BAGHDAD, Iraq—Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi dictator who terrorized a nation for nearly a quarter-century until he was deposed and captured by U.S. troops, was hanged at dawn Saturday for ordering the murders of 148 of his countrymen 24 years ago.
The execution occurred at about 6 a.m. local time, state television reported. Two close aides to the 69-year-old Saddam also had been sentenced to death —Saddam's half-brother Barzan Ibrahim, the former head of intelligence, and Awad Hamed al Bandar, the former chief justice of the Revolutionary Court.
Munir Haddad, the appellate court judge who watched Saddam's execution, said the dictator was dead shortly after 6:10 a.m. He said that in Saddam's last speech, he told Iraqis to forgive one another and warned of the danger of the Persians.
"I spent my life fighting," Haddad quoted Saddam as saying.
An anxious nation awoke to the news of Saddam's execution, wondering whether his death would galvanize insurgents to launch still more suicide assaults against their fellow countrymen or whether it would close an ugly chapter in Iraqi history and allow the government to stave off a full-scale civil war.
U.S. and Iraqi forces braced for a possible surge in violence by supporters of Saddam and those frustrated that an Arab leader was killed by what they consider to be an American-controlled government. Iraqi officials canceled leave for their police and army. The Pentagon announced that troops in Iraq were at a high state of readiness.
The execution of a former head of state in his own country after a trial by an internationally monitored tribunal is almost without precedent. But its political impact was undercut by what human rights groups said was badly flawed procedure. Human Rights Watch charged that the trial didn't meet international standards of fairness and criticized the Iraqi government for actions that it said undermined the court's independence. It said the court was unfamiliar with the law it was attempting to apply.
But in a statement late Friday night, President Bush said that Saddam received a fair trial.
"Fair trials were unimaginable under Saddam Hussein's tyrannical rule," Bush said. "It is a testament to the Iraqi people's resolve to move forward after decades of oppression that, despite his terrible crimes against his own people, Saddam Hussein received a fair trial."
The execution also didn't fully settle Iraqis' grievances against Saddam. The atrocity for which he was sentenced occurred a quarter-century ago and was of a far smaller dimension than his alleged crimes against Kurds in the late 1980s and against Shiites through the 1990s.
Throughout Friday evening, as the country waited for news of Saddam's fate, Iraqi state television broadcast footage of Saddam's atrocities, including photos of gassed babies and handcuffed men being tortured. Witnesses who had testified against Saddam and called for his death gathered in the heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses the government, to witness the execution. They were joined by a judge, a doctor and a cleric.
Officials said they were videotaping the execution but wouldn't air it publicly.
Earlier Friday, there was a flurry of uncertainty over whether U.S. forces had handed Saddam over to Iraqi authorities for execution. Both U.S. and Iraqi officials privately said they were exasperated that Saddam's execution was being done in a climate of confusion and haste.
By early evening, Saddam's death appeared imminent, but officials were concerned about whether Iraqi law allowed them to execute a Muslim man on the eve of a major Muslim religious holiday. For Sunni Muslims, the Eid al Adha, the Festival of the Sacrifice, was scheduled to begin Saturday. Shiites begin the observance on Sunday.
The festival celebrates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son for God. For some, it also marks the end of the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, which every Muslim must make once. The celebration lasts until at least Thursday.
Saddam is a Sunni Muslim, and the Iraqi government is largely Shiite.
A Christian Iraqi, Milad Kamal from the southern city of Basra, questioned the timing of the execution. "I'm happy about Saddam's execution because he didn't do anything good for us," Kamal said. "But the timing of it is stopping me from being joyful about it. It is Christmas and New Year's, a time for love and forgiveness. An execution contradicts that."
"Execution will not solve our problems," said Abdul Khadir Hadi, a Sunni teacher. "I will be sad about his execution, not out of any love for him, but because it will lead to more bloodshed in the form of retaliatory attacks."
Others openly rejoiced.
"I am an orphan. I never saw my father. Mom said Saddam executed him because he was a member of the Dawa Party," which opposed Saddam's rule, said Sameer Redha, a 23-year-old electronics shop owner from the holy Shiite city of Najaf. "I had a terrible life because of Saddam. I will be able to enjoy life once he is executed."
More than an hour after Saddam's death, members of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's office were still celebrating, gathering in their offices and singing popular Shiite chants.
Mouwafak al Rubaie, the national security adviser who attended the execution, said a judge read Saddam his rights before he was executed.
"He surrendered," Rubaie said on state television. "He had fear on his face."
Since December 2003, when American forces discovered Saddam hiding in a bunker near his hometown of Tikrit, many Iraqis said his execution was inevitable. But many Iraqis also thought that Saddam would face several more trials, including some over his alleged crimes during the Iran-Iraq war and the Persian Gulf War.
The Iraqi Special Tribunal convicted Saddam and two co-defendants on Nov. 5, charging that they ordered the execution of 148 people after an unsuccessful assassination attempt against the Saddam in Dujail in 1982. Earlier this month, in a brief session, an appeals court upheld the conviction, and under Iraqi law, Saddam had to be executed within 30 days.
Saddam's trial began in October 2005. He faced seven charges, including murder and crimes against humanity, and was convicted of three of them.
In August, the Iraqi Special Tribunal began its second case against Saddam. The court charged him and six co-defendants for Operation Anfal, a campaign against Kurds that prosecutors said killed 182,000 people in 1987-88. The attacks targeted Kurds who were seeking independence. Court officials said that trial will continue without Saddam.
"I'm very happy to hear that Saddam will be executed, but I hoped that they would try him for the other crimes that he committed, crimes like attacking my home town with the chemical weapons," said Baiman Mohammed, a teacher from the Kurdish town of Halabcha, the heart of the attacks. "I wished they had delayed the execution until Saddam paid for all his crimes."
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents in Baghdad, Najaf, Basra, Tikrit and Sulimaniyah contributed to this report. They're not named because of security concerns.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.