By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 6, 2006
BAGHDAD, Nov. 5 -- A divided and violence-ridden Iraq broke into starkly disparate displays of emotion on Sunday after judges in Baghdad condemned former president Saddam Hussein to hang for crimes against humanity.
In the south, a Shiite Muslim father held aloft the tiny, shrouded remains of a young son killed long ago during Hussein's armed campaign against the majority sect. The father danced with his son's bones in the street among celebrating crowds, elated at the news.
In the north, a Sunni Arab man in Hussein's home city strapped an explosives belt around his waist and vowed to avenge the death penalty handed to the former dictator.
"Today's sentences were a death sentence on righteousness, and this makes it obligatory to take the revenge for Iraq," said the man, 29-year-old shopkeeper Ibrahim Yahya, joining other Sunnis in jabbing rifle muzzles and pistols in the air in angry protest.
Elsewhere, Kurds pounded giant drums in traditional celebration. Shiite boys and men threw candy and fired into the air. Bitter-faced Sunni men clasped Hussein's portrait in one hand, a weapon in the other. The varied reactions demonstrated how long-standing divisions have widened in Iraq since Hussein's fall and threatened to divide and bloody the country further.
In Baghdad's Green Zone, a five-judge Iraqi panel announced a unanimous sentence of death for Hussein and two of his seven co-defendants, including Hussein's half brother. Four other defendants were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 15 years to life, and an eighth was acquitted.
The sentences of death and life imprisonment will be automatically appealed, with no time limit set for the appellate judges' decision.
If Hussein is executed, it would cut short his prosecution for campaigns in the 1980s and '90s in which his government allegedly killed tens of thousands -- or more -- of Shiites and minority Kurds. The charges on which he was convicted Sunday arose from an incident of lesser magnitude: the retaliatory executions of 148 Shiite men and boys from the town of Dujail in the 1980s.
The United States largely funded Hussein's trial, and U.S. officials close to the trial said Sunday's outcome vindicated the policy of having courts in individual nations try cases involving war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Bush administration has been a leading opponent of international tribunals, fearing that U.S. soldiers could be tried before them for political reasons.
After a meandering, year-long trial, Sunday's sentencing was rapid-fire, brusque and volatile.
"Make him stand up," Chief Judge Raouf Rasheed Abdel-Rahman ordered after Hussein, wearing the same dark suit and open-collared shirt he had worn for most of the trial, took a seat when he entered the courtroom and refused to rise.
Six Iraqi guards hauled Hussein to his feet and held his arms behind his back as his fate was declared. The former leader broke into shouts as soon as Abdel-Rahman began reading. In the five minutes that followed, each man shouted increasingly louder to be heard over the other.
"Long live the nation! Down with the criminal invaders! Down with the spies! Down with the occupiers!" Hussein declared, thrusting his finger in the air, his body shaking with rage.
One of the Iraqi guards put his face within a few inches of Hussein's to watch the former leader's reaction as the death sentence was read. Smacking gum open-jawed, the guard smiled mockingly, then laughed.
"The court has decided to sentence Saddam Hussein al-Majid to death by hanging," Abdel-Rahman said.
"Go to hell! You and the court!" Hussein shouted. "You don't decide anything, you are servants of the occupiers and lackeys! You are puppets!"
"Take him out!" the judge shouted at the end of a declaration convicting Hussein on five of six charges of crimes against humanity.
"Long live the Kurds!" the 69-year-old leader shouted as the guards pulled him to the courtroom door. "Long live the Arabs!"
His co-defendants heard their fate with equal defiance. "It's all in the hand of the Almighty! It's all in the hands of the holy warriors!" shouted Taha Yassin Ramadan, a vice president under Hussein, as the guards pushed him out of the courtroom after his life sentence was announced.
Minutes earlier, at least six guards had surrounded former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark, one of the defense attorneys, and hustled him out of the courtroom. "Get him out! Get him out!" Abdel-Rahman shouted in English, outraged at a court filing submitted by Clark that apparently referred to the trial as a travesty. "He's coming from America to insult the Iraqi people and the court," the judge added in Arabic.
Above the courtroom, VIPs in a visitor's gallery hidden from view applauded when Clark was ejected. "God is greatest!" the unseen spectators cried later, when the first death sentence was announced. Officials said the spectators included some of the survivors of the campaign in Dujail as well as Iraq's current interior minister and other politicians.
The Shiite politicians who lead Iraq's coalition government went on television after the court session to congratulate the victims of Hussein and condemn his leadership. "The Saddam era is over, and his party has become part of the past," Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said on al-Iraqiya state television. Maliki's Dawa party carried out the 1982 assassination attempt in Dujail that led Hussein to order the executions.
Jubilant men and boys poured onto the streets of Shiite communities across southern and central Iraq, despite a curfew imposed to try to prevent violent reactions to the verdict. In Baghdad, officers in the Shiite-dominated police forces celebrated by handing out candy from their patrol vehicles and blaring cassettes hailing Shiite political leaders.
In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, in the south, the celebrating crowds included boys and young men marching in the old military uniforms of fathers allegedly killed by Hussein's government.
A white-haired, gray-robed man in his 50s, who identified himself only as Abbas, walked among them holding up the swaddled bones of his son Hassan. All of Abbas's sons disappeared in 1991, along with thousands of other Shiites, as Hussein's forces crushed a Shiite uprising after the Persian Gulf War.
Only last week, Abbas had recovered the remains of Hassan, who was 4 when he disappeared, after an official's chance discovery of an old grave holding five bodies. On Sunday, Abbas had been taking his son's body for burial, but when he saw the demonstration, he stopped his car in the middle of the road. Soon he was jumping up and down among the crowd, holding up Hassan's bones for all to mourn.
"Saddam took my sons from me," Abbas said. He began crying. "What was the crime that my son committed? He was only 4."
North of Baghdad, in Hussein's birthplace of Auja, black-robed women with reddened eyes walked along Saddam Hussein Road to a house belonging to members of Hussein's extended family, where they joined the women there in a kind of wake.
"The grief we are going through is unbearable, and we wish we were dead before seeing or hearing this verdict," said Suad Mohammed, 40, her voice hoarse with tears and shouting.
"What happened today at the court gives us the resolve and the power to go ahead on the road of holy war," said Marwan Hakam, a teacher in the city of Tikrit, not far from Auja. "All must now carry arms to fight the Americans."
"I have sworn by God that I shall not go home and will detonate this explosives belt on American forces," said Yahya, the Tikriti shopkeeper.
Samarra and other predominantly Sunni cities and towns also saw protests, with crowds at times shooting at or setting fire to government buildings. They revived a chant that had dominated their lives during Hussein's 24-year authoritarian rule: "Our blood and our souls we sacrifice for you, Saddam."
Many Shiites and Sunnis, however, said that the sectarian violence since Hussein was toppled by a U.S.-led invasion in 2003 has made life now far grimmer. Some warned of worse to come: "This government will be responsible for the consequences, with the deaths of hundreds, thousands or even hundreds of thousands whose blood will be shed," Salih al-Mutlaq, a Sunni political leader, told al-Arabiya satellite television.
Special correspondents Saad Sarhan in Najaf, Muhanned Saif Aldin in Tikrit and Saad al-Izzi, Naseer Nouri and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad and correspondent John Ward Anderson in Baghdad contributed to this report.