Saddam: The dead dictator

At dawn yesterday, Iraq's former dictator was taken to a place of execution and hanged until he was dead. Cole Moreton on Saddam's final moments
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As they put the rope around his neck, the 69-year-old former dictator muttered to himself, "Do not be afraid." It was still dark outside. The sun had not yet risen. The call to prayer had not yet sounded in the city that Saddam Hussein al-Majid al-Tikriti once ruled through fear.

Now he stood shackled in a prison in a northern suburb of Baghdad ­ the same prison in which his own secret service, al-Mukhabarat, once tortured and killed. The trapdoor at his feet had opened for countless others, on his orders. His own death would be almost as brutal.

The executioner offered Saddam a hood to cover his face during those final moments, but it was refused. "God is great," said the condemned man. "The nation will be victorious. Palestine belongs to the Arabs."

Those were his last words. A lever was pulled, the trapdoor swung and his body dropped, half a metre, no more. It was enough, according to a witness: "We heard his neck snap instantly."

Saddam Hussein, the Butcher of Baghdad to some but a martyr to his last remaining followers, was dead. He had been executed for crimes against humanity. Film of the seconds leading up to his death was broadcast around the world as proof that the once unbelievable was now true. Bombs were set off by Sunni Muslims loyal to him; but Shias, whose sect he had oppressed, danced in the streets and fired into the air.

The execution had been timed to take place just before dawn, the beginning of the holy festival of Eid al-Adha. But the sun was already up in Afghanistan, where a senior Taliban leader said: "Saddam's hanging on the day of Eid is a challenge to Muslims ... the jihad in Iraq will be intensified and attacks on invader forces will increase."

It was 5.30am in Baghdad yesterday when the Americans handed Saddam over to Iraqi authorities. A helicopter lifted him out of the American-controlled Green Zone to the prison in Kadhimiya now known as Camp Justice.

He went to his death dressed as he had been throughout his trial: in black shoes and trousers and a white shirt buttoned at the throat. He wore a long black overcoat too, as the early morning was cold, but was ordered to remove a black woolly hat. His hair and beard were trimmed, not long and wild as they were when he was captured three years ago, hiding in a hole in the ground.

Saddam was seated as a judge began to read the details of his death sentence for crimes against humanity, passed by a court in Baghdad in November. But when a video camera entered the room he stood up and began to shout back: "Long live Islam! Down with the West!" Both hands, cuffed at the wrists, held the Koran to his chest.

The 15 people watching remained silent. Some were members of the government. Others were close relatives of 148 men and boys Saddam ordered to be killed in 1982 after somebody from their village attempted to assassinate him during a motorcade. Those were the deaths for which he was sentenced in November, although there are many more associated with his name.

Saddam has been blamed for the killing or disappearance of up to a million people during his 23 years leading Iraq. Until yesterday he was on trial for genocide. He gave his followers orders to gas 5,000 civilians in a village; to destroy the Marsh Arabs by draining their land; to torture and kill Kuwaitis during the invasion of 1990; and to do the same to untold numbers of real or perceived political opponents, including members of his own close family.

After the charges had been read out and the paperwork signed, his handcuffs were removed and retied so that his hands were behind his back. His legs were tied at the ankles, and the man who once ordered people to be shot just for challenging his opinions suffered the indignity of being carried slowly up a metal staircase to the gallows chamber.

The ceiling was low, the concrete walls grey and bare. Saddam frowned and appeared confused as he stood surrounded by six large men in balaclavas.

"I couldn't see any remorse on his face," said the Iraqi national security adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie, who was there. But he added: "He was very broken. He looked really weak."

There was no Muslim cleric present, but the executioner recited the Muslim statement of witness: "There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet."

The execution was efficient, said Mr al-Rubaie. "He went down in no time. It was so quick and totally painless, it was over in a second. There was no movement after that."

The body was left to hang for 10 minutes or so. Gradually those present shook off their nervous silence and the officials congratulated each other. The rope was slackened, the noose removed and a white shroud pulled over the body.

It was taken by helicopter back to the Green Zone, then by ambulance to the office of the Iraqi Prime Minister. There the corpse was seen by an invited audience including Jawad al-Zubaidi, a relative of some of the victims.

"When I saw the body in the coffin I cried," he said. "I remembered my three brothers and my father who he had killed. I approached the body and told him. 'This is the well-deserved punishment for every tyrant'."

Someone took a picture which shows Saddam lying on a stretcher, not quite completely covered by the shroud. His face and head are bare, his neck twisted at an unnatural angle.

A friend of his eldest daughter, Raghd, living in Jordan, said that she was "very proud" to have seen her father "facing his executioners so bravely, standing up".

Last night the body was flown to his family's home town of Tikrit, where it was handed over to tribal leaders. His family said he would be buried in the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Ramadi, probably today. The government hoped for the burial to be secret ­ but then the same was said of the execution.

Saddam's death was brutal, but it was far less viciously done than many of those he ordered. And after the grim spectacle was beamed around the world, there was something else that marked the old, defiant, defeated dictator out from the countless men, women and children he caused to be killed: unlike them, he did not die in secret.