Simple Ceremony Marks Hussein's Return to Village for Burial

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 1, 2007

BAGHDAD, Dec. 31 -- Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was brought to his home village early Sunday morning in a simple wood coffin for burial, less than 24 hours after his execution. A few hundred mourners paid their respects in the pre-dawn darkness to a man who led their nation over three decades of fear, brutality and war.

"The execution of Saddam was a cowardly act," said Hameed Salman al-Majeed, one of Hussein's cousins, as he greeted mourners next to Hussein's temporary grave, dug into a marble-floored social center in Auja, about 100 miles north of Baghdad.

"We feel proud that he stood at the gallows, proud and upright."

The burial was a bookend to events set in motion Tuesday when Iraq's highest court upheld Hussein's death sentence, leading to his hanging Saturday to the jeers of Shiite witnesses, whose community his regime had ruthlessly oppressed.

Even as late as Saturday night, it was unclear where Hussein would be buried, as Iraqi politicians grappled with concerns over security and allowing Hussein's resting place to become a shrine for his loyalists. Only after U.S. pressure did the government agree to release Hussein's corpse to his tribesmen.

The simplicity of the aftermath, without a state funeral or mourning masses, was in sharp contrast to Hussein's life and aspirations. An avid student of history, he cultivated his image with his legacy in mind. He lavished billions of his country's oil dollars on palaces, monuments and statues to invoke the ancient glory of Babylon's King Nebuchadnezzar, whom Hussein claimed as an ancestor.

In death, Hussein, a Sunni Arab, returned to the hardscrabble village that had been the scene of two of the most definitive periods in his life. The son of a landless peasant who died before his birth, Hussein was raised by an uncle in this farming region. He also chose this region to hide in following the U.S.-led invasion. In December 2003, U.S. troops found him inside an underground hole the size of a coffin near his hideout, less than 10 miles from Auja.

Hamdiya Mahmoud, 55, another Hussein cousin, wore black and wept as she stood at the grave, covered with Iraq's national flag. Hussein's death marked the latest shift in fortunes for Iraq's Sunni Arabs, who once held the reins of power but who now feel besieged and alienated.

"Our fate is that we shall keep wearing these clothes till death, but we are proud that he died a martyr and a hero," Mahmoud said. "They feared him even when they were placing the noose around his neck."

In settling the arrangements, the Shiite-led government of Nouri al-Maliki had considered burying Hussein in a secret grave, fearing that his final resting place could attract supporters or fuel violence, according to Iraqi and U.S. officials.

Senior figures in Hussein's tribe promised Maliki and U.S. officials that Hussein would be buried quickly and that only a small group would attend. At close to midnight, tribal chief Ali al-Nida, other leaders of the Albu Nasir tribe and Tikrit's regional governor signed a letter at Maliki's office inside the U.S.-fortified Green Zone, agreeing to bury the body in Auja, according to Iraq's state television, which broadcast the ceremony.

Then they inspected the white shrouded body and closed the coffin. It was loaded into a white pickup truck and driven to a waiting U.S. helicopter. At a nearby American military base, the coffin was placed in another truck, the fifth vehicle in a convoy of 30 police trucks. The body had been cleansed and dressed according to Muslim ritual, Iraqi officials said.

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