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

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.

"Up to the last moment, the matter was being debated," said Mariam Rayis, a Maliki adviser.

But by late Friday, Hussein's execution papers were signed. Munir Haddad, a judge on Iraq's appeals court, received the call at 1:30 a.m. Saturday. A voice said, "Come to the prime minister's office at 3:30 in order to carry out the execution," Haddad recalled.

He arrived, along with Faroun, and joined the rest of the group of 14. They included the acting minister of justice, national security officials, members of parliament and several top Maliki advisers. About 5 a.m., they stepped into two U.S. military helicopters, seven in each. They flew 15 minutes to an Iraqi army base overlooking the Tigris River in Baghdad's Khadimiya neighborhood, Haddad said. It once housed Hussein's military intelligence service, where his opponents were executed.

About the same time, U.S. military officials took Hussein from his prison cell at Camp Cropper, near the Baghdad airport, and flew him to the Green Zone, the fortified enclave that houses the U.S. Embassy and senior Iraqi officials. There, they handed Hussein over to the Iraqis, U.S. officials said. The Iraqis then drove Hussein in an armored convoy to Khadimiya.

The Hangmen Assemble

When the helicopters landed, Haddad, Faroun and the acting justice minister were rushed into a small, spare room with a desk, several chairs and a refrigerator. Ten minutes later, Hussein walked in. He wore a wool hat and sat down on a chair before Haddad, who was behind the desk. Hussein's hands were locked in front of him with plastic handcuffs.

"He seemed normal, not confused nor afraid," Haddad recalled.

Haddad, following Iraqi law, started to read to Hussein the verdict and the ruling by the appeals court. But as he read, Hussein shouted: "We are in Heaven, and our enemies are in Hell" and "Long live the people, long live jihad, and long live the nation."

Then he directed his anger at two enemies he went to war with during three decades of rule.

"Down with the Persians and the Americans," Hussein said.

But Haddad kept going.

"He tried to raise his voice, but my voice was higher than his," Haddad said.

At the end of the reading, Hussein's hangmen arrived. Hussein met privately with a Sunni cleric for a few minutes.

A Defense of His Reign

They took Hussein to a large room with no windows and a staircase leading to a tall, red gallows with a large pit at the bottom.

"It was very cold," Haddad said. "It had the stench of death."

Haddad and Faroun walked with Hussein and his hangmen to the steps of the gallows. Then one of the masked men, Haddad recalled, turned to Hussein and said:

"You have destroyed Iraq, impoverished its people and made us all like beggars while Iraq is one of the richest countries in the world."

Hussein replied: "I did not destroy Iraq. I made Iraq into a rich, powerful country."

Faroun stepped in and ordered the hangman to back away.

Hussein carried a dark green Koran in his clasped hands, witnesses said. At the steps to the gallows, he turned to Faroun and asked him to give the book to the son of his co-defendant Awad Haman Bander. Bander, like Hussein, was sentenced to death for the killings of 148 Shiite men and boys from the northern town of Dujail.

"What if I don't see him?" Faroun asked.

"Keep it until you meet with any of my family members," Faroun recalled Hussein saying.

Hussein took his hat off. The hangmen uncuffed his hands, then placed them behind his back and recuffed them. They also tied his legs together, witnesses said.

One Iraqi official asked him whether he was afraid, Haddad recalled.

"I am not afraid. I have chosen this path," Hussein replied.

Then the hangmen slowly helped him up the stairs.

'He Is Finished'

The chief hangman offered Hussein a black hood and asked him to place it over his head, but he refused. The man explained that his death would be more painful. Hussein again refused, witness said. So the hangman folded the hood and wrapped it around Hussein's neck, like a neck warmer.

"He was shivering, and his face was pale," said one witness, who asked not to be identified because he feared for his safety. "I think up to the moment when they put the rope around his neck, he was not believing what was happening."

Faroun saw a different Hussein: "He was holding tight. He was not scared."

Hussein stepped onto the platform, helped by the hangmen.

As the Shiites chanted and proclaimed their loyalties to Sadr, who heads the Mahdi Army militia, which the United States is pressuring the Maliki government to dismantle, an Iraqi official turned to Haddad. "Now how are we going to disband the militia when we have such things?" the official asked.

After the outbursts, as Hussein recited his Islamic prayer for the second time, the chief hangman asked for silence. Then the floor of the gallows was opened.

"He died in a tenth of a second," Faroun said. "He did not move a leg or foot."

Hussein's body hung for about five minutes, witnesses said.

"Some of the people were shouting, 'May God pray on Muhammad and the descendants of Muhammad,' " Haddad said. "After that, the body was brought down, they placed a white cover and then laid him on the ground."

A doctor examined him and then turned to the 14 witnesses. "He is finished," he said, according to those who were there.

Hussein's body was loaded onto one of the helicopters and flown to the Green Zone, where an ambulance transported his body to an unknown destination.

Hussein's death was announced on Iraqi television at 6:10 a.m. One Iraqi witness immediately phoned Rayis and said: "The punishment has been carried out."

"I cried at the moment out of joy," she recalled.

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