Execution 'should not have happened on our holy day'

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The Independent Online

Pilgrims in Saudi Arabia taking part in the Haj have expressed anger that the holiest day of the Muslim year was overshadowed by the execution of Saddam Hussein.

Many Arab Muslims said his hanging for crimes against humanity was provocatively timed to coincide with the feast of Eid al-Adha and would worsen violence in Iraq.

But the news of Saddam's death was welcomed by his Shia Muslim enemies.

"Today we were stoning the Devil, but we were also stoning Saddam," said Sayed Hassan Moussawi, an Iraqi Shia cleric who joined more than two million pilgrims performing the five days of rituals. "Everyone here is so happy. He killed so many men, women and children and he tormented Iraq's Shias."

The Saudi government, a major Sunni Arab power, criticised Iraq for executing Saddam during the Haj, one of the world's biggest displays of mass religious devotion. "Leaders of Islamic countries should show respect for this blessed occasion ... not demean it," said a statement issued by the state news agency SPA.

Many of the Muslim pilgrims found out about the execution at dawn on Saturday having been notified by relatives at home by mobile phone or text message. Security fears were already high during this Haj season because of sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere in the region. The traditional stoning rites were performed amid tight security to prevent protests in the wake of the execution.

The Algerian government said it regretted the execution of Saddam and hoped the hanging of the former Iraqi president would not lead to increased levels of violence in Iraq. "Algeria regrets the execution ...on a sacred day ... of clemency and generosity for all of the Arab and Muslim world," the government said. It added that it hoped "this development will not ... increase the violence and the tragic ordeals that the Iraqi people are living."

The government of neighbouring Tunisia also objected to the timing of the execution, calling Saddam's hanging on Eid al-Adha "a serious attack on the sentiments of Muslim people."

The Foreign Ministry in Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world, expressed regret that authorities in Iraq went ahead with the execution on the first day of the Eid al-Adha feast. "We hope that carrying out the execution ... would not lead to more deterioration in the situation," said a ministry spokesman.

In Libya, the only Arab country to show solidarity with Saddam, flags were lowered to half-mast and a three-day period of national mourning was declared. Across the Red Sea, the Yemeni government made a last-minute appeal for Saddam's life, sending a letter to President Bush and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani urging that the former dictator be spared.

In Afghanistan, a Taliban commander said Saddam's demise would galvanise Muslim opposition to the United States. "The jihad in Iraq will be intensified and attacks on invader forces will increase," Mullah Obaidullah Akhund said.

The drama of Saddam's violent end on Saturday was brought into living rooms across the Arab world with television pictures of masked hangmen tightening the noose around his neck. Images of Saddam's body in a white shroud also upset many viewers. Many Arabs said his hanging for crimes against humanity was provocatively timed to coincide with Eid al-Adha and would worsen violence in Iraq. "This is the worst Eid ever witnessed by Muslims. I had goosebumps when I saw the footage," said Jordanian Rana Abdullah, who works in the private sector. In Tikrit, where Saddam grew up, residents vowed revenge. "We will all become a bomb," one young man told journalists.