surprise of John Kerry's botched joke about grunts in Iraq.

There was the "eve of election day surprise" of 2004 when, who should pop up on the airwaves but Osama Bin Laden, punctiliously even handed, endorsing neither candidate, calling them both equally evil.

That surprise was so slick and timely it could have been signed off with the words: "I'm Osama Bin Laden and I approved this message."

It may have tipped the marginal voters of Ohio into George Bush's camp.

'Good news'

Will Sunday's "pre-election surprise" do the same? I doubt it.

First of all, the death sentence against Saddam Hussein was hardly a surprise, since it became a virtual inevitability once the barricades went up in Baghdad, anticipating a flare-up of already well-flared violence.

Osama Bin Laden in his pre-election video
The previous pre-election surprise, courtesy of Osama Bin Laden

Every US Sunday talk show kicked off with the question about the uncanny timing. Was it an election ruse, bearing the mark of Karl Rove, the president's chief strategist?

Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, curled his lip in Crawford, Texas and called the suggestion absurd.

When it came, the president's response was measured. He called the verdict a milestone.

He pointed out that the lawlessness of Saddam Hussein's rule had now been replaced by the rule of law - and then he delivered the punch line: "Had it not been for the sacrifice of our men and women in uniform, this verdict would never have happened."

I don't think any sane American would dispute this assertion. But one morsel of "good news" doesn't make a loaf.

Remember this is at least the fifth milestone we have had in Iraq: there was the toppling of Saddam's statue, the first election, the capture of Saddam, the second election and constitution.

And every time the violence got worse, the landscape bloodier, the prospects of victory dimmer.

Uncomfortable comparisons

After three-and-a-half years of euphoria degenerating into agony, the vast majority of Americans have made up their minds on Iraq and Sunday's verdict will not change it before Tuesday.

The news may persuade a few leaden-footed Republicans - crying into their beers over budget deficits, sex scandals and a mismanaged war - to shuffle to the polls.

It could even make the difference in marginal Senate seats like Missouri, Virginia or Montana, which are too close to call and could tip either way.

But the verdict also puts Iraq, warts and all, back on the front pages.

It invites uncomfortable comparisons between the rule of law in court and the lawlessness of death squads roaming the streets of Baghdad.

'In-house' criticism

So, even by the administration's own reckoning, it would take a miracle to save the House of Representatives from the earthquake of a Democratic takeover.

US soldiers laying barbed wire in Baghdad

That alone would be enough to shift the tectonic plates of American politics.

When the Democrats control House committees, they are sure to summon a raft of investigations into the war, how it was justified, how it was managed and how it was financed.

Don't underestimate the thirst for revenge on Capitol Hill.

Furthermore, Sunday's verdict from Iraq will be followed on Monday by another verdict in the form of a biting editorial in four military publications - The Army Times, The Marines Times, the Navy Times and the Air Force Times - in which they will all call on Donald Rumsfeld to step down on grounds of incompetence.

When military "in-house" magazines, more comfortable with cheerleading, call for the scalps of their bosses in the middle of an unpopular war, you know you have a problem.

Welcome to the season of bitter verdicts!




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