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How one mobile phone made Saddam's hanging a very public execution
Those close to him said he had wanted to die with dignity. Within a day, a million people had seen an illicit film of his last moments

London Times | December 31, 2006
Ned Parker and Ali Hamdani

Read Ned Parker’s blog from inside Iraq

The final image of Saddam Hussein was on jerky unedited footage filmed by an anonymous onlooker standing at the foot of the steps beneath the gallows. The video showed the noose around his neck as he recited the shahada, or last testimony. Before he could finish, he dropped through the floor to the sound of the trapdoor crashing open. After a few seconds of confusion the footage ended with a close-up of the dictator’s twisted head.

None of the images was part of the “official” footage filmed from the top of the gallows, which was aired on Iraqi state television and beamed around the world. In Iraq the other footage, which was filmed on a mobile phone, was being swapped on handsets for 20p and soon spread around the world on the internet.

At the height of his power Saddam had always had himself filmed in military uniform with shiny epaulets or standing on a balcony firing a gun — an image that would play again and again on state television in homage to his self-declared greatness. Just before sunrise on Saturday, a witness to the former Iraqi President’s death filmed his ignonimous end using the phone. Hours later the grainy, darkly lit footage was on the internet.

In a former military intelligence building, now an Iraqi prison, Saddam was sandwiched between two stout men in black hoods who guided him to the gallows. He bundled himself in a dark overcoat to warm himself in the December cold in Baghdad and stood on an elevated platform with its rusty metal bars. Beneath the coat was the white shirt and black blazer and trousers that he had worn throughout his trial on charges of crimes against humanity.

The two hangmen lifted the thick hemp noose over his neck and Saddam stood passively, his piercing brown eyes indicating a flicker of fear.

“Ya Allah [Oh God],” he said. The room’s 15 witnesses roared back: “Peace to be upon Muhammad and his followers. Peace be upon Muhammad and his followers.” Their voices rose in glee and some added a rallying cry belonging to the followers of the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose militia movement has helped to fuel Baghdad’s current sectarian bloodletting. “And quicken his [the Mahdi’s] appearing and curse on his enemy,” and then one zealous spectator shouted: “And support his son Moqtada Moqtada Moqtada.”

Ignoring the baying crowd, Saddam, whose dyed black hair was askew, pretended that he misheard the young cleric’s name, whose movement in its violence is reminiscent of Saddam’s own ruthless Baathist cells that paved his way to power. Saddam smirked at his tormentors.

A voice shouted back: “Long live Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr”, the name of the ayatollah who helped to found the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa party and was murdered by Saddam in 1980.

“To Hell,” another spectator bellowed. The scene had begun to resemble a medieval execution or a wild hanging in Texas. “Please stop, the man is being executed, please stop,” one witness shouted over the clamour. Saddam peered down at the mob and then recited the shahada. His skin was wrinkled; he looked tired and knew the end was near.

“God is great and Muhammad is His prophet,” he said and started to repeat the phrase intended to ensure one dies a good Muslim and goes to paradise. But the trapdoor opened and his body plummeted. His neck snapped.

“Peace be upon Muhammad and his followers,” some shouted. “The tyrant is gone,” another cried. Pandemonium reigned in the shadowy room. A voice interjected: “Leave him for eight minutes. No one pulls him down. Leave him for eight minutes . . . .Everyone back please, everyone back.” Saddam’s body swung beneath the trap door, eyes partly open, and his neck crooked, like his many nameless victims. He swung like the corpses of those who had been executed in his name in prisons across Iraq throughout the Baath party’s 35-year reign.

Those close to him said he had known for months that the end was coming and had no illusions that he would survive. But he wanted his dignity. The man whose vanity led him to portray himself as the defender of the Arab world was determined to get the better of his adversaries. He refused their offers of cigarettes and a last meal of chicken. When the hangmen took Saddam into an unheated room before Judge Munir Haddad, one of the nine judges who had upheld his death sentence on Tuesday for the killing of 148 Shia villagers from Dujail, north of Baghdad, after a 1982 assassination attempt on his life, the man did not panic and chastised his enemies.

“I read the death sentence to him and asked him if he wanted to say anything or has any final words. Then he said: “I commend you to adhere to liberality and to beware of the Persians,” Mr Haddad told The Times. Mr Haddad asked him if he had any final request and Saddam asked him to hand his Koran to the son of Awad al-Bandar, the former judge who had also been sentenced to death for sanctioning the killing of the Dujail villagers. Mr Bandar’s son, Badr, has served on the defence team for Saddam and his six co-defendants. Saddam then went readily to the execution room. “He looked very calm and quiet and wasn’t shaking or afraid at all and was walking very normally but his face became pale when they took him to the other room but he was very calm,” Mr Haddad said.

To his family and his team of lawyers, his final hours were an outrage. From the moment, the appeals court announced on Tuesday that it had upheld his death sentence, it had been a dash to the execution chamber. The defence and his family claimed that they had not been notified by the Iraqi Government or the Americans of his death and learnt of it only from television. Repeated requests to see Saddam by his attorneys and daughter, Raghad, were rebuffed.

