SUNNI GRIEF, ANGER FLOW AT FUNERAL

Supporters of Hussein flock to tomb at his birthplace and decry video of his execution.

By Alexandra Zavis

Los Angeles Times

January 1, 2007

BAGHDAD — Hundreds of supporters of Saddam Hussein broke curfew Sunday to pay respects at the tomb of the toppled Iraqi president, who was buried before daybreak in the small northern town where he was born.

At the funeral in Al Auja and across the Arab world, Hussein's fellow Sunni Muslims expressed outrage at his chaotic final moments, revealed in grainy footage circulated widely on the Internet and on television showing his execution at dawn Saturday in Baghdad.

The video, which appears to have been recorded with a cellphone, showed onlookers taunting Hussein with chants of "Muqtada! Muqtada! Muqtada!" a reference to radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr, whose Al Mahdi militia is accused of hunting down Sunni Arabs and killing them. As the trapdoor snapped open beneath Hussein, some in attendance cheered, "The tyrant has fallen!"

The shocking spectacle appeared to deepen the deadly sectarian divide between Sunnis and the Shiite majority that now leads Iraq's government.

"Today they proved themselves that the trial and the execution were mere retaliation and not justice," said a mourner from Tikrit, near Al Auja, who gave his name only as Abu Mohammed, a customary nickname. "It is clear now against whom we should retaliate."

As the images ricocheted across the Arab world, they drew angry comment in newspapers, on television and on Internet blogs in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and other heavily Sunni Muslim countries that are allies of the United States.

In an interview on CNN, Hisham Melhem, the pro-American spokesman for the Arabic satellite news station Al Arabiya, called the execution a total disaster and described the future for Iraq as "descending into a black hole."

Many blamed the United States, which had had custody of Hussein, for handing him over to the Iraqi government and for his being ridiculed before his death. U.S. officials in Baghdad had no comment. At the White House, a spokesman had no comment beyond a written statement by President Bush on Friday night in which he called the execution "an important milestone" that came after a "fair trial."

Others vented their anger against Iran, which has close ties with the Shiite Muslim parties that dominate the Iraqi government.

Former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, a senior cleric, called the hanging "divine justice" in a sermon at Tehran University, according to the state-run news agency.

Hussein was convicted of crimes against humanity for ordering the executions of 148 men and boys from the Shiite town of Dujayl, where he was the target of a failed 1982 assassination attempt. He was hanged days after an appeals panel upheld the sentence.

Iraqi government officials said they never intended for the execution to be shown publicly in its entirety. They released only a brief video excerpt to head off skeptics who might not believe Hussein was dead, they said.

That footage, which was filmed from a different angle and was of much better quality, showed Hussein standing calmly as masked executioners wrapped a black cloth around his neck and slipped a noose over his head. It did not show him falling to his death or the angry exchanges between onlookers and the deposed dictator that preceded it.

Officials close to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite, said many in the select group invited to Hussein's execution at a notorious Baghdad prison had been victims of his brutality.

"People must understand that we are human beings, and we cannot help but express our feelings at times," said Mariam Rayis, Maliki's legal advisor.

Sunni and some Kurdish politicians, however, said it was foolish to allow such behavior.

"Saddam appears like a hero to the Iraqi people now," Saleh Mutlak, leader of the second-largest Sunni group in parliament, said by telephone from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. "Even those who hated Saddam love Saddam now."

The timing of the execution, which for Sunnis coincided with the beginning of the holiday of Eid al-Adha that marks the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, was considered particularly offensive. Shiites began celebrating the holiday one day later.

"Those who committed this act are no Muslims…. They will be damned throughout history," said Kareem Numan, a retired 60-year-old in Ramadi, a center of the Sunni-driven insurgency west of Baghdad.

Scores of demonstrators carrying Hussein's picture marched through Ramadi and Hawija to vent their anger Sunday, and funeral tents were erected in a number of Sunni Arab towns to receive mourners.

But for Rayis, the prime minister's legal aide, also a Shiite, the timing could not have been more appropriate.

"The most beautiful thing about this whole matter is that Eid al-Adha coincided with the new year and the end of the tyrant," she said.

After the hanging, the body of Hussein, 69, was washed and wrapped in a white shroud according to Islamic tradition and transported in a U.S. military helicopter to Tikrit.

The provincial governor and the head of Hussein's Albu Nasir tribe then loaded the former president's coffin onto the back of a white police pickup truck and drove it to his birthplace in Al Auja, an unusually grand village surrounded by impoverished farmland.

Tribal leader Sheik Ali Nidawi said on Iraqi television that the body showed no signs of mistreatment.

It was placed in what was described as a temporary grave prepared in a religious hall about two miles from the cemetery where Hussein's sons, Uday and Qusai, were buried after they died in a gunfight with U.S. forces in Mosul in 2003. U.S. forces discovered Hussein hiding in a hole in the ground just outside the village in December 2003, nine months after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

It is not yet known where a permanent grave may be situated. Elders did not want to bury Hussein with his sons in the less centrally located cemetery for fear that the grave would be desecrated.

Tribal elders said that in accordance with Hussein's instructions, they placed over his mud-and-brick grave the Koran that he had held throughout his recent trials.

For the rest of the day, mourners, many of them grief-stricken and some dressed in black, arrived from surrounding communities to pay their respects at the grave draped with an Iraqi flag. A picture of Hussein was propped up nearby on a chair.

It took Mohammed Sadoon three hours to reach Al Auja using dirt tracks to avoid the checkpoints enforcing a four-day curfew imposed just after Hussein was executed.

"We came here despite the curfew as a fulfillment of the debt we owe to this hero who taught us the meanings of Arabism, courage and composure," Sadoon said. "It is difficult to see who can replace him, since life is usually not generous in providing courageous people."

Black funeral banners hanging from village walls paid tribute to Hussein. Chocolate and other candy were handed out to fulfill his wish to be buried as a martyr, which must be done without sadness, according to Islamic teachings.

Hussein's eldest daughter, who is wanted by Iraqi authorities and lives in exile in Jordan, had said she wanted to bury her father in Yemen, where she could visit the gravesite. But Bushra Khalil, a member of Hussein's defense team, said the former dictator had indicated to his attorneys that he wished to be buried in Ramadi or Al Auja. Khalil said the legal team had received no will from Hussein.

Elsewhere in Iraq on Sunday, bomb blasts, mortar fire and other violence killed at least 14 Iraqis, and police found 12 unidentified bodies, apparent victims of sectarian death squads.

A car bomb exploded in a religiously mixed central Baghdad neighborhood, killing one person and injuring four others, police and hospital officials said. Another car bomb went off in a mostly Shiite part of north Baghdad, killing one person and injuring six.

A rocket and a mortar round crashed into another Shiite-dominated north Baghdad neighborhood, killing two people and injuring four, police said.

Gunmen traded fire Sunday morning with Iraqi soldiers in the mostly Sunni Yarmouk neighborhood in south Baghdad, home to many former officers in Hussein's military, residents said. U.S. helicopters hovered overhead. There was no immediate word on casualties.

At the stroke of midnight, explosions of another kind were heard in Baghdad as some Iraqis took a break from the violence to celebrate the new year with small fireworks displays. Others fired guns into the air.


zavis@latimes.com

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Special correspondent Caesar Ahmed in Cairo and special correspondents in Baghdad, Al Auja and Ramadi contributed to this report.