Saddam and two of his former senior aides have been sentenced to death by hanging.

The former Iraqi president was on trial for crimes against humanity in the massacre of 148 Shias after a failed assassination attempt against him in 1982.

The news of the verdict set off protests and celebrations, showing just how deeply divided Iraqis have become since Saddam was ousted from power more than three years ago.

Al Jazeera.net: What does the Saddam verdict mean to the ordinary Iraqi?
 
Juan Cole: It means different things for different ordinary Iraqis. I think for the Shias and for the Kurds, there's a sense that, at long last, a great injustice will be rectified.

For the Sunni Arabs, not all of them, there's a sense that a symbol of Arab nationalism and Iraqi unity is going to be destroyed by an unfair court process.

Will the verdict provoke more sectarian violence, or will it end the resistance and bring security?

It will bring more chaos and not peace because there will be a certain number of Sunni Arabs for whom this will be a grudge match.

Also, Saddam's hanging will not end the resistance. First of all, resistance is not about Saddam Hussein. They don't use him as a symbol to my knowledge and so the Sunni Arab population that is opposed to the US presence and to the new Iraqi government, they did not rally around Saddam.

They rallied around either Arab nationalism or fundamentalists in Sunni Islam such as the Salafi movement. So, for neither of them is Saddam central. They will just grow up with their struggle.

President Bush said recently that he is dissatisfied with the direction of the war in Iraq, but said the US is still "winning". Do you think the Bush administration is in a state of denial regarding Iraq?

Yes. I can't imagine any criterion by which what is happening in Iraq can be configured as a win for the Bush administration.

The degree of chaos in the country as measured by the department of defence itself has increased substantially since February of 2006, when the Askariyah shrine was blown up in Samarra which provoked then a whole series of reprisal killings between Sunnis and Shias.

So the evidence shows that things are getting worse.

The US is demanding that Nuri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, tackle sectarian militias, but he is pushing back against deadlines. Are al-Maliki and Bush in disagreement?

I don't think they are on a collision course. But I do think there are policy disagreements between them.

The Americans have increasingly come to see the Sunni Arab guerrilla movement as not the only security challenge in Iraq and they view the Shia militias, but not the army and the Badr Brigade of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, as perhaps equally serious security challenges.

From the point of view of the religious Shia parties which dominate the Iraqi government, this way of thinking seems bizarre. The Badr Brigades vaguely fought Saddam for years and then finally came back and was able to help establish security.

So, the allegations that the Badr Brigades have been involved in these squad activities are rejected, and they think it's absurd to put Badr on the same level as the ex-Baathists and the Sunni fundamentalists such as al-Qaeda in Iraq.

There has been talk in Washington DC that James Baker's Iraq Study Group might recommend to the Bush administration that it engage with Tehran to seek a common approach to stabilising Iraq. Does Iran hold the key to Iraq's security future?

Absolutely. Iran is a major neighbour of Iraq. It has very substantial, historical and economic interests in Iraq. It has a very close relationship with the Shia majority of Iraq and indeed also has a special relationship with Iraqi Kurds.

Iran's Kurdish population supported the Kurds against Saddam, so it is in Iran's interest that Iraq be a united country, they don't want to see it split up. It's in Iran's interest that Iraq be relatively stable, they don't want trouble spilling over the border onto them. And for all these reasons, Iran could play a very positive role in Iraq.

The Bush administration, at some point, had been willing to talk to Iran specifically about co-operation on Iraqi security and affairs. Negotiations were even scheduled last spring but foundered on the Iranians' insistence that any talks between the two countries be multi-dimensional and not be limited solely to the Iraq issue.

The unwillingness of the Bush administration to discuss with Iran anything (including the nuclear issue) but Iraq, has been an impediment in the unwillingness of the Iranians to consider this proposal an impediment.

But I certainly think if Iraq is to settle down and become an ordinary country again, the Iranians have a major role to play.

The Iraqi president just requested that US troops be able to stay another three more years to help bring stability. Do you think US troops should withdraw from Iraq?

I think the US military should begin a set of phased withdrawals from Iraq. I believe that the massive US military presence in the country is actually impeding political development in Iraq.

The Shia, Sunnis and the Kurds are being made less willing to compromise with one another because of the American presence.

And so the Shia leadership of Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim put recently through this law empowerment allowing for setting the specifications for new Sunni regional confederacy beyond Kurdistan.

The Sunni Arabs in empowerment absolutely rejected this and they had come into politics last year this time because they were promised that they would have a say. And they were given a say. It was a kind of a tyranny of the Shia majority that just ran this thing through.

So I don't think al-Hakim would behave this way towards the Sunnis, disregard their interests and their feelings.

The reason he is not afraid of them is because Iraq is militarily occupied by the US marines.

Could the US have had a better chance of winning the aftermath of the war in Iraq with better planning?

I don't believe that a long-term military occupation of the sort that occurred could have ever been successful.

I mean what has Arab political identity been about in the past 100 years? It has been about recovering autonomy and nationalism from Western dominance.

We had the Algerian Revolution back in 1954 and 1962, we had Suez and Gamal Abd al-Nasser in Egypt and the whole movement in the region has been towards the mobilisation of the masses politically and imperialism.

So to come into such an atmosphere and have the Americans who know nothing serious about the Arab world try to invade a major Arab country and occupy it militarily, it is just like a time warp. Did they think this was the year 1900?

In 1900 it might have been different. But you will notice even the British who were at the height of their imperial power in 1920 faced a serious revolt and had to leave.

So I think the age of empires has passed for a reason which is that an empire of that sort that we had in the 19th century European colonial empires can only function if the population is not socially and politically mobilised.

People are not literate and industrialised, and connected with one another, members of political parties and so forth, on the one hand; and if you can find very substantial local leaders who will collaborate with you on the other.

I don't think these conditions exist in the Arab world today because Iraq is a highly literate and mobilised population, so I don't think that occupation could have ever been successful.