BAGHDAD, Iraq—As he faced the gallows Friday, Saddam Hussein told his lawyers that he was prepared to die and his supporters in Iraq would view him as a martyr. The former dictator "believes in his destiny," one of his attorneys said.
But Iraqi government officials who are close to the case described a very different Saddam, one who was extremely nervous Friday evening when U.S. officials reportedly handed him over.
"He is in a state of shock," said Mithal Alusi, a parliament member who sat in on the government's daylong meetings Friday about Saddam's fate. "He came apart. He realized he couldn't escape this."
Saddam was executed around 6 a.m. Baghdad time (10 p.m. EST) on Saturday.
The government's announcement Friday that the former dictator's death was imminent stunned both his supporters and his fiercest opponents. Iraqis were glued to their televisions and radios waiting for word of his execution.
According to his lawyers, who'd spoken earlier in the day, Saddam was serene, confident that his followers would carry his message to posterity.
"Saddam wants to be a martyr, not stay in jail. He wants to tease the enemy. He wants to follow his two sons (whom American forces killed in 2003) and sacrifice himself for the Iraqi people," Badie Izzat Aref, a member of the defense team, told McClatchy Newspapers.
Added Khalil al Dulaimi, his chief attorney throughout the trial from Amman, Jordan: "He is quiet and ready. He believes in his destiny."
Iraq braced for his execution, which many feared could spur more violence in the already volatile nation. But amid the anxiety, many said the dictator was getting what he deserved.
"I swear, I will pay all the money I have to see him executed," said Emad Jassim, a 41-year-old businessman from the Shiite holy city of Najaf, where Saddam—a Sunni—had ordered thousands of people attacked, tortured and killed. "He killed three of my brothers, my father, two of my uncles and sent my mother and sister to jail. God help the oppressed."
On Thursday, Saddam met with his two maternal half-brothers, bidding them farewell and handing them copies of his will. Alusi said the government had offered Saddam an opportunity to meet with his immediate family before he died but that he'd declined.
Friday's earlier uncertainty over Saddam's hand-over to the Iraqis by the U.S. was only the latest sign of the problems the Iraqi government has had in handling the case. The Iraqi Special Tribunal convicted Saddam and two co-defendants Nov. 5, finding that they'd ordered the executions of 148 people after an unsuccessful assassination attempt on the dictator in Dujail in 1982. An appeals court upheld Saddam's conviction earlier this month and, under Iraqi law, he then had to be executed within 30 days.
Government officials said at first that President Jalal Talabani would sign the execution order, but when he refused they said the former dictator could be executed anytime.
Although Iraqis were glued to their TV sets at the beginning of the trial, they had lost almost all interest by the end. Some complained that the trial was merely a drawn-out soap opera, not a swift legal proceeding.
Others said the deaths of 148 people two decades ago seemed insignificant in today's Iraq, in which 100 people are killed a day nationwide on average. Indeed, nearly as many people have died in Iraq in the last two days in car bombings, shooting and kidnappings.
Since December 2003, when American forces discovered Saddam hiding in an underground bunker near his hometown of Tikrit, many Iraqis had said his execution was inevitable. But the news Friday that it was imminent confused and shocked the country, which had assumed that its dictator of nearly three decades would face several more trials before death, including for his actions during the Iran-Iraq war and the Persian Gulf War.
On television, news tickers offered updates about Saddam's fate, one minute saying he wouldn't be executed until Sunday, the next saying he had only hours to live.
Saddam's lawyers pleaded for his life, saying the trial wasn't fair and that the international community opposed the death sentence. In Tikrit, family members vowed that if Saddam were killed, Iraq would face unprecedented violence.
"If he is executed, the situation would enter an area of no return. Saddam has supporters in every part of Iraq and they will carry out revenge for him," said Ahmed Fahad, a cousin of Saddam's.
During the weekly Friday sermons, some clerics said Saddam's death would mean rebirth for a troubled nation.
"Saddam's execution is a gift from God, and we must thank God for this gift," Shiite cleric Sayed Sadir al Din al Qubanchi told worshippers in Najaf.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.