It was a moment of the highest drama even by the standards of Iraq's bloodstained and dramatic history. Here was the man whose very name still makes some Iraqis quake in terror being told to stand up and listen as his sentence was read: "The court has decided to sentence Saddam Hussein al-Majid to be hanged until he is dead for crimes against humanity."
The verdict was followed intently from the mountains of Kurdistan to the marshes of the south, Iraqis waiting for news about the fate of their former leader. When it came, they reacted along sectarian lines. Among Shia and Kurds there was jubilation. Among the Sunni, Saddam's own community, there was anger and a conviction that the death sentence was no more than victor's justice.
"Everybody here feels disappointed and sad at the verdict," said Marwan, living in a Sunni district in south-west Baghdad. "But nobody is firing their guns into the air because there are so many police and troops around. Maybe something will happen later." In al-Adhamiyah, a famously tough Sunni district in east Baghdad, people held a demonstration against the sentence, but soon a mortar opened fire on them from al-Qhadamiyah, a Shia stronghold in the capital on the other side of the Tigris river.
But among past victims of Saddam, even the news that he was to die did not entirely quell the fear of retribution by his followers. "Saddam killed 11 people from my village, including my three brothers," said Abdul Rahman Hassib, a Kurd. "He ruined my life." Mr Hassib, who runs a small shop in Banislawa, a sprawling slum built by Saddam on the outskirts of Arbil to house survivors from the 4,000 villages he destroyed, added: "I am happy at the verdict and hope he will be executed." But he was nervous of giving his full name and refused to be photographed.
He said bitterly that the execution of Saddam will have come too late for many of his victims. Standing beside him in a squall of rain was a Kurdish labourer, Tahir Mohammed, who added: "They were going to kill me when they destroyed my village in 1988 but a Kurdish soldier told me to run for the trees and I escaped."
An hour earlier Mr Hassib and Mr Tahir had learnt that the man who ruled them for 35 years was to be hanged along with his half-brother Barzan al-Tikriti and two senior members of his regime. As Raouf Abdul Rahman, the chief judge, read out his sentence, Saddam, clutching the Koran in his left hand, shouted defiantly "Allahu Akbar - God is Great!" - and "Long Live Iraq".
In Sadr City, home to 2.5 million Shia in Baghdad, hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets to dance and sing, ignoring the government's curfew. "Execute Saddam," they chanted. "There is an unprecedented feeling of happiness," said Abu Sinan, who lives in Sadr City.
"The verdict declares that Saddam is paying the price for murdering tens of thousands of Iraqis." Muqtada al-Sadr, the young nationalist Shia cleric who leads the Mehdi Army militia which controls Sadr City, issued a statement broadcast by the loudspeakers on mosques, saying: "You are called upon now to perform a thanksgiving prayer." In 1999 Saddam sent gunmen to assassinate Muqtada's father, Sadiq al-Sadr, an immensely influential cleric, and two of his sons in the holy city of Najaf.
But it is a measure of the complexity of Iraqi politics that the Mehdi Army and the people of Sadr City who celebrated the sentence yesterday had been preparing to fight the Americans only last week. The US may gain few dividends from the trial. For the first time polls show a majority of Shia now favour armed attacks on US-led forces, something that has been long true of the Sunni.
Baghdad and two other provinces - Diyala and Salahudin - were yesterday supposedly under curfew enforced by soldiers and police. But the limits of government control were underlined by popular reaction to the verdict. In Tikrit, the city on the Tigris near which Saddam grew up, scores of Sunni carrying AK-47s and heavy machine-guns paraded in vehicles in support of the former leader. A crowd of 1,000, including many policemen, marched through the streets holding up pictures of Saddam and shouting: "We will avenge you Saddam."
Saddam and the seven other defendants were on trial for the deaths of 148 people killed in the village of Dujail following an assassination attempt in 1982 against the Iraqi leader. During the trial witnesses gave evidence from behind a screen for fear of retaliation. One woman identified only as Witness A cried as she described how guards stripped her naked and gave her electric shocks and beat her with cables. Another witness recalled: "During the interrogation they'd torture me, and Barzan was there eating grapes. I was screaming. I'm an old man. He was there."
It is not clear when Saddam's sentence will be carried out because he is also on trial for the massacre of tens of thousands of Kurds in the late 1980s. There is an automatic appeal in the case of a death sentence in Iraq, but after appeals are exhausted he must be hanged within 30 days.
