Saddam Hussein dies on the gallows

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Saddam Hussein, the shotgun-waving dictator who ruled Iraq with remorseless brutality for a quarter of a century, was executed today. On the gallows, he refused to wear a hood and shouted: "God is great."

It was a grim end for the 69-year-old leader who had vexed three US presidents. Despite his removal, Washington, its allies and the new Iraqi leaders remain mired in a fight to quell a stubborn uprising by Saddam loyalists and a vicious sectarian conflict.

US president George Bush called Saddam's execution "the kind of justice he denied the victims of his brutal regime".

Baghdad was relatively quiet after the announcement and the government did not impose a round-the-clock curfew as it did when Saddam was convicted on November 5 to thwart any surge in retaliatory violence.

In Baghdad's Shiite enclave of Sadr City, some danced and fired guns in the air to celebrate the former dictator's death.

State-run Iraqiya television news had reported earlier that Saddam's half-brother Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti and Awad Hamed al-Bandar, the former chief justice of the Revolutionary Court, were also hanged. But the government said later that only Saddam was executed.

"We wanted him to be executed on a special day," national security adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie said.

Al-Rubaie said Saddam "totally surrendered" and did not resist. He said a judge read the sentence to Saddam, who was taken in handcuffs to the execution room just before 6am local time (3am GMT).

When he stood in the execution room, photographs and video footage were taken.

"He did not ask for anything. He was carrying a Koran and said, 'I want this Koran to be given to this person', a man he called Bander," he said. Al-Rubaie said he did not know who Bander was.

"Saddam was treated with respect when he was alive and after his death," al-Rubaie said. "Saddam's execution was 100% Iraqi and the American side did not interfere."

Sami al-Askari, political adviser to prime minister Nouri Maliki, said Saddam struggled when he was taken from his cell in an American military prison, but was composed in his last moments.

He said Saddam was clad completely in black, with a jacket, trousers, hat and shoes, rather than prison garb.

Shortly before the execution, Saddam's hat was removed and Saddam was asked if he wanted to say something, al-Askari said.

"No I don't want to," al-Askari quoted Saddam as saying. Saddam did repeat a prayer after a Sunni Muslim cleric who was present.

"Saddam later was taken to the gallows and refused to have his head covered with a bag," al-Askari said.

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

He said the government had not decided what to do with Saddam's body.

Mariam al-Rayes, a legal expert and a former member of the Shiite bloc in parliament, told Iraqiya television that the execution "was filmed and God willing it will be shown. There was one camera present, and a doctor was also present there".

Al-Rayes, an ally of Maliki, did not attend the execution. She said Al-Maliki did not attend but was represented by an aide.

The execution was carried out around the start of Eid al-Adha, the Islamic world's largest holiday, which marks the end of the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, the hajj. Many Muslims celebrate by sacrificing domestic animals, usually sheep.

Sunnis and Shiites throughout the world began observing the four-day holiday at dawn today, but Iraq's Shiite community - the country's majority - will start celebrating tomorrow.

The execution came 56 days after a court convicted Saddam and sentenced him to death for his role in the killings of 148 Shiite Muslims from a town where assassins tried to kill the dictator in 1982.

Iraq's highest court rejected Saddam's appeal on Monday and ordered him executed within 30 days.

Early today a US judge refused to stop Saddam's execution, rejecting a last-minute court challenge.

Maliki had rejected calls that Saddam be spared, telling families of people killed during the dictator's rule that it would be an insult to the victims.

But New York-based Human Rights Watch criticised the execution, calling Saddam's trial "deeply flawed".

"Saddam Hussein was responsible for massive human rights violations, but that can't justify giving him the death penalty, which is a cruel and inhuman punishment," said Richard Dicker, director of the group's International Justice Programme.

At his death, Saddam was in the midst of a second trial, charged with genocide and other crimes for a 1987-88 military crackdown that killed an estimated 180,000 Kurds in northern Iraq. Experts said the trial of his co-defendants was likely to continue despite his execution.

