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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 January 2007, 09:11 GMT
Mobile phone captures Iraq's cruelty
By Patrick Jackson and Olivia Macleod
BBC News

The phone camera footage of Saddam Hussein's execution may prove to be the most controversial media disclosure from Iraq since snapshots of US guards abusing prisoners inside Abu Ghraib were published in 2004.

Woman uses a mobile phone in Baghdad, November 2006
Mobiles have become part of life for many Iraqis in just a few years

While those pictures were revealed in the US media, the Saddam video appears to have been a purely Iraqi affair.

As foreign news organisations downloaded it from the internet, it was already being swapped among ordinary Iraqis on their mobile phones.

The Iraqi government's own, edited version, was undermined by the ugly audio of the shouted sectarian Shia slogans.

The mobile phone, that symbol of freedom and independence, had come into its own in Iraq in the most dramatic way.

Alarming images

For many outsiders, one of the most graphic horrors of the Iraqi conflict has been the posting of beheading videos on the internet but, within the country, interactive communications rest on the phone, not the web.

Mobile phone cover bearing Saddam's image
Population: 26.5million
Land and mobile phone lines today: 4.6m today
Land lines in 2003: 1.2m
Part of population with internet access: 0.1%
Sources: USaid, Internet World Stats

Just 0.1% of a population of nearly 27 million has web access, according to a 2006 estimate published by Internet World Stats. By contrast, neighbouring Iran has about 100 times as many, it says.

Meanwhile, websites like YouTube and Ogrish.com positively teem with clips posted by US soldiers of their service in Iraq.

Officially, the US military confines its monitoring to scouring blogs for factual inaccuracies but there is also concern about some of the videos and stills appearing, a US military public affairs officer in Iraq told the BBC last year.

Such material, he said, might be used by America's enemies to portray US soldiers as "barbaric warmongers".

It appears that Iraq's government was similarly concerned about how the execution of Saddam would be portrayed.

"Before we went into the room we had an agreement that no-one should bring a mobile phone," Sami al-Askari, an adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, said afterwards.

Execution for sale

Phones are what Iraqis now have in relative abundance: since the 2003 invasion, the number of handsets has gone from 1.2m land lines to 4.6m land and mobile lines, according to the US government.

This is not something that governments are likely to prevent unless they have great experience
Anthony Cordesman
US strategy analyst

"The new handsets are reliable and widely affordable," Amer al-Harky, a 25-year-old doctor in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Irbil, told the BBC News website.

After the February 2006 attack on the Shia shrine in Samarra, staff at the BBC bureau in Baghdad noted a surge in gory video of the conflict being swapped between mobile phones.

One clip, for instance, showed what appeared to be Shia gunmen killing a Sunni man.

They shouldn't have done the execution in this manner. They should have done it with full respect
Reza, Shiraz, Iran

On the day after Saddam's hanging, a trader in a Shia part of Baghdad told AFP news agency that his mobile phone shop was selling the gallows phone camera footage for 500 dinars (40 US cents) a time.

And for those without a mobile, video of Iraq's death squads and their victims is available to buy on DVD.

"The DVDs are not openly on sale but you can go to certain shops and buy these things for less than one US dollar," says Dr Harky.

Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who has written a biography of Saddam, recalls that "horrific" footage of political suspects being tortured under Saddam's rule was sold on tapes or DVDs in the streets after he was overthrown.


Given the interest in Saddam's own execution, how could the Iraqi authorities and their US allies have allowed a camera to enter the gallows room along with the official one?

Ankle camera (image: National Museum of American History)
A secret camera was used at an execution in the US in 1928

US-based media analyst Danny Schechter, who describes the execution as a "colonial hanging", believes it was a "unique example of a total screw-up", coming after what he describes as a long procession of miscalculations by the Iraqi and US authorities.

Its handling, he said, showed a refusal to listen to advice and a willingness to risk sectarian violence in Iraq.

However, concealed cameras at executions are nothing new, US strategy analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies says.

"This is not something that governments are likely to prevent unless they have great experience and certainly this government obviously didn't," he told the BBC News website, recalling how a US reporter secretly photographed an execution in 1928 with a camera strapped to his ankle.

Mr Cordesman points out that the execution had to be conducted at short notice in a way where it "could not become the subject of terrorism, there couldn't be rescue attempts and witnesses had to be rushed in with very little preparation".

"This is wartime, it is a situation where the Iraqi government is in considerable disarray and you are operating in a region where Western standards, to put it mildly, don't apply," he says.

Simon Henderson suggests that the desire of some Iraqis to see footage of Saddam's execution owes much to the brutalisation of society under his rule.

This, after all, was a man who used to take his own sons Uday and Qusay to witness torture sessions.

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