Saddam seemed to revel in the return to the lime light which his trial brought him. He was always a man acutely conscious of his own image. He compared himself repeatedly to great heroes of Iraq's past from Nebuchadnezzar to Saladin (who was born in Saddam's home city of Tikrit).
At the height of the Iran-Iraq war he devoted resources to rebuilding part of the ancient city of Babylon, south-west of Baghdad. Yellow bricks used in construction were stamped with Saddam's name.
Other dictators have adorned their country with their pictures, but few more than Saddam. Every city, town, village and street had pictures of the leader variously dressed as an Arab sheikh on horseback with flowing white robes, a Kurd in baggy trousers and cummerbund, a businessman in a smart suit and, most commonly, a uniformed soldier. Some portraits were bizarre. In one he wears dark glasses and a colourful shirt as if on holiday in the south of France, and resembles Noel Coward; in another he is wearing an Alpine costume and looks as if he is about take part in The Sound of Music.
Often compared to Stalin or Hitler, Saddam also had a streak of Inspector Clouseau. He made endless mistakes. He ruined Iraq. He took over a country rich in oil and with a well-educated population when he orchestrated a coup in 1968. By 1979 he became president and sole leader after killing a third of his ruling Revolution Command Council. A year later he plunged into a disastrous eight-year war with Iran in which half a million Iraqis were killed, wounded or captured. In 1990 he once again overplayed his hand by invading Kuwait.
His real skills were as a secret policeman. He made himself head of the armed forces but had never been a soldier and showed poor military judgement. He was equally misguided in judging the reaction of the outside world to his actions. He always craved to be a globally historical figure - the saviour of the Islamic and Arab world. Instead he made his name famous by his blunders and at terrible cost to the Iraqi people.
Iraqis did not fight for Saddam when the US and Britain invaded Iraq in 2003. Even supposedly loyal and well-paid units like the Special Republican Guard deserted en masse. His sons Uday and Qusai were killed in Mosul a few months later. The swift development of guerrilla warfare had little to do with the former leader. When he was dragged from a hole in the ground near his home village his detention had no effect in quelling the insurgency. Some insurgent leaders even said they were glad he had been captured because otherwise they would have been tainted by the idea that he was their leader.
Saddam's image was fading from Iraqi minds until his trial began in October 2005. Once more they saw him every day on television. When he was in power Iraqi television showed endless stock footage of him. But for nine months he was shown live on trial for the mass killings of people from Dujail and later for his slaughter of the Kurds. Defiantly denouncing his judges as American pawns, he re-established his reputation among the Sunni Arabs.
Iraqis often say "life was better under Saddam" but this is more a reflection on the undoubted failure of the US-led occupation to improve their lives than any desire to have Saddam back as leader. His execution will divide Sunni Arabs even further from the Shia and Sunni. As for it provoking a bloodbath in Iraq - 104 bodies, some headless and many tortured, were picked up by police in Baghdad on Saturday, so his demise may make little difference.
The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq by Patrick Cockburn has been published by Verso this month.
The atrocity in question
By Thair Shaikh
Of the countless atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein against his own people, the killings in Dujail never got the profile of the mass gassings in Halabja or the systematic attacks on the Marsh Arabs until his trial began.It was only then that the collective punishment in Dujail were exposed.
In July 1982, with enthusiasm for the Iran-Iraq war flagging, Saddam embarked on a tour of his country. Dujail, a farming community of 84,000, 35 miles north of the capital, was just one of the planned stops. There, in the stifling heat, he visited the home of a soldier's family and then addressed a hand-picked crowd of party loyalists.
As his cavalcade headed out of town, local men opened fire. Saddam had switched vehicles at the last moment, however, and avoided assassination.
In the following days, Republican Guardsmen seized Dujail. Four hundred families were arrested. Saddam's men tortured and killed at least 148 people. Women and children were forcibly removed, imprisoned and later sent to a desert internment camp where many were killed. Hundreds are still unaccounted for. Farmland surrounding the town - rich date palm and fruit groves on the banks of the Tigris - was salted.
In March, Saddam acknowledged he had ordered trials that led to the execution of dozens of Shias, but said he had acted within the law as Iraq's president.
"I referred them to the Revolutionary Court according to the law. Awad [the judge] was implementing the law. He had a right to convict and acquit," he said. "So where is the crime?"Reuse content