In Hussein's Last Minutes, Jeers and a Cry for Calm

The noose is readied around the neck of Saddam Hussein.
The noose is readied around the neck of Saddam Hussein. "I am not afraid. I have chosen this path," a witness quoted the Iraqi dictator as saying. (Iraqi Television Via Associated Press)

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By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 31, 2006

BAGHDAD, Dec. 30 -- In the predawn hours Saturday, ousted president of Iraq Saddam Hussein stood calmly at the gallows, a thick yellow noose around his neck, ready to die with an orderliness that now eludes Iraq. Three executioners, men in black ski masks and leather jackets, stood behind him. Hussein said, "Ya Allah," preparing himself for the platform he stood on to open up.

Suddenly, witnesses recalled, the room erupted in Shiite religious chants as the Shiite Muslims in the audience seized the moment they had long sought. One man yelled, "Moqtada, Moqtada, Moqtada," unveiling his loyalty to radical anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Hussein smiled, the witnesses said, and asked sarcastically, "Moqtada?"

In his final moments, shortly after the dawn call to prayer, Hussein, a Sunni Arab, came face to face with today's Iraq, which he had never met, having spent the past three years in U.S. custody. Since his capture, the Shiites his government violently repressed have come to power. They were the last people Hussein saw before his death.

"Go to hell," a voice yelled in response to Hussein's remark, according to a grainy videotape taken by a cellphone that was flashed on television networks Saturday night.

"Long live Muhammad Bakr Sadr," yelled another voice. Bakr Sadr was the uncle of Moqtada al-Sadr and founder of the Dawa party, of which Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a senior leader.

Then, Munqith al-Faroun, who prosecuted Hussein, yelled: "The man is facing execution. Please don't."

The room quieted.

According to accounts from five witnesses, as well as Iraqi and U.S. officials, Hussein, as he neared death, wore ironed black pants, an ivory white shirt and a black, luxurious topcoat. His shoes were polished to a shine. He dyed his hair black and trimmed his silver beard. He waited with dignity.

Hussein began to recite an Islamic prayer.

'Come . . . at 3:30'

On Friday night, Maliki's office informed 14 men that they might get a phone call, officials said. Since Tuesday, when Iraq's highest court had upheld Hussein's death sentence, it was clear that his execution would arrive soon. The Maliki government had wanted to execute Hussein early Friday, U.S. and Iraqi officials said in interviews. But legal issues, security concerns and Iraq's political divide postponed the plan.

Shiite leaders, and some moderate Sunni Arabs, wanted to hang Hussein swiftly, fearing that any delay could inflame violence and deepen the nation's sectarian rifts. The Kurds wanted to execute Hussein at the end of the ongoing genocide trial, in which Hussein was charged with orchestrating the killings of tens of thousands of northern Kurds, many with chemical weapons. Other politicians worried about turning Hussein into a martyr if they executed him during the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha.


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