In Amman Raghad and her sister, Rana, stayed up through the night, watching the news, reading the Koran and praying, Rasha Oudeh, Raghad’s personal secretary, told The Times. When a news channel reported at 5.30am that Saddam had been led off to the gallows, the women prayed for their father in Baghdad, “They called on God to help him and to give him strength,” she told The Times.

Until the Americans transferred Saddam by helicopter from his prison in the Baghdad airport compound to the green zone he did not know when his end was coming, members of his defence team said. He knew that it would be soon, but thought it would come after the Muslim Eid holiday. He had even scheduled an appointment with his lawyers for this Friday. On hearing the appeals court ruling on Tuesday, Saddam had asked to see his half-brothers for what could be the last time. One of them, Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, had also been sentenced to death in the Dujail trial.

Next, his defence team sent him one of his lawyers, Wadud Fawzi. Mr Fawzi would meet him again on Thursday and then leave for Amman not knowing Saddam would be killed the next day. Under Iraqi law, they believed, the state could not kill him until after the Eid holiday. But at the moment Mr Fawzi headed off for Amman, Mr al-Maliki was secretly embarking on his own campaign to kill Saddam before the Eid holiday started at sunrise on Saturday.

The move had come as a surprise even to members of Mr al-Maliki’s Government. On Tuesday night, Basam Ridha al-Hussaini, who was in charge of Saddam’s file for the Prime Minister, had left a meeting with US court advisers, in which all sides had agreed that Saddam would not be killed until January 10. The Americans were already unhappy that the appeals court had upheld Saddam’s death sentence only three weeks after receiving written arguments from the defence. But Mr Hussaini was sure that nothing would happen until January and headed off on a short vacation to Dubai. On Thursday Mr al-Maliki decided to push through the execution despite the Americans’ objections.

“The American Government didn’t want to see the verdict to be certified by the Iraqi High Tribubal so soon, neither to have an execution so soon, but Mr al-Maliki insisted that the execution take place as soon the verdict was certified by the appellate chamber, That was his call. It shows his courage and his decisiveness that he went ahead and took the matter into his own hands despite that fact it was a logistical nightmare to do it,” Mr Hussaini told The Times. “The Americans were hoping that the Iraqi government would take more time to execute Saddam... But again we wanted to do it our own way. It’s an Iraqi matter,” Mr Hussaini said.

The Iraqi Government was afraid that Sunni insurgents would do something rash like take school children hostage to halt the proceedings or that international pressure against the death penalty would prove insurmountable. “Mr al-Maliki didn’t want to take any more chances of pressure from human rights groups, or even surrounding Arab countries and European countries. We knew the dictator better than anyone else. This was not revenge. This was justice for Iraq and justice needed to be served by putting the rope around Saddam’s neck and putting an end to this,” Mr Hussaini said. The Americans and the Iraqis negotiated the matter all through Friday.Nothing was certain until a late-night meeting between US embassy officials and the Prime Minister’s office, Mr al-Maliki’s confidante, MP Sami alAskari, told The Times that evening.

In their final meeting on Thursday, Mr Fawzi found his client at peace and looking towards his legacy. “Saddam told me, ‘I have to face it because that’s why I’m a leader, the leader has to fight and bear everything and that is what makes him a leader’,” Mr Fawzi told The Times yesterday. He had even rejected his lawyer’s plea to appeal to the Vatican to save him. “What would I say to Iraqis, Arab, and Baath comrades if I negotiate for my neck?” Saddam told Mr Fawzi. The two conversed some more. Mr Fawzi read to him a Baath Party statement condemning his death sentence and Saddam was happy.

Then he talked about President Bush’s push to revise his Iraq strategy. “They will never be successful in these reconciliation calls because the Americans are failing to knock on the right doors. If they want it to work they should negotiate with the Baath Party as an organisation and sit with its leadership and negotiate, otherwise they will never achieve any improvement in the situation,” Saddam said.

He assured his attorney that he was at ease with his destiny. “I feel very comfortable and if God wants me to die I will die but I’m relieved that I built Iraq and ensured its unity.” The two men said goodbye not knowing it was for the last time. Saddam handed him a cigar. “I’m still keeping it and will keep it for ever, a souvenir from Saddam,” Mr Fawzi said. On Friday, his attorneys would be shocked by the announcement that they should send someone to receive Saddam’s personal belongings. The end was only a matter of time. His legal team did not call the Iraqi Government. They believed it was futile.

All that was left was to pick up his belongings.

They included books by the Muslim philospher Ibn Khaldun and the Arab poet Ibn al-Muttanabi; an unfinished manuscript of Saddam’s autobiography; poems by Saddam; some essays he had written about the Baath Party; some jackets; and a few suits.

Saddam had also asked to send a message to his family written in pink candle wax, but a US military officer had refused, Mr Fawzi said.

 

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