BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) - Saddam Hussein was convicted Sunday and sentenced to hang for crimes against humanity in the 1982 killings of 148 people in a single Shiite town.
The ousted leader, trembling and defiant, shouted "God is great!" as the judge handed down the verdict. Saddam, his half brother and another senior official in his regime were convicted and sentenced to death by the Iraqi High Tribunal in one of the most highly publicized war crimes trials since the Nuremberg tribunals for members of Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime and its slaughter of 6 million Jews in the World War II Holocaust.
As the verdict was read, Saddam yelled out, "Long live the people and death to their enemies. Long live the glorious nation, and death to its enemies!" Later, his lawyer said the former dictator called on Iraqis to reject sectarian violence and refrain from revenge against U.S. forces. "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 has was unmatched in Iraq's history," said Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's Shiite prime minister.
Some feared the court decision could exacerbate the sectarian violence that has pushed the country to the brink of civil war, after a trial that stretched over nine months in 39 sessions and ended nearly 3½ months ago.
The verdict came two days before midterm elections in the United States widely seen as a referendum on the Bush administration's policy in Iraq. U.S. and Iraqi officials have denied the timing was deliberate.
The White House praised the Iraqi judicial system and denied the U.S. had been "scheming" for the verdict. Iraqis "are the ones who conducted the trial. The Iraqi judges are the ones who spent all the time pouring over the evidence. ... It's important to give them credit for running their own government," said Tony Snow, the president's spokesman.
In north Baghdad's heavily Sunni Azamiyah district, clashes broke out between police and gunmen. Elsewhere in the capital, celebratory gunfire rang out. "This government will be responsible for the consequences, with the deaths of hundreds, thousands or even hundreds of thousands, whose blood will be shed," Salih al-Mutlaq, a Sunni political leader, told the Al-Arabiya satellite television station. Saddam and his seven co-defendants were on trial for a wave of revenge killings carried out in the city of Dujail following a 1982 assassination attempt on the former dictator.
Al-Maliki's Islamic Dawa party, then an underground opposition, has claimed responsibility for organizing the attempt on Saddam's life. In the streets of Dujail, people celebrated and burned pictures of their former tormentor as the verdict was read. Saddam's chief lawyer Khalil al-Dulaimi condemned the trial as a "farce," claiming the verdict was planned. He said defense attorneys would appeal within 30 days.
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 told The Associated Press that the appeals process was likely to take three to four weeks once the formal paperwork was submitted.
During Sunday's hearing, Saddam initially refused the chief judge's order to rise; two bailiffs pulled the ousted ruler to his feet and he remained standing through the sentencing, sometimes wagging his finger at the judge. Before the session began, one of Saddam's lawyers, former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, was ejected from the courtroom after handing the judge a memorandum in which he called the trial a travesty.
Chief Judge Raouf Abdul-Rahman pointed to Clark and said in English: "Get out." In addition to the former Iraqi dictator and Barzan Ibrahim, his former intelligence chief and half brother, the Iraqi High Tribunal convicted and sentenced Awad Hamed al-Bandar, the head of Iraq's former Revolutionary Court, to death by hanging.
Iraq's former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan was convicted of premeditated murder and sentenced to life in prison. Three defendants were sentenced to 15 years in prison for torture and premeditated murder. Abdullah Kazim Ruwayyid and his son Mizhar Abdullah Ruwayyid were party officials Dujail, along with Ali Dayih Ali.
They were believed responsible for the Dujail arrests. Mohammed Azawi Ali, a former Dujail Baath Party official, was acquitted for lack of evidence and freed. Saddam faces additional charges in a separate case over an alleged massacre of Kurdish civilians - a trial that will continue while appeals are pending. The guilty verdict is likely to enrage hard-liners among Saddam's fellow Sunnis, who made up the bulk of the former ruling class.
The country's majority Shiites were persecuted under the former leader but now largely control the government. Al-Dulaimi, Saddam's lawyer, told AP his client called on Iraqis to reject sectarian violence and refrain from taking revenge on U.S. invaders.
"His message to the Iraqi people was 'pardon and do not take revenge on the invading nations and their people'," al-Dulaimi said, quoting Saddam. "The president also asked his countrymen to 'unify in the face of sectarian strife."'
Islamic leaders warned that executing Saddam could inflame those who revile the U.S., undermining President Bush's policy in the Middle East and inspiring terrorists. "The hanging of Saddam Hussein will turn to hell for the Americans," said Vitaya Wisethrat, a respected Muslim cleric in Thailand, where a bloody Islamic insurgency is raging in the country's south. In Tikrit, Saddam's hometown, 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. "By our souls, by our blood we sacrifice for you Saddam" and "Saddam your name shakes America." U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad issued a statement saying the verdicts "demonstrate the commitment of the Iraqi people to hold them (Saddam and his co-defendants) accountable."
"Although the Iraqis may face difficult days in the coming weeks, closing the book on Saddam and his regime is an opportunity to unite and build a better future," Khalilzad said.
Two U.S. officials who worked as advisers to the court on matters of international judicial procedures said Saddam's repeated outbursts during the trial may have played a key part in his conviction. They cited his admission in a March 1 hearing that he had ordered the trial of 148 Shiites who were eventually executed, insisting that doing so was legal because they were suspected in the assassination attempt against him. "Where is the crime? Where is the crime?" he asked, standing before the panel of five judges.
Later in the same session, he argued that he was in charge and he alone must be tried. His outburst came a day after the prosecution presented a presidential decree with a signature they said was Saddam's approval for the Dujail death sentences, their most direct evidence against him.
About 50 of those sentenced by the "Revolutionary Court" died during interrogation before they could go to the gallows. Some of those hanged were children. "Every time they (defendants) rose and spoke, they provided a lot of incriminating evidence," said one of the U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Under Saddam, Iraq's bureaucracy showed a consistent tendency to document orders, policies and minutes of meetings. One document gave the names of everyone from Dujail banished to a desert detention camp in southern Iraq. Another, prepared by an aide to Saddam, gave the president a detailed account of the punitive measures against the people of Dujail.
Saddam's trial had from the outset appeared to reflect the turmoil and violence in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. One of Saddam's lawyers was assassinated the day after the trial's opening session last year.
Two more were later assassinated and a fourth fled the country. In January, chief judge Rizgar Amin, a Kurd, resigned after complaints by Shiite politicians that he had failed to keep control of court proceedings. He, in turn, complained of political interference.
Abdul-Rahman, another Kurd, replaced Amin. Hearings were disrupted by outbursts from Saddam and Ibrahim, with the two raging against what they said was the illegitimacy of the court, their ill treatment in the U.S.-run facility where they are being held and the lack of protection for their lawyers. The defense lawyers contributed to the chaos in the courtroom by staging several boycotts.