Anger among Sunnis, celebrations among Shiites

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The Independent Online

Iraqi Shiites broke into celebratory gunfire and wild jubilation on Sunday after Saddam Hussein was sentenced to hang, but his fellow Sunnis paraded through their former leader's hometown of Tikrit chanting, "We will avenge you Saddam."

In Sadr City, the Shiite stronghold of northeast Baghdad, hundreds of thousands of people poured out of their homes and youths took to the streets dancing and singing, despite a total curfew declared for Sunday over the most restive parts of the country.

"Execute Saddam," they chanted. Many carried posters of radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia effectively runs the district.

"This is an unprecedented feeling of happiness," said Sadr City resident Abu Sinan, 35. "The verdict declares that Saddam is paying the price for murdering tens of thousands of Iraqis," he said.

In a televised court session, Saddam was sentenced to death by Iraq's High Tribunal for crimes against humanity, along with half brother and former intelligence chief Barzan Ibrahim, and Awad Hamed al-Bandar, head of the former Revolutionary Court. Three other defendants received lesser sentences and one was acquitted.

"This is the fate of all those who violated the sanctity of the citizens and shed the honest blood. This is the disgraceful end to the person who brought ordeals, pains and reckless wars to this country," Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said in a television address to the nation following the verdict.

Al-Maliki urged an end to rampant sectarian violence between Shiites and Sunnis, and called on Saddam supporters in the Sunni-led insurgency to end their fight.

"I say to all deluded remnants of the previous regime: The period of Saddam and his party is gone as did other dictators' like Mussolini and Hitler," said al-Maliki, a Shiite who was forced into years of exile during Saddam's rule.

Al-Sadr, who commands a massive following among Shiites, called for peaceful celebrations and said violence against Sunnis would be considered treason.

"You are called upon now to perform a thanksgiving prayer," said a statement issued by his office which blared from the speakers of mosques across the sprawling slum of 2.5 million people.

Celebrations were heady but mostly peaceful throughout the predominantly Shiite south, where Saddam's elite Republican Guard massacred thousands during a failed uprising in 1991. A line of cars festooned with plastic flowers wound through the streets of the holy city of Najaf, and crowds burned portraits of Saddam and his family.

A bedridden Salih Mahdi said Saddam's sentencing would help heal the loss of his brother Ali. Then 22, Ali Mahdi was arrested in Saddam's 1982 crackdown on the opposition Dawa party and has not been seen since.

"Damn you Saddam," the retired civil servant said sobbing, his wife and two sons by his side. "You are cruel and cowardly and it was our misfortune that you ruled and terrorized us."

"Beloved martyrs, rest in peace. Saddam is executed," read a placard placed in the window of a minibus in Kut, 160 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Baghdad.

Celebratory gunfire also rang out in Kurdish neighborhoods across the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, where taxi driver Khatab Ahmed, 40, sat on a mattress in his living room to watch trial coverage with his wife and six children.

"Thank God I lived to see the day when the criminals received their punishment," Ahmed said.

The mood was starkly different in Tikrit, deep in the Sunni heartland north of Baghdad, where support for Saddam runs hand-in-hand with deep distrust of Iraq's new Shiite-dominated government.

Gunshots rang out from rooftops and street corners as Saddam addressed the court, and Sunni insurgents with AK-47s and heavy machine guns paraded in scores of vehicles in defiance of the curfew. A crowd about 1,000-strong, including some policemen and many people holding pictures of Saddam aloft, marched down main streets, chanting: "We will avenge you Saddam."

"The violence will only rise in the area after the hanging of Saddam, but the Americans care nothing about spilled Iraqi blood," said retired school teacher Mohammed Abbas, 60. He predicted Sunni militants would take revenge.

"We are tribal people ... when any ordinary member of our tribe is killed, we will kill one from the enemy tribe, to say nothing of an important person like Saddam," Abbas said.

Muhssin Ali Mohammed, 36, said Saddam would remain an important figure for Iraqis regardless of the verdict.

"Whether or not Saddam is executed, he ruled Iraq for about 40 years and he has a history," Mohammed said. "No one can delete it, not the Iraqis or the Americans," Mohammed said.

