Monday, November 6, 2006

BAGHDAD — An Iraqi court yesterday sentenced Saddam Hussein to death for crimes against humanity, convicting the former dictator and six subordinates in the torture and murder of nearly 150 Shi’ites from the city of Dujail in 1982.

Shi’ites and Kurds, who had been tormented and killed by the tens of thousands under Saddam’s iron rule, erupted in celebration — but braced for a potential backlash from the Sunni community that some fear could push the country into all-out civil war.

Saddam trembled and shouted “God is great” when Chief Judge Raouf Abdul-Rahman declared the former leader guilty and sentenced him to hang.

The televised trial was watched throughout Iraq and the Middle East as much for theater as for substance. Saddam was ejected from the courtroom repeatedly for his political harangues, and his half-brother and co-defendant, Barzan Ibrahim, once showed up in long underwear and sat with his back to the judges.

The nine-month, 39-session trial had inflamed the nation. Three defense lawyers and a witness were killed.

“Long live the people and death to their enemies. Long live the glorious nation, and death to its enemies,” Saddam cried out after the verdict, before bailiffs took his arms and walked the once all-powerful leader from the courtroom. There was a hint of a smile on Saddam’s face.

With justice for Saddam’s crimes done, the U.S.-backed Shi’ite prime minister called for reconciliation and delivered the most eloquent speech of his five months in office.

“The verdict placed on the heads of the former regime does not represent a verdict for any one person. It is a verdict on a whole dark era that was unmatched in Iraq’s history,” Nouri al-Maliki said.

The White House praised the Iraqi judicial system and denied that the U.S. had been “scheming” to have the historic verdict announced two days before American midterm elections, widely seen as a referendum on the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq.

President Bush called the verdict “a milestone in the Iraqi people’s efforts to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law.”

“It’s a major achievement for Iraq’s young democracy and its constitutional government,” the president said. “Today, the victims of this regime have received a measure of the justice which many thought would never come.”

But many nations voiced opposition to the death sentences, including France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden. A leading Italian opposition figure called on the continent to press for Saddam’s sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment.

Saddam was found hiding with an unfired pistol in a hole in the ground near his home village north of Baghdad in December 2003, eight months after he fled the capital ahead of advancing American troops. Twenty-two months later, he went on trial on charges that he ordered the torture and killing of nearly 150 Shi’ites from the city of Dujail.

Saddam said those who were killed had been found guilty in a legitimate Iraqi court for trying to assassinate him in 1982. But about 50 of the accused died during interrogation before they could be executed, and some of those hanged were children.

Ibrahim, Saddam’s half-brother and intelligence chief during the Dujail killings, also was sentenced to death, as was Awad Hamed al-Bandar, head of Iraq’s Revolutionary Court, which issued the death sentences against the Dujail residents.

Former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan was convicted of premeditated murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Three defendants were given up to 15 years in prison for torture and premeditated murder. Abdullah Kazim Ruwayyid and his son, Mizhar Abdullah Ruwayyid, were party officials in Dujail, along with Ali Dayim Ali. They were thought to be responsible for the Dujail arrests.

Mohammed Azawi Ali, a local Ba’ath Party official, was acquitted for lack of evidence.

In the streets of Dujail, a Tigris River city of 84,000, people celebrated and burned pictures of their former tormentor as the verdict was read. In Baghdad, the Shi’ite bastion of Sadr City exploded in jubilation.

But in Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, not far from Dujail, 1,000 people defied the curfew and carried pictures of the city’s favorite son through the streets. Some declared the court a product of the U.S. “occupation forces” and condemned the verdict. Policemen wept in the streets.

“By our souls, by our blood, we sacrifice for you, Saddam,” the Tikrit crowds chanted.

The death sentences automatically go to a nine-judge appeals panel, which has unlimited time to review the case. If the verdicts and sentences are upheld, the executions must be carried out within 30 days.

A court official said the appeals process was likely to take three to four weeks once the formal paperwork was submitted. If the verdicts are upheld, those sentenced to death would be hanged despite Saddam’s second, ongoing trial on charges of killing thousands of Iraq’s Kurdish minority.

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