The other night on ‘Questions and Answers’ on RTE, the audience – in a show of hands – decreed that Saddam was a bad man but not bad enough to hang.

This is the mainstream view in this country. The subtext is that if Ireland were the occupier, we would lock him up for life, but those blood-thirsty Americans will hang him simply for electoral advantage.

You could be mistaken for concluding that the Americans – Ireland’s greatest allies – are a uniquely brutal people and in the scales of moral equivalence so beloved of many of us, there’s not much difference between the US and Hussein.

This argument is for another day and your position on this is normally so entrenched that no amount of argument or counter-argument will shift you, but there is one thing which is certain in Iraq: everyone has changed sides. Old certainties are gone. As opposed to three years ago, it is no longer in the US’s interest to see Saddam Hussein hanging naked from a lamppost in Martyrs Square. The reason is very simple: the US has changed sides and so, too, have many Iraqis.

When the Americans went into Iraq first, the enemy was Saddam, the Baath Party apparatus, the secular Arab nationalists who ran the country, the loyal army and the infrastructure of Iraq’s government. After the ousting of Saddam, the attention turned to the rump of what were described as “Saddam loyalists”. These people were mainly Sunni Muslims, mainly secular and more likely to be familiar with the writings of Nasser than Bin Laden. Much of the fighting, you will remember, occurred in a place dubbed the ‘Sunni triangle’ of which Saddam’s home town of Tikrit was the epicentre.

The Shia in the south and in the ghettos of Baghdad were regarded as America allies. These were the people whose rebellion had been savagely put down by Saddam in 1991. The Shia, despite being religious brothers of America’s sworn enemy Iran, were seen as the ballast in the new American project.

The Shia had the added advantage of being the people al-Qa’ida hated too. Al-Qa’ida is drawn from extreme Sunni Muslim elements. They regard the Shia as enemies and have spent the past two years trying to drag Iraq into an inter-Muslim ethnic civil war. To this end, they have carried out not only mass carnage and murder, but have symbolically targeted Shia Holy Shrines, trying to goad the Shia into retaliation.

So the Americans regard the Shia as a barrier against Saddam’s loyalists and the al-Qa’ida fighters under Al Zarquari.

Up north, the Kurds were onside from the start – so they could also be counted on. The game was simple: disarm the Sunnis, create a constitution which addressed the ethnic spread of the country; and with peace and oil-based prosperity, Iraq would recover and America would have a bulwark against both Iran and a potentially problematic Saudi Arabia in the South.

Everything has flipped. The Americans are now fighting the Shia, who have rebelled against them. The Shia, who control the much of Iraq’s oil, are proposing the break-up of the country into its ethnic constituents and are in open revolt against the Americans. The Kurds, who also have their oil, want to get as far away as possible from the carnage in Baghdad and are not against breaking away, if they must.

The disintegration of Iraq would be a disaster for America and for the region. Iran would emerge as the top dog, prompting (as it did last week) the Arabs in the region to seek nuclear warheads in an effort to stop Iran being the only Muslim nuclear power in the region. A disintegrating Iraq would also threaten the stability of Israel by making Syria jittery and it would embolden Hezbollah to goad the Israelis into another scrap in Lebanon.

So who wants to keep Iraq together? Ironically, only the Americans and its former foes, the mainstream Sunnis. The Sunnis have no oil and would end up living in a landlocked, oil-less State. This would be quite a comedown for the people who up to a few years ago saw themselves as the leaders-elect of the modern Arab world. So the Americans and their old enemies are clinging together like drowning men. They desperately need each other.

This brings us to Saddam. Saddam is a Sunni Muslim and still seen by many as the real leader of Iraq. If his potency has evaporated, his symbolism has not. Hanging him publicly would delight the Shia – America’s new enemies. Simultaneously, it would be a slap in the face for the Sunnis, their new best friends.

So it is not in America’s interest to inflame Sunni opinion further by allowing him to hang soon. So don’t be surprised if the Americans now begin to lobby for clemency for Saddam. Far from it being in their interests to kill him, it would be much better for them if the appeals process went on and on. This would give them more time to bed down with their new mates, the Sunnis.

Saddam is now the US’s key ally in the fight to keep Iraq intact. And an intact Iraq is the cornerstone of the US’s Middle East policy. Strange the way things turn out. The Butcher of Baghdad may well have one final, unexpected card to play.

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