Saturday, December 30, 2006

Saddam Hussein hanged: witnesses

Saddam Hussein hanged: witnesses
By Claudia Parsons and Alastair Macdonald

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Saddam Hussein was hanged at dawn on Saturday, a dramatic end for a leader who ruled Iraq by fear for three decades before a U.S. invasion toppled him and was then convicted of crimes against humanity.

As day broke on one of the holiest days of the Muslim year and the call to prayer echoed out from minarets across a dark and bitterly cold Baghdad, officially-backed television channels flashed the news shortly after six a.m. (10:00 p.m. EST).

"It happened before my eyes," one Iraqi official said.

"He has been executed," said a senior U.S. official in Washington, where the death of a man branded a dangerous tyrant and threat to world security was welcomed by an administration facing mounting public dismay at a war in which the American death toll is fast approaching 3,000.

President Bush said Saddam's execution was an important milestone on Iraq's path to democracy.

"Bringing Saddam Hussein to justice will not end the violence in Iraq, but it is an important milestone on Iraq's course to becoming a democracy that can govern, sustain, and defend itself," Bush said in a statement from his Texas ranch.

Details of the execution were scant but state television Iraqiya said Saddam, 69, had mounted the scaffold first, followed by his half-brother and a former judge who were convicted with him last month for killing 148 Shi'ite men from the town of Dujail.

"The three men were executed. First Saddam Hussein, then Barzan al-Tikriti and then Awad al-Bander," an Iraqiya announcer said, reading what he said was an official statement.

The event was filmed but it was unclear when or if images would be shown to help convince Iraqis Saddam is dead.

It was not clear where the executions took place, although key officials who were to attend the hanging had told Reuters they had been told to gather in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone government compound.

An early execution will delight Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shi'ites, who were oppressed under Saddam, but may anger Saddam's resentful Sunni minority as well as some Kurds who were hoping to see him convicted of genocide against him.

Some officials had believed the start of the week-long Eid al-Adha holiday at noon, coinciding with the haj pilgrimage to Mecca, would have caused a delay of the execution before a late night meeting between Maliki and U.S. officials agreed the final procedures.


Washington may also be hoping it marks the turning of a new page in Iraq as Bush prepares to unveil a new direction in Iraq policy amid public anger at the war.

The death of three Marines, announced on Saturday, took the American death toll since the March 2003 invasion to 2,996.

Defense lawyer Issam Jhazzawi told Reuters Saddam's exiled daughters in Jordan had braced for his imminent death. "The family are praying for him every minute and are calling on God that He let his soul rest in peace among the martyrs," he said.

His daughter Raghd, in Jordan, "is asking that his body be buried in Yemen temporarily until Iraq is liberated and it can be reburied in Iraq," a source close to the family said.

Seeking an 11th hour reprieve, defense lawyers asked a U.S. federal court to order a halt to the execution because Saddam is a defendant in a civil case in Washington. But a U.S. judge denied the move, saying Saddam was not being held in U.S. custody and as a result her court lacked jurisdiction.

U.S. troops are on alert for trouble from insurgents among Saddam's Sunni minority. While there were some protests at November's verdict by a U.S.-sponsored court, few Sunnis have deep feelings about the fate of the fallen strongman.

The governor of Salahaddin province said on Friday if Saddam was executed he would declare a four-day curfew in Tikrit, Saddam's home town. There was no word on whether Baghdad would be under curfew, as regularly happens at tense moments.

An execution at the start of Eid is highly symbolic. The feast marks the sacrifice the prophet Abraham was prepared to make when God ordered him to kill his son and many Shi'ites could regard Saddam's death as a gift from God. Such symbolism could further anger Sunnis, resentful of new Shi'ite power.

Saddam was found guilty over the killing, torture and other crimes against the Shi'ite population of the town of Dujail after Shi'ite militants tried to assassinate him there in 1982.

Saddam, who said in court he had no fear of dying, had a farewell meeting with two of his half-brothers on Thursday, his lawyers said, adding the fallen dictator was in high spirits.

International human rights groups criticized the year-long trial, during which three defense lawyers were killed and a chief judge resigned complaining of political interference.

The United Nations and many of Washington's Western allies called on Bush and Maliki not to go ahead with the execution.

(Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Dubai and Mariam Karouny and Mussab Al-Khairalla in Baghdad)