BAGHDAD, Iraq—As state-sponsored news channels saturated Iraqi airways with images of the noose going around Saddam Hussein's neck early Saturday morning, residents here offered a surprisingly muted response.
The celebratory crowds were smaller than when the dictator surrendered to U.S. forces three years ago. And the expected promise of reprisal attacks did not come the way they did when the trial charging him with crimes against humanity began 14 months ago. Even in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, the rallying around the hometown hero was barren, especially compared to a month ago when he was sentenced to death.
While many here said they were thrilled that Saddam had been punished, they also said they did not believe his death would lead to immediate change in their lives, saying that Saddam became largely irrelevant three years ago when American forces found him hiding in a bunker near his hometown.
"Executing Saddam will not change anything because we have many Saddam still," said Mohammed Latif, a 35-year-old day worker from Baghdad, referring to Iraq's current government.
Although state-run TV sought to dramatize the event by airing the hanging video and grainy reels documenting Saddam's years of torture, many Iraqis said the death of the man who personified Iraq's past would do little to rid the new Iraq of the problems it now faces—sectarianism, ethnic cleansing of neighborhoods and towns, and lack of services.
Government leaders sought to tell a different story, saying Saddam's trip to the gallows should become a turning point in Iraq's strife. Referring to leaders of the Sunni insurgency, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said in a statement, "Saddam's execution puts an end to all their pathetic gambles on a return to dictatorship."
Appearing calm and refusing the offer of a hood, Saddam was hanged shortly after sunrise Saturday in a Baghdad building notorious for executions that took place under his own orders.
Officials in Tikrit told McClatchy Newspapers that they received Saddam's body Saturday evening from U.S. military officials and that he would be buried next to his sons near Tikrit, as Saddam requested in his will.
Abdullah Hussein Jabariyah, the deputy governor of Saleh al Din province, which includes Tikrit, said the governor and the sheik of Saddam's tribe picked up the body Saturday afternoon. He said they plan to bury Saddam as early as Sunday in the family cemetery in al Awja, just outside of Tikrit. He will be placed next to his two sons, Uday and Qusay, who were killed in the summer of 2003 by U.S. forces.
However, another report indicated security reasons might force a burial in Ramadi instead.
The Iraqi Special Tribunal convicted Saddam and two co-defendants on Nov. 5, concluding that they ordered the execution of 148 people after an unsuccessful assassination attempt against the dictator in 1982. Last week an appeals court upheld the conviction, and under Iraqi law Saddam had to be executed within 30 days. But there was no public talk of executing Saddam until Thursday.
Iraqi officials responded to criticism that they unnecessarily rushed Saddam's death, saying they faced pressure from the world community to spare his life, which they resented.
"We noticed a growing cloud of pressure on us by some countries to spare Saddam. We felt these countries were interfering, and that is why it preferred to end Saddam's issue," said Sheik Jalal al Din al Saghir, a spokesman for one of Iraq's top Shiite parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution for Iraq. Saghir would not say which countries put pressure on Iraq.
Added Mithal Alusi, a parliament member who advocated expediting Saddam's death: "Why should we wait? We were not calling for the death of someone for political reasons. Saddam did that. We don't do that. We killed him in the name of justice."
Throughout the nation, larger crowds could be found in the more homogenous cities. In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, police and residents danced side by side, chanting and singing in the middle of the streets. In Tikrit, a mostly Sunni city, angry crowds blocked main roads.
But in communities immersed in civil strife, there was little response. In Baghdad, residents largely celebrated inside their homes or among friends at coffee shops. In the northeast city of Baqouba, one of Iraq's most ethnically diverse, only police vehicles aimed at stopping retaliatory violence filled the streets.
Iraqi officials released the first images and photos of Saddam's last moments Saturday. Saddam was executed in what was once called the Fifth Section Intelligence building in the northern Shiite Baghdad neighborhood of Kadimiyah. Shortly after his regime fell, residents raiding the building found scores of dead and various types of equipment used to torture and kill, including machines that reportedly were designed to grind body parts.
The video showed Saddam arriving in a long black coat, with hands cuffed behind him, clutching a Koran. A group of masked men led him to the noose and appeared to be explaining what was about the happen. The video did not have audio but it did not appear that the former dictator spoke beyond acknowledging that he understood.
The men put a black cloth around his neck, then the rope. The video cut away as soon as the men tightened the noose.
It was unclear what Saddam's final words were as witnesses gave varying accounts. Some described Saddam as fearful, others as a man calm about facing death.
Munir Haddad, an appellate court judge, said that some of the guards taunted Saddam by chanting the name Muqtada al-Sadr, the rebel cleric and leader of Iraq's most dominant militia, the Mahdi Army. The men likely said Muqtada's name at that moment to tell Saddam that he was being executed in part for the death of Muqtada's father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, a revered Shiite cleric that Saddam had executed in 1999.
Haddad said Saddam's last utterance before he died was to say, "Muqtada al-Sadr," back to the men.
By midday, the gallows video had been set to music, as part of the national celebration. On Al Iraqiya channel, one video opened with crowds celebrating, followed by the prime minister's signing the order for Saddam's death. Then it cut to pictures of the beleaguered dictator, handcuffed and guided to the noose by masked men.
Throughout, children sang a song calling for a judge to speed up his death sentence. "All people have called upon you please save us from this tyranny," the chorus of children sang. "Judge him with justice and don't postpone this decision."
Meanwhile the violence in Iraq continued unabated, in a month that already had become the deadliest of 2006 for U.S. soldiers.
American officials Saturday announced the deaths of three more soldiers, bringing December's toll to 109 and the war total to 2,998. Two soldiers were killed in Baghdad, the third in the restive Anbar province, the U.S. military said in statements.
At least 72 people were killed and more than 100 people were wounded in two car bomb attacks, just hours after Saddam died. In the southern Shitte city of Kufa, a man detonated a bomb in a mini-bus, killing 34, police said. Eyewitnesses said nearby residents captured and attacked the man who set off the explosive.
About two hours later, three car bombs exploded simultaneously in the northwest Baghdad neighborhood of Hurriyah, a mixed community engulfed in sectarian violence.
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents Hassan al Jubouri in Tikrit and Laith al Hammoudi in Baghdad contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): SADDAM