Saddam to die within 30 days as appeal fails

Saddam Hussein is to be hanged within 30 days after the Iraqi court of appeals upheld the sentence of death against him for crimes against humanity passed last month. The execution is likely to be carried out in secret; the time and place will be announced later.

The hanging of the former Iraqi leader could provoke a furious reaction from some members of the Sunni community to which he belongs. Shia and Kurds in Iraq largely approve of the death sentence being carried out.

"It is up to the authorities to carry out the sentence," said the head of Iraqi High Tribunal, Aref Abdul-Razzaq al-Shahin. "As far as we are concerned this is what the law says, so the executive authority has an obligation to carry out the ruling within 30 days." No further appeal is allowed. The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, earlier said he expected Saddam to be executed before the end of 2006.

After a long and rancorous trial, Saddam Hussein was found guilty on 5 November of crimes against humanity over the killing of 148 Shia Muslims from the village of Dijail, north of Baghdad after a failed assassination attempt against the Iraqi president in 1982. The appeal court upheld death sentences against Saddam's half-brother, Barzan al-Tikriti, and the former judge Awad al-Bander. It added that the former vice-president Taha Yassin Ramadan, previously sentenced to life imprisonment, should also be executed.

Saddam's chief defence counsel, Khalil al-Dulaimi, said: "If they dare implement the sentence it will be a catastrophe for the region and will only deepen the sectarian infighting." But many Sunni say they are too absorbed in trying to stay alive themselves to worry about the fate of Saddam, even if they sympathise with him.

Insurgents are extending their control over Sunni districts in Baghdad and other cities because of fear of sectarian cleansing by Shia militias. In parts of west Baghdad they are organising young men to defend their districts 24-hours-a-day on a shift basis. But Islamic insurgents have little liking for Saddam as a secular autocrat. In Mosul, Iraq's third largest city, gunmen openly paraded the streets in recent days distributing leaflets calling for an Islamic Sunni republic.

There has so far been little retaliation in Basra to the Christmas Day British assault on Jamiat police station which was later blown up. Local officials had voiced their anger at the raid, which Mohammed al-Abadi, head of the city's council, described as "illegal" and British forces were accused of failing to notify Basra authorities of their plan.

The operation led to the freeing of 127 prisoners held in a single room. A British spokesman said many had signs of torture such as crushed hands and feet or had cigarette or electrical burns. They were handed over to another police unit. The early morning assault by 800 British soldiers backed by five tanks and 40 armoured vehicles was not resisted by members of the serious crime unit. They were blamed by the British forces for the ambush in October of a minibus in which 17 employees of a police academy were travelling. All were killed. A year earlier the same police station was stormed by British forces after two British soldiers were detained there.

As in the past, British spokesmen were swift to talk of a "rogue police station" and "a rogue police unit" as if the rest of the Basra police were smoothly co-operating with the British forces. In reality the police units in Basra give their loyalty to rival militias, competing tribes and criminal gangs.

While the US and Britain have demanded that Mr Maliki remove the militias from the centre of power, they are in fact hoping he will break his links with one militia, the anti-US Mehdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr.

The US has close links with the Badr Organisation, the well-organised Shia militia of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution Iraq, which has carried out many sectarian killings against Sunni but has not so far fought the US forces. The Kurds also maintain powerful militia forces.

The US and Britain have tried since the Shia triumphed in the two general elections in 2005 to divide their parties. But this could provoke an inter-Shia civil war. The necessity of blowing up one of the main police stations in Basra shows how close southern Iraq is to a collapse into anarchy.

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