Thursday, December 28, 2006

Facing gallows, Saddam offers "sacrifice" for Iraq

Facing gallows, Saddam offers "sacrifice" for Iraq
By Mariam Karouny and Claudia Parsons

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Saddam Hussein, due to be hanged within 30 days, said his execution should be seen as a sacrifice for the nation and called on Iraqis to unite and fight U.S. forces in the country.

"Here I offer myself in sacrifice," Saddam said in a letter obtained from his defense lawyers in Jordan on Wednesday. "If my soul goes down this path (of martyrdom) it will face God in serenity."

The defense team said he had dictated it shortly after he was sentenced to death in November for crimes against humanity. The Iraqi High Tribunal appeals court upheld the sentence on Tuesday and said Saddam should be hanged within 30 days.

Saddam's execution will come as President Bush looks to usher in a new era for U.S. policy in Iraq amid public anger at home over rising U.S. casualties.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite Islamist who heads a national unity government that also includes Sunni Arabs and ethnic Kurds, has said Saddam's execution cannot come soon enough. But he faces the challenge of implementing the sentence without fuelling sectarian and political tensions.

Saddam's Baath party threatened to retaliate if the ousted leader was executed: "Our party warns again of the results of carrying out such a verdict, on the situation in Iraq and America in particular," read a statement posted on the Internet.

"It is the most dangerous red line that the American administration should not cross," said the statement, which could not be independently verified.

In his letter, which was also posted on a Web Site on Wednesday, Saddam called on Iraqis to unite.

"O brave, pious Iraqis in the heroic resistance. O sons of the one nation, direct your enmity toward the invaders. Do not let them divide you ... Long live jihad (holy war) and the mujahideen against the invaders."

But he said Iraqis should not blame the populations of the United States and its allies: "I urge you not to hate the peoples of the countries that committed aggression against us, but instead to differentiate between the decision-makers and the peoples."


There were no major celebrations or protests against the decision to execute Saddam as many Iraqis, preoccupied with sectarian violence and shortages in basic services, had expected the appeal to fail.

"This is a just sentence because Saddam oppressed the Iraqi people but I think it came at the wrong time because we're living through a cycle of violence," said Mohammed Nasir.

With the government silent on how Saddam would be executed, speculation ranged from a swift hanging within days, announced only after the fact, to a public execution broadcast on television -- though few believed the latter was likely.

Political professor Hazim al-Naimi said the government appeared to want to dampen down media coverage. "..they are playing a clever game by not commenting and letting it cool down," Naimi told Reuters.

A car bomb in Baghdad killed eight people on Wednesday and 40 bodies were discovered, most shot and tortured, serving as a reminder of the daily carnage in the capital.

The United States said its troops were braced for any violence over the execution.

"The enemy has always used just about any excuse they could find to foment violence," White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said in Texas. "That's something that we're monitoring."

Italy's Prime Minister Romano Prodi, who beat Bush's close ally Silvio Berlusconi at an April election and pulled Italian troops out of Iraq, condemned the decision to execute Saddam.

"Without wanting to minimize the crimes Saddam Hussein committed and the ferocity with which he wielded power during his reign ... I can only express the firm opposition of the Italian government and of myself, to the death sentence for the former dictator," he said in a statement.

Anti-American anger bubbled to the surface when a spokesman for radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's bloc called for a government investigation into the killing by U.S. forces of a senior Sadrist official near Najaf. Thousands of angry Sadr supporters marched through Najaf chanting anti-American slogans.

Two U.S. soldiers died on Wednesday from their injuries, the U.S. military said, bringing the total U.S. military death toll to 2,983 since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Two soldiers from Latvia, which has 113 troops in Iraq, also died on Wednesday.

The Pentagon said it would send about 3,500 troops to Kuwait as a standby force for use in Iraq or elsewhere in the region.

(Additional reporting by Mussab Al-Khairalla, Ibon Villelabeitia in Baghdad, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Dubai and Dina al-Wakeel in Amman)