I raqi dictator Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death on Sunday. The trial was praised by some as justice long overdue, and dismissed by others as a political verdict that was pre-ordained, if not orchestrated, by outside powers. Some hope the execution of the former dictator will close the door on a long and ugly chapter on Iraq’s history and allow the country to move forward. The mixed reactions to the verdict suggest otherwise.

Hussein was put on trial after his capture by coalition forces and charged with crimes against humanity. The former Iraqi leader and other top officials in his regime were found guilty of the torture and execution of 148 people from the town of Dujail, following a failed assassination attempt in 1982. When the then president’s convoy was passing through the village, someone took a shot at him. The Dawa party, then an underground party, but today the party of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, claimed responsibility for the attack.

The Baghdad government’s response was harsh. Hundreds of people were rounded up indiscriminately and the town’s buildings and orchards destroyed. The suspects were tortured; many confessed. Fifty died during interrogation. The rest were hanged; some, boys between the ages of 11 and 17 at the time of the incident, were held in jail until they reached the age of 18 and were then executed.

The paper trail was damning, but Hussein’s lawyers argued the actions were legitimate measures taken after an attack upon the head of state. Indeed, at his own trial, Hussein conceded responsibility for the actions, demanding “Where is the crime?” The court responded with a death sentence of its own for Hussein, his half brother and another senior official of the regime. Another defendant was sentenced to life in prison, three others received 15 years in prison for torture and premeditated murder, while yet another was acquitted for lack of evidence and freed.

Now, the verdict and sentence will be automatically appealed. The appellate panel has unlimited time to review the trial and can even call additional testimony. Once it rules, however, the sentence must be carried out within 30 days. By most estimates, that will not occur until next spring.

Execution of the sentence — and the death sentence is expected to be confirmed — will not end the controversy surrounding the trial. As in all such cases, critics charge the proceedings were a mere show trial: “victor’s justice.” Such proceedings are inevitably political: The trial was run by a government established by the occupying force and composed of enemies of the former regime.

More malign political influences were at work throughout the trial as well. Three of Mr. Hussein’s lawyers were assassinated and one fled the country. The original chief judge resigned after complaints by Iraqi politicians that he had failed to control the proceedings. He in turn complained of political interference.

The defendants’ lawyers were always going to declare the trial a farce. They did not disappoint when the verdict was announced. But other international legal critics also challenged the results. They argued that Iraq’s legal system was not able to hold such a high-profile trial — that no country divided by war and sectarian divisions and with a history of authoritarianism could. But the stakes in this case are exceptionally high: the legitimacy and credibility of the tribunal, and the foundation of Iraq’s future are at stake.

Ultimately, however, Hussein’s trial is about the past. As Prime Minister al-Makili said after the verdict was announced, “executing him is not worth the blood he spilled. But it may bring some comfort to the families of the martyrs.” But no nation can survive if it is founded upon revenge. Iraqis must unite to build a future together: Settling scores will not provide the basis for reconciliation.

The immediate reaction to the verdict does not hold out reason for hope. Shiites and Kurds celebrated, while Sunnis, who make up 20 percent of the population but were the primary beneficiaries of Hussein’s rule, dismissed the show trial. Violence is likely to spike in the next days as the anger of his supporters surfaces. The Baghdad government’s capacity to refuse to bend to the violence against it or to use violence against those with whom it differs will be critical in shaping Iraq’s future.

That future depends on breaking the cycle of violence and ending the sectarian divisions that have reduced politics in Iraq to a zero-sum game in which winners take all. It is a dangerous temptation and one to which the current government could yet succumb. That urge must be resisted or Hussein’s trial will mean nothing.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.