At the end, his words were defiant

Hussein traded sharp words with his executioners

December 31, 2006|By Marc Santora | Marc Santora,New York Times News Service

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Saddam Hussein never bowed his head, until his neck snapped.

His last words were equally defiant.

"Down with the traitors, the Americans, the spies and the Persians."

The final hour of Iraq's former ruler began about 5 a.m. yesterday, when American troops escorted him from Camp Cropper, near the Baghdad airport, to another American base at the heart of the city, Camp Justice.

There, he was handed over to a newly trained unit of the Iraqi National Police, with whom he would later exchange curses. Iraq took full custody of Hussein at 5:30 a.m.

Two American helicopters flew 14 witnesses from the Green Zone to the execution site - a former headquarters of the deposed government's much feared military intelligence outfit, the Istikhbarat, now inside the American base.

Hussein was escorted into the room where the gallows, with its red railing, stood, greeted at the door by three masked executioners known as Ashmawi. Several of the witnesses present - including Munkith al-Faroun, the deputy prosecutor for the court; Munir Haddad, the deputy chief judge for the Iraqi High Tribunal; and Sami al-Askari, a member of parliament - described in detail how the execution unfolded and independently recounted what was said.

To protect himself from the bitter cold before dawn during the short trip, Hussein wore a 1940s-style wool cap, a scarf and a long black coat over a white collared shirt.

His executioners wore black ski masks, but Hussein could still see their deep brown skin and hear their dialects, distinct to the Shiite southern part of the country, where he had so brutally repressed two separate uprisings.

The small room was cold, with bad lighting and a foul odor. With the witnesses and another 11 people - including guards and the video crew - it was cramped.

Hussein's eyes darted about, trying to take in just who was going to put an end to him.

The executioners took his hat and his scarf.

Hussein, whose hands were bound in front of him, was taken to the judge's room next door. He followed each order he was given.

He sat down and the verdict, finding him guilty of crimes against humanity, was read aloud.

"Long live the nation!" Hussein shouted. "Long live the people! Long live the Palestinians!"

He continued shouting until the verdict was read in full, and then he composed himself again.

When he rose to be led back to the execution room at 6 a.m., he looked strong, confident and calm. Whatever apprehension he may have had only minutes earlier had faded.

The general prosecutor asked Hussein to whom he wanted to give his Quran. He said Bandar, the son of Awad al-Bandar, the former chief justice of the Revolutionary Court, who was also to be executed soon.

The room was quiet as everyone began to pray, including Hussein. "Peace be upon Muhammad and his holy family."

Two guards added, "Supporting his son Muqtada, Muqtada, Muqtada."

Hussein seemed a bit stunned, swinging his head in their direction.

They were talking about Muqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand cleric whose militia is now committing some of the worst violence in the sectarian fighting; he is the son of a revered Shiite cleric, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, whom many believe Hussein had murdered.

"Muqtada?" he spat out, a mix between sarcasm and disbelief.

The national security adviser in Iraq, Mouwaffak al-Rubaie, asked him if he had any remorse or fear.

"No," he said bluntly. "I am a militant, and I have no fear for myself. I have spent my life in jihad and fighting aggression. Anyone who takes this route should not be afraid."

Al-Rubaie, who was standing shoulder to shoulder with Hussein, asked him about the murder of the elder al-Sadr.

They were standing so close to each other that others could not hear the exchange.

One of the guards, though, became angry.

"You have destroyed us," the masked man yelled. "You have killed us. You have made us live in destitution."

Hussein was scornful. "I have saved you from destitution and misery and destroyed your enemies, the Persians and Americans."

The guard cursed him. "God damn you."

Hussein replied, "God damn you."

Two of the witnesses, apparently uninvolved in selecting the guards, exchanged a quiet joke, saying that they gathered the goal of disbanding the militias had yet to be accomplished.

The deputy prosecutor, al-Faroun, berated the guards, saying, "I will not accept any offense directed at him."

Hussein was led up to the gallows without a struggle. His hands were unbound, put behind his back, then fastened again. He showed no remorse. He held his head high.

"He proved that he was courageous," said one of his bitter enemies who could not help respect his calm in the face of death.

The executioners offered him a hood. He refused. They explained that the thick rope could cut through his neck and offered to use the scarf he had worn earlier to keep that from happening. Hussein accepted.

The platform he stood on was very high, with a deep hole beneath it.

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