The head of Saddam Hussein's half-brother was ripped from his body when he was hanged at 3am yesterday, providing a ghoulish spectacle likely to deepen hatred between Sunni and Shia in Iraq.
A video tape of the execution of Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, once Saddam's merciless intelligence chief, shows his hooded head lying some feet away from his body. The former judge, Awad Hamer al-Bander, was hanged with him.
"The convicts were not subjected to any mistreatment," said a government spokesman who claimed the accidental beheading was an act of God.
"Their rights were not violated. There was no chanting."
Journalists were shown a film of the two men dress-ed in orange jumpsuits standing on the gallows before they were hooded. Al-Bander could be seen dangling from the rope while Barzan's body fell to the floor chest down with his severed head resting several yards away. The Iraqi government said it would not allow the film to be released to the public.
Barzan's son-in-law, Azzam Salih Abdullah, claimed the beheading was an act of revenge by Shia leaders, who are called "Safavids" by opponents, implying that they are of Iranian extraction.
"As for ripping off his head, this is the grudge of the Safavids," he said in exile in Yemen. "They have only come to Iraq for revenge."
The jeering by onlookers as Saddam Hussein went to his death two weeks ago created an international outcry and exacerbated sectarian divisions within Iraq. The US has been distancing itself from the brutal circumstances surrounding the executions although the condemned men were in US custody until a few minutes before they died.
"Many people will say they were tortured," said one Iraqi soon after yesterday's hangings. "It looks like pure revenge.
"Everybody knows it was not a fair trial. The executions have made these killers look like martyrs."
The inability of the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki to carry out executions efficiently underlines its general ineffectiveness. But Mr Maliki was instrumental in getting the executions carried out as quickly as possible.
Barzan Ibrahim, aged 55 when he died, was one of Saddam's three half-brothers with whom the late Iraqi leader was brought up in the village of Ouija north of Baghdad. Saddam had a close relationship with Barzan, Sabawi and Watban following the death of his father. The three of them would go on to fill important security jobs.
Barzan, 14 years younger than Saddam, was head of the Mukhabarat secret police from 1979 to 1983. He was executed for killing 148 Shia villagers from Dijail, after an attempt to assassinate Saddam in 1982.
Barzan was also Iraq's ambassador to the UN and lived in Geneva from 1988 to 1998. His influence, and that of Watban and Sabawi, was reduced by the growing power of Uday and Qusai, Saddam's sons. In Geneva, Barzan controlled part of Iraq's spending but his precise role was always shadowy. At one moment it was believed that he might refuse to return to Baghdad after his wife died of cancer. He would return to Geneva repeatedly while his six children studied there.
Meanwhile, Iraqis in Baghdad are now waiting to see what the arrival of the US reinforcements prom-ised by President Bush will mean for them. The Mehdi Army, the main Shia militia, is dismantling many of its checkpoints and stockpiling arms, indicating that it wants to avoid an outright military confrontation. This is in keeping with Mehdi Army tactics since they twice confronted American forces in 2004.
The US has been looking to divide the powerful Shia coalition since it won elections in 2005 but this could prove difficult to do, particularly if Shia political unity is supported by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, still the most influential Shia figure. "We are frightened of an all-out attack on our neighbourhoods," said Ismail, a Sunni from West Baghdad. We are frightened that there is going to be a sweep, arresting all the men of military age."
Last week US and Iraqi forces attacked an insurgent stronghold around Haifa Street just north of the Green Zone, claiming to have killed 50 militants. Syrian diplomats said many of the dead were exiled opponents of Damascus.