Police said at least three people, including a two-year-old child, were killed and eight wounded in clashes between gunmen and Iraqi police in Baghdad's dominantly Sunni Azamiyah district. Residents said rockets and mortars began falling on the area beginning Saturday night and blamed Mahdi Army fighters for the attacks. Other Sunni districts of the city were reported quiet.

The split reactions underscore the verdict's failure to foster reconciliation among between Sunnis, who made up the bulk of the former ruling class, and the country's majority Shiites, who were persecuted under the former leader but now largely control the government.

While al-Maliki, a Shiite, had called for Saddam to be sent to the gallows, Sunni politicians argued the trial should have been suspended until the roughly 140,000 U.S. troops in the country had been withdrawn.

"The Iraqi judiciary should be independent from political desires, but this did not happen in this trial," said Saleem Abdelullah, a member of the Iraqi Accordance Front, the main Sunni bloc in parliament.

Another Sunni, Salih al-Mutlaq, warned the verdict would spark even greater sectarian bloodshed.

"This government will be responsible for the consequences, with the deaths of hundreds, thousands or even hundreds of thousands, whose blood will be shed," al-Mutlaq told the al-Arabiya satellite television station.

Saddam and the other seven defendants had been tried for the deaths of 148 people killed in the city of Dujail following a 1982 assassination attempt on the leader. Al-Maliki's Islamic Dawa party has claimed responsibility for organizing the attempt.

Saddam faces additional charges in a separate case over an alleged massacre of Kurdish civilians. It wasn't clear when a verdict would be announced in that other case, or when Saddam's sentence would be carried out.

Saddam's chief lawyer said his client had expected to be sentenced to death but urged Iraqis to reject sectarian violence and "not take revenge" on U.S. troops in the country.

"His message to the Iraqi people was 'pardon and do not take revenge on the invading nations and their people,"' Khalil al-Dulaimi told The Associated Press, quoting a conversation with Saddam before the sentencing.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad called the verdicts "an important milestone" in building the rule of law in Iraq, and pledged further U.S. support for the nascent Iraqi government that is struggling to deal with the dual threats of insurgents and Shiite militia groups.

"A former dictator feared by millions, who killed his own citizens without mercy or justice, who waged wars against neighboring countries, has been brought to trial in his own country and held accountable in a court of law with ordinary citizens bearing witness," Khalilzad said in a statement.

The presence of U.S. and other foreign troops in Iraq is a key force behind the Sunni insurgency, as well as among Shiites anxious to cement control over their areas.

Resident of Rawa, a Sunni city about 275 kilometers (175 miles) northwest of Baghdad, said Saddam's sentencing would do little to dent the insurgent's resolve.

"Whether or not Saddam appeals the verdict, for us, the American occupation is the issue and they should leave our country," said Omer al-Karbouli, 40.

Masked machine gun toting insurgents shot up the headquarters of U.S. forces in the former insurgents stronghold of Fallujah, 65 kilometers (40 miles) west of Baghdad, said a local policeman, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. No deaths or injuries were reported.

In advance of the verdict, vacationing soldiers were recalled to duty in one of the heaviest security crackdowns in Baghdad since the bombing of an important shrine in the city of Samarra in February that unleashed rampant sectarian violence.

New checkpoints popped up on major roads, including within the heavily fortified Green Zone that houses Iraqi government offices and the U.S. and British embassies. A heavy police presence and larger than normal numbers of U.S. troops patrolled the streets.

Despite the overwhelming response, police reported relatively little violence on Sunday, likely because of the peaceful nature of most celebrations and the curfew clamped on Baghdad and the neighboring provinces of Salahuddin and Diyala.

Along with the deaths in Azamiyah, two people were killed in the capital's strife-ridden Dora neighborhood in an early-morning mortar barrage.

Police said 72 people were killed or found dead on Saturday and U.S. and Iraqi security forces killed 53 suspected insurgents in a raid southeast of Baghdad.

The U.S. military announced the deaths Saturday of an American Army soldier in fighting in western Baghdad and a Marine assigned to Regimental Combat Team 7, who died from non-hostile causes Saturday in Anbar province. At least 13 U.S. troops have died in Iraq this month.