Baghdad — Saddam Hussein, who ruled Iraq with an iron fist for a quarter century, was hanged to death early Saturday, four days after an Iraqi court upheld the death sentence handed down after his conviction in the 1982 massacre of Shias.
Iraqi state television reported that Saddam, 69 and one who ruled any Arab country for the longest duration, was executed shortly before 6.00 a.m. (0300 GMT).
The execution took place as the Islamic world celebrates the Eid ul-Zuha.
Mowaffak Al Rubai, the Iraqi security adviser, said he witnessed the execution and that Saddam was handcuffed and read his sentence.
The former president carried a copy of the holy Koran, which he handed to a bystander and requested it be given to an individual, whose name was not cited by Al Rubai.
Iraqi officials said Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, Saddam’s half-brother and a former head of the intelligence service, and co-defendant Awad Hamed al-Bandar, a former head of Iraq’s Revolutionary Court, were not executed.
A statement by Al Rubai, broadcast on Al Arabiya and quoted by CNN, said the two were not executed “because we want this day to have historic meaning” by hanging only Saddam.
“The execution … was Iraqi from A to Z. Americans stayed outside the door,” Al Rubai told Al Arabiya.
The former dictator’s daughter, Raghad Saddam Hussein, has asked the Yemeni government to allow Saddam to be buried in Yemen until Iraq is “liberated” from US occupation, the al-Sahwa newspaper said.
The stunning hanging took place more than three years after Saddam’s regime was toppled by a US-led invasion and after a lengthy and controversial Iraqi judicial process that led to his conviction and sentencing in November.
Since receiving the sentence, Saddam made several appeals for his life, including issuing a statement urging Iraqis to rally against the execution.
The Iraqi appellate court ordered the sentence to be carried out within 30 days of Tuesday’s ruling.
Saddam, who came to power in 1979 and was ousted in a US-led military invasion in 2003, had been in American custody since he was found hiding in a hole near Tikrit in December 2003 following months of living on the run.
The US military in Baghdad was on heightened alert Saturday in case of reprisals or street demonstrations following the hanging.
Saddam remained defiant until the end and rejected the legitimacy of the court that convicted him for ordering the killing of 148 Shias in the town of Dujail in 1982 as retaliation for a plot to assassinate him.
From the beginning of the legal process against Saddam, the US government has maintained the proceedings were in the hands of the Iraqis.
Several countries including the European Union expressed reservations about the death sentence, as did British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Human and civil rights groups, along with Saddam’s attorneys, said the trial was flawed and that the death sentence should not be carried out.
“The trial should have been a landmark in the establishment of the rule of law in Iraq after decades of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny,” said Malcolm Smart, the director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa programme. “It was an opportunity missed.”
In Texas, Bush reacted to the execution by praising Saddam’s trial.
“Today, Saddam Hussein was executed after receiving a fair trial – the kind of justice he denied the victims of his brutal regime,” Bush said.
“It is a testament to the Iraqi people’s resolve to move forward after decades of oppression that, despite his terrible crimes against his own people, Saddam Hussein received a fair trial,” he said.
“This would not have been possible without the Iraqi people’s determination to create a society governed by the rule of law.”
There had been conflicting reports throughout Friday as to whether Saddam had been transferred from US custody to Iraqi authorities so the execution could be carried out.
It was unclear how long Saddam was in Iraqi custody before he was taken to the gallows.
Leading up to the execution, there were worries it could cause more sectarian bloodshed between Sunnis and Shias, violence that has brought the country to the verge of civil war.
Saddam had ruled Iraq since 1979 with the support of minority Sunnis and by repressing the much larger Shia religious group, which was widely expected to celebrate Saddam’s death.
The execution could enrage Sunnis, who have fiercely resisted the US occupation and to a lesser degree the new Iraqi government.
It is feared that the execution will further inflame religious tension in the country among Sunnis and Shias.
Saddam’s trial began in July 2004 but was frequently interrupted by what began as a bumpy judicial process and led to international criticism of the process.
Had Saddam not been executed, he would have likely faced another trial for the gassing of thousands of Kurds in northern Iraq in 1988, his regime’s most infamous crime.