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Cheers, anger as Hussein is condemned

Iraqis divided on ex-leader's death sentence

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post / November 6, 2006

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BAGHDAD -- A divided and violent Iraq broke into starkly disparate displays of emotion yesterday after judges in Baghdad condemned former president Saddam Hussein to hang for committing willful murder in the course of crimes against humanity.

In the south, a Shi'ite Muslim father held aloft the shrouded remains of a young son killed long ago by Hussein's armed campaign against the country's Shi'ites. The father danced with the bones in the street among celebrating crowds, elated at the death penalty handed the former dictator.

In the north, a Sunni Muslim man in Hussein's home city strapped an explosive belt around his waist and vowed to take justice for the death sentence.

"Today's sentences were a death sentence on righteousness, and this makes it obligatory to take the revenge for Iraq," said the man, 29-year-old Ibrahim Yahya, among other Sunnis in jabbing rifle muzzles and pistols in the air in angry protests.

US officials hailed the verdict as a triumph of "transparency" and an example of the kind of due process denied Iraqis under the former regime.

"Saddam Hussein's trial is a milestone in the Iraqi people's effort to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law," President Bush said in Waco, Texas. "It is a major achievement for Iraq's young democracy and its constitutional government."

Elsewhere in Iraq, Kurds pounded giant drums in traditional celebration. Shi'ite boys and men threw candies and fired into the air. Bitter Sunni men clasped Hussein's portraits in one hand, their weapons in another.

In Baghdad's Green Zone, a five-judge Iraqi panel announced its unanimous sentence of death for Hussein and two of his seven co defendants, including Hussein's half-brother. Four other defendants were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 15 years to life, and an eighth was acquitted.

The sentences of death and of life imprisonment will be automatically appealed, with no time limit set for appellate judges' decision.

If Hussein is executed, it would cut short his prosecution for campaigns in the 1980s and '90s in which his government allegedly killed tens of thousands -- or more -- of majority Shi'ites and minority Kurds. The charges on which he was convicted yesterday arose from the arrest and execution of 148 Shi'ite men and boys from the town of Dujail in the 1980s.

The United States largely funded Hussein's trial, and US officials close to the trial called the outcome vindication of Washington's promotion of having courts in individual nations try cases involving war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Bush administration has been a leading opponent of international tribunals, fearing US soldiers would be tried before them for political reasons.

After a meandering, year long trial, yesterday's sentencing was rapid-fire, brusque, and volatile.

"Make him stand up," Chief Judge Raouf Abdul Rahman ordered after Hussein, wearing the same dark suit and open-collared shirt he had worn for most of the trial, took a seat when he entered the courtroom and refused to rise.

Six Iraqi guards hauled Hussein to his feet and held his arms behind his back as his fate was declared. The toppled leader broke into shouts when Abdul Rahman began reading. In the five minutes that followed, both men shouted out louder and louder to be heard over the other.

"Long live the nation! Down with the criminal invaders! Down with the spies! Down with the occupiers!" Hussein declared, thrusting his finger in the air, his body shaking with rage.

One of the Iraqi guards sidled around to Hussein's front, putting his face within a few inches of Hussein's to take in the former leader's reaction as the death sentence was read. Smacking gum open-jawed, the guard smiled mockingly, then laughed.

"The court has decided to sentence Saddam Hussein al-Majid to death by hanging," Abdul Rahman said.

"Go to hell! You and the court!" Hussein shouted. "You don't decide anything. You are servants of the occupiers and lackeys! You are puppets!"

"Take him out!" the judge shouted at the end of a declaration convicting Hussein on five of six charges of crimes against humanity.

"Long live the Kurds!" the 69-year-old Hussein shouted as guards pulled him to the courtroom door. "Long live the Arabs!"

His fellow defendants condemned heard their fate with equal defiance. "It's all in the hand of the Almighty! It's all in the hands of the holy warriors!" shouted Taha Ramadan, Hussein's former vice president, as guards pushed him out of the courtroom after the announcement of his life sentence.

Minutes earlier, at least six guards surrounded former US attorney general Ramsey Clark, one of the defense lawyers, and hustled him out of the courtroom. "Get him out! Get him out!" Abdul Rahman shouted in English, outraged at a court filing submitted by Clark that apparently referred to the trial as a travesty.

"He's coming from America to insult the Iraqi people and the court," the judge added in Arabic.

Above the courtroom, those in a visitor's gallery hidden from view applauded when Clark was ejected. "God is greatest!" the unseen spectators cried later, when the first death sentence was announced. Officials said the spectators included some of the survivors of the 1980s campaign in Dujail as well as the country's new interior minister and other politicians.

The Shi'ite politicians who lead Iraq's coalition government went on television after the court session to congratulate the victims of Hussein and condemn his leadership. "The Saddam era is over and his party has become part of the past," Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite whose Dawa party carried out the assassination attempt against Hussein in Dujail in 1982, said on Iraqiya state television.

Jubilant men and boys poured out into the streets of Shi'ite communities around southern and central Iraq, despite a curfew imposed to try to prevent any violent reaction to the verdict. In Baghdad, officers in the Shi'ite-dominated police forces celebrated by handing out candy from their patrol vehicles and blaring cassettes hailing Shi'ite political leaders.

In the southern Shi'ite holy city of Najaf, the celebrating crowds included boys and young men marching in the old military uniforms of fathers allegedly killed by Hussein's government.

A white-haired man in his 50s wearing a gray cotton robe, who identified himself only as Abbas, walked among them, holding up the swaddled, bound bones of his son Hassan. All of Abbas's sons had disappeared in 1991, along with thousands of other Shi'ites as Hussein's forces crushed a Shi'ite uprising after the Persian Gulf War.

Only last week, Abbas had recovered the remains of Hassan, who was 4 when he disappeared, after an official's chance discovery of an old grave holding five bodies.

"Saddam took my sons from me," Abbas said. He began crying. "What was the crime that my son committed? He was only 4."

North of Baghdad, in Hussein's birthplace of Awja, black-robed women with reddened eyes walked along Saddam Hussein Road to a house belonging to members of Hussein's extended family, joining the womenfolk there in a kind of wake.

"The grief we are going through is unbearable, and we wish we were dead before seeing or hearing this verdict," said Suad Mohammed, 40, her voice hoarse with tears and shouting.

"What happened today at the court gives us the resolve and the power to go ahead on the road of holy war," said Marwan Hakam, a teacher in the city of Tikrit, not far from Awja. "All must now carry arms to fight the Americans."

Tikrit, Samarra, and other Sunni cities and towns also saw protests, with crowds at times shooting at or setting fire to government buildings. They revived a chant that had dominated their lives during Hussein's 24-year authoritarian rule: "Our blood and our souls, we sacrifice for you, Saddam."

Material from the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.

Related coverage:
 Cheers, anger as Hussein is condemned (Boston Globe, 11/6/06)
 Curfew helps quell violence in Iraq (Boston Globe, 11/6/06)
 Chronology of the trial (Boston Globe, 11/6/06)