In a farewell message to Iraqis posted on the internet on Wednesday, Saddam said he was giving his life for his country as part of the struggle against the US.

"Here, I offer my soul to God as a sacrifice, and if he wants, he will send it to heaven with the martyrs," he said.

The message called on Iraqis to put aside the sectarian hatred that has bloodied their nation for a year and voiced support for the Sunni Arab-dominated insurgency against US-led forces, saying: "Long live jihad and the mujahedeen."

Saddam urged Iraqis to rely on God's help in fighting "against the unjust nations" that ousted his regime.

Najeeb al-Nauimi, a member of Saddam's legal team, said US authorities maintained physical custody of Saddam until the execution to prevent him being humiliated publicly or his corpse being mutilated, as has happened to previous Iraqi leaders deposed by force.

Iraq's death penalty was suspended by the US military after it toppled Saddam in 2003, but the new Iraqi government reinstated it two years later, saying executions would deter criminals.

Saddam was executed at a former military intelligence headquarters in Baghdad's Shia neighbourhood of Kazimiyah, al-Askari said. The neighbourhood is home to the Iraqi capital's most important Shiite shrine, the Imam Kazim.

Ali Hamza, a 30-year-old university professor, said he went outside to shoot his gun into the air after he heard the news.

"Now all the victims' families will be happy because Saddam got his just sentence," said Hamza, who lives in Diwaniyah, a Shiite town 80 miles south of Baghdad.

"We are looking for a new page of history despite the tragedy of the past," said Saif Ibrahim, a 26-year-old Baghdad resident.

But people in the Sunni-dominated city of Tikrit, once a power base of Saddam, lamented his death.

"The president, the leader Saddam Hussein is a martyr and God will put him along with other martyrs. Do not be sad nor complain because he has died the death of a holy warrior," said Sheik Yahya al-Attawi, a cleric at the Saddam Big Mosque.

As a security precaution, police blocked the entrances to Tikrit and said nobody was allowed to leave or enter the city for four days.

The Iraqi prime minister's office released a statement that said Saddam's execution was a "strong lesson" to ruthless leaders who commit crimes against their own people.

"We strongly reject considering Saddam as a representative of any sect in Iraq because the tyrant only represented his evil soul," the statement said. "The door is still open for those whose hands are not tainted with the blood of innocent people to take part in the political process and work on rebuilding Iraq."

US troops cheered as news of Saddam's execution appeared on television at the mess hall at Forward Operating Base Loyalty in eastern Baghdad. But some soldiers expressed doubt that Saddam's death would be a significant turning point for Iraq.

"First it was weapons of mass destruction. Then when there were none, it was that we had to find Saddam. We did that, but then it was that we had to put him on trial," said Thomas Sheck, 25, who is on his second tour in Iraq.

"So now, what will be the next story they tell us to keep us over here?"

Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said Saddam "was the head of injustice and this (execution) is a clear message to anyone who thinks of following the track of terrorism and killing. This is the end of this man after 35 years."

Many people in Iraq's Shiite majority were eager to see the execution of a man whose Sunni Arab-dominated regime oppressed them and Kurds.

Before the hanging, a mosque preacher in the Shiite holy city of Najaf on Friday called Saddam's execution "God's gift to Iraqis."

"Oh, God, you know what Saddam has done! He killed millions of Iraqis in prisons, in wars with neighbouring countries and he is responsible for mass graves. Oh God, we ask you to take revenge on Saddam," said Sheik Sadralddin al-Qubanji, a member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Najeeb al-Nauimi, a member of Saddam's legal team, said US authorities maintained physical custody of Saddam until the execution to prevent him being humiliated publicly or his corpse being mutilated, as has happened to previous Iraqi leaders deposed by force. He said they didn't want anything to happen to further inflame Sunni Arabs.

"This is the end of an era in Iraq," al-Nauimi said from Doha, Qatar. "The Baath regime ruled for 35 years. Saddam was vice president or president of Iraq during those years. For Iraqis, he will be very well remembered. Like a martyr, he died for the sake of his country."