By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 30, 2006; A01
BAGHDAD, Dec. 30 -- Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was hanged in the predawn hours of Saturday for crimes against humanity in the mass murder of Shiite men and boys in the 1980s, sent to the gallows by a government backed by the United States and led by Shiite Muslims who had been oppressed during his rule, Iraqi and American officials said.
In the early morning, Hussein, 69, was escorted from his U.S. military prison cell at Camp Cropper, near the Baghdad airport, and handed over to Iraqi officials. He was executed on the day Sunni Muslims, of which he was one, were to begin celebrating the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha.
Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, described on state television Hussein's last moments. The execution took place in the headquarters of Hussein's former military intelligence service in Baghdad's Kadhimiyah neighborhood.
"He was frightened. It was clear in his face, but he turned his face at me and said, 'Don't be afraid,' " Rubaie said. "It was just like he was talking about himself."
He added that Hussein did not resist. "It was unbelievable. He just surrendered himself."
Only a small group of Iraqi officials were present in the execution room, Rubaie said. American officials waited outside.
Sami al-Askari, a member of parliament, said Hussein refused to wear a black hood for his hanging. "He died instantly," Askari said on al-Arabiya television.
In Crawford, Tex., President Bush said in a statement that Hussein received "the kind of justice he denied the victims of his brutal regime." He added, "Fair trials were unimaginable under Saddam Hussein's tyrannical rule. It is a testament to the Iraqi people's resolve to move forward after decades of oppression that, despite his terrible crimes against his own people, Saddam Hussein received a fair trial. This would not have been possible without the Iraqi people's determination to create a society governed by the rule of law."
After the execution, which was announced on state television at 6:10 a.m., celebratory gunfire broke out in Baghdad. Iraqis across the nation sent text messages to their relatives and friends as soon as they heard of Hussein's execution. Ali al-Hayeri, one of the witnesses who testified openly in the Dujail trial, said he received his first text message at 3:15 a.m. It read: "We congratulate you for the execution of the tyrant Saddam."
"This is what should happen," said Suad Shakir, 52, a resident of the Karrada district in Baghdad, and a Christian. "People will be relieved. I hope that it will bring good to Iraq." She said she wanted Hussein to be executed. "He hurt Iraqis," she said. "We haven't seen anything good from him."
In the southern city of Najaf, hundreds of Shiites stepped outside and began firing guns in the air in joyous celebration. "Saddam executed seven of my relatives," said Muhammad Hussein Kamil, 45, a laborer. "It is the end for any dictator, and he will be an example to every dictator in the world."
In Hussein's home town of Tikrit, the streets were calm. But some women were beating themselves in a gesture of mourning.
"My father, my brother, my leader has died," said Um Muhammed, 45, weeping. "We have become like sheep without a shepherd."
Abdul Samad Ahmed, a professor at the University of Tikrit, said: "There is no such sectarian government in the whole world like this one, that would bring sorrow to one-third of the Iraqi people, since Saddam is a Sunni. Let Maliki know the days will turn and a day will come in which he will be executed on Eid, as well," he added, referring to Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri-al-Maliki.
Also to be hanged are Hussein's half brother Barzan Ibrahim and Awad Haman Bander, the former chief justice of the Revolutionary Court, but they were not executed with him. Four other co-defendants received prison terms ranging from 15 years to life. On Tuesday, the appeals court upgraded former vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan's life sentence to the death penalty.
Also Tuesday, the appeals court upheld Hussein's death sentence for the killings of 148 people after an attempt was made on his life in the northern Iraqi city of Dujail in 1982. The court said the former president should be hanged within 30 days. Since his capture by U.S. troops in December 2003, Hussein had legally been in Iraq's custody but remained under American watch at a military prison.
The Iraqi government, led by Shiite Muslims and northern Kurds, kept the impending execution a secret from its citizens. In doing so, government officials feared that even close to death, Hussein could cause additional chaos. Sunni Arab loyalists, who view him as a symbol of their resistance, had already vowed to take revenge.
"It's like God asking you to choose between Heaven and Hell," said Thamer al-Musawi, 47, a barber in Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood, speaking before the execution. "If Saddam gets executed, you go to Hell. If he doesn't, you go to Heaven. I will choose Hell just so Saddam is executed.
"He is not a human being. He does not deserve to be alive."
Hussein leaves a legacy of fear, poverty and a profound despair among Iraqis that their nation, rich in history and endowed with oil, crumbled under his watch, and has been engulfed in war since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 to overthrow Hussein. At the same time, many Iraqis, engulfed by sectarian violence and a lack of services, have expressed nostalgia for the security they enjoyed under Hussein, although they despised his rule.
Hussein's execution marks a shift in the fortunes of Iraq's Sunni Arabs, who formed the core of Iraq's bureaucracy under his rule and are struggling for a foothold in the country's political process. A central question is whether his death at the hands of a Shiite-led government will alienate more Sunnis and hinder efforts at national reconciliation.
Iraqi and U.S. officials also predicted an upsurge in violence, at least in the short term, as Hussein loyalists and former Baathists seek to avenge his death. But it is unclear how influential those groups are today. The goals of the insurgent groups that form the bulwark of the Sunni resistance have been to oust the U.S.-led occupation and gain political power rather than fight for Hussein.
Some Iraqis said that religious and sectarian symbolism guided the timing of the execution. Sunni Muslims consider Saturday the beginning of Eid, while Shiites start celebrating Sunday. Eid commemorates prophet Ibrahim's willingness to sacrifice his son to God. It also marks the end of the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, a trip millions of Muslims worldwide make each year. In Eid, a sheep is usually slaughtered as a symbol of Ibrahim's sacrifice and its meat is shared among neighbors, relatives and the needy.
Hussein's final days were rife with controversy. Many human rights groups criticized his death sentence as unfair and marred by procedural flaws. There was failure to disclose key evidence to Hussein's attorneys, as well as violations of the basic rights of the defendants to confront witnesses, rights activists said. The first presiding judge resigned. Iraqi politicians routinely denounced the tribunal as weak. Three defense attorneys and a witness were assassinated. Outbursts by the second chief judge, Raouf Rasheed Abdel-Rahman, undermined his impartiality, the activists said.
"The rushed execution of Saddam Hussein is simply wrong," Larry Cox, the U.S. head of Amnesty International, said in a statement. "It signifies justice denied for countless victims who endured unspeakable suffering during his regime and now have been denied their right to see justice served. It is a failed opportunity to establish the rule of law in Iraq."
Iraqi and U.S. officials, in turn, angrily declared that the Iraqi government did not interfere in the judicial process. The verdict, they said, would close the book on one of modern Iraq's most violent periods. Nevertheless, the year-long trial further deepened Iraq's sectarian divide, as Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds reacted to Hussein's case along the fault lines of sect and history.
Late Friday, a U.S. judge refused to halt the hanging.
Many Kurds were disappointed that Hussein was executed for the Dujail killings, widely viewed as a test case for the larger Anfal genocide trial. That trial, which began in August, was chronicling, often in painful testimonies, the systematic killings of tens of thousands of Kurds with chemical weapons and poison gas. Hussein was scheduled to return to the courtroom Jan. 8.
Staff writer Nancy Trejos, special correspondents Saad al-Izzi, Naseer Nouri, Waleed Saffar, Muhanned Saif Aldin, Saad Sarhan and Hasan Shimmari and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.