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Hussein hanged in Iraq

After execution for mass murder, celebrations erupt

Saddam Hussein sat in court in Baghdad earlier this month. The deposed president, who was 69, was convicted of crimes against humanity in the killings of 148 Shi'ite Muslims. Saddam Hussein sat in court in Baghdad earlier this month. The deposed president, who was 69, was convicted of crimes against humanity in the killings of 148 Shi'ite Muslims. (CHRIS HONDROS/pool)

BAGHDAD -- Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was hanged today for crimes against humanity in the mass murder of 148 Shi'ites in the 1980s, sent to the gallows by a government backed by the United States and led by Shi'ite Muslims who had been oppressed during his rule.

Hussein, 69, was escorted from his US military prison cell at Camp Cropper, near the Baghdad airport, and handed over to Iraqi officials. He was executed about 6 a.m. on the day Sunni Muslims like Hussein celebrate the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha, Iraqi and American officials said.

In Sadr City, the Shi'ite-dominated neighborhood of Baghdad, residents danced in the streets while others fired guns in the air to celebrate the execution. The government did not impose a daytime curfew to help prevent violent demonstrations as it did last month when he was convicted.

Sami al-Askari, political adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said Hussein struggled when he was taken from his cell in the American prison but was composed in his last moments.

He said Hussein was clad completely in black, with a jacket, trousers, hat, and shoes, rather than prison garb. He was carrying a Koran and refused a hood.

Shortly before the execution, Hussein was asked if he wanted to say something, said Askari, who was present at the execution. "No, I don't want to," Askari quoted the prisoner as saying.

Hussein repeated a prayer after a Sunni Muslim cleric who was present.

"Before the rope was put around his neck, Hussein shouted: 'God is great. The nation will be victorious and Palestine is Arab,' " Askari said.

Iraqi national security adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie told the state-run Iraqiya television that a judge read the sentence to Hussein, who was taken in handcuffs to the execution room. Photographs and video footage were taken in that room.

Hussein died before a small group of observers, including a Muslim cleric, lawmakers, senior officials, and relatives of victims of Hussein's rule.

He had met with his two maternal half - brothers in his prison cell on Thursday and handed them personal messages, according to Iraqi officials. Yesterday, his attorneys said, US military officials asked that they take his personal belongings.

A news announcer on Iraqiya said the "criminal Hussein was hanged." A government official said no decision has been made on what to do with Hussein's body.

President Bush called Hussein's execution "the kind of justice he denied the victims of his brutal regime."

Iraqiya said Hussein's half-brother Barzan Ibrahim and Awad Hamed al-Bandar, the former chief justice of the Revolutionary Court, also were hanged, but three government officials said only Hussein was hanged, according to other news reports.

The station earlier was airing national songs after the first announcement and had a tag on the screen that read "Saddam's execution marks the end of a dark period of Iraq's history."

Four other co-defendants received prison terms ranging from 15 years to life. On Tuesday, the appeals court upgraded former vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan's life sentence to the death penalty.

Also Tuesday, the appeals court upheld Hussein's death sentence for the killings of 148 Shi'ite men and boys after an attempt was made on his life in the northern Iraqi city of Dujail in 1982. The execution came 56 days after a court convicted him.

The appeals court said the former president should be hanged within 30 days. Since his capture by US troops in December 2003, Hussein had legally been in Iraq's custody but remained under American watch at a military prison near one of his old palaces.

The Iraqi government, led by Shi'ite Muslims and northern Kurds, kept the impending execution a secret from its citizens.

In doing so, government officials feared that even close to death, Hussein could cause additional chaos. His Sunni Arab loyalists, who view him as a symbol of their resistance, had already vowed to take revenge.

"It's like God asking you to choose between heaven and hell," said Thamer al-Musawi, 47, a salt-and-pepper-haired barber in Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood, speaking before the execution. "If Hussein gets executed, you go to hell. If he doesn't, you go to heaven. I will choose hell just so Hussein is executed."

"He is not a human being. He does not deserve to be alive."

Hussein leaves a legacy of fear, poverty, and profound despair among Iraqis that their nation, rich in history and endowed with oil, crumbled under his watch, and has been engulfed in war since the US invasion in 2003 to overthrow him.

At the same time, many Iraqis, engulfed by sectarian violence and a lack of services, have expressed nostalgia for the security they enjoyed under Hussein, although they despised his rule.

Hussein's execution marks a shift in the fortunes of Iraq's Sunni Arabs, who formed the core of Iraq's bureaucracy under his rule and are struggling for a foothold in the country's political process. A central question is whether his death at the hands of a Shi'ite-led government would alienate more Sunnis and hinder efforts at national reconciliation. Iraqi and US officials also predicted an upsurge in violence, at least in the short term, as Hussein loyalists and former Ba'athists seek to avenge his death. But it is unclear how influential they are today.

Some Iraqis said that religious and sectarian symbolism guided the timing of the execution. Sunni Muslims consider today the beginning of Eid, while Shi'ites start celebrating tomorrow. Eid commemorates prophet Ibrahim's willingness to sacrifice his son to God.

It also marks the end of the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, a trip millions of Muslims worldwide make each year. In Eid, a sheep is usually slaughtered as a symbol of Ibrahim's sacrifice, and its meat is shared among neighbors and relatives as well as the needy.

Hussein's final days were rife with controversy. Human rights groups widely criticized his death sentence as unfair and marred by procedural flaws. There was failure to disclose key evidence to Hussein's attorneys, as well as violations of the basic rights of the defendants to confront witnesses, human rights activists said.

The first presiding judge resigned. Iraqi politicians routinely denounced the tribunal as weak. Three defense lawyers and a witness were assassinated. Outbursts by the second chief judge, Raouf Rasheed Abdel-Rahman, undermined his impartiality, the activists said.

Iraqi and US officials, in turn, maintained that the Iraqi government did not interfere in the judicial process. The verdict, they said, was just and would close the book on one of modern Iraq's most violent periods. Nevertheless, the nine-month trial further deepened Iraq's sectarian divide, as Shi'ites, Sunnis, and Kurds reacted to Hussein's case along the fault lines of sect and history.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

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