Iraq's highest court upheld Saddam Hussein's death sentence Tuesday, opening the way for the former Iraqi president to be hanged within 30 days, Iraqi judicial officials said.
Officials in the Iraqi government have already begun to address the logistics and security measures for the execution, possibly a closed and secret one, according to sources familiar with the preparations.
Under Iraq's constitution, the execution can proceed only if ratified by President Jalal Talabani and the country's two vice presidents. There was no immediate comment from the three Tuesday.
If they uphold the decision, as many Iraqis expect, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would have 30 days to order Hussein's execution. People close to him said Tuesday he would do so quickly.
Capping a trial that was controversial from the start, the decision split the Iraqi public along the fault lines of sect and history. Shiite Muslims and Kurds, whose groups suffered most under Hussein's rule, generally celebrated. Many of Hussein's fellow Sunni Arabs, however, warned that hanging the former president would intensify the current insurgency and sectarian killings.
It remains unclear whether a hanging would be carried out at a pre-announced time, with public observers present. Among several proposals before Maliki is one that calls for Hussein to be executed in secret as early as next week.
His body would then be formally identified by independent observers and the death revealed to the Iraqi public and the rest of the world, according to an official familiar with the proposal. The goal of such an approach would be to reduce retaliatory attacks by Sunnis and other loyalists.
Calls for a speedy execution
On Tuesday, Iraqi politicians, including some Sunnis, issued calls for a speedy execution, expressing concern that a delay could cause more sectarian bloodshed and division.
"The people who wanted Saddam to be hanged and the people who were defending Saddam both were expecting this verdict," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish lawmaker widely seen as neutral by Sunnis and Shiites. Many people would like the execution to happen quickly, Othman said, "because they're afraid that he might escape from prison. The more it's delayed, the more people will talk about it. It will be a divisive thing in society."
Tuesday's decision came 51 days after Hussein was sentenced to death for crimes against humanity for the killings of 148 Shiite men and boys from the town of Dujail after an assassination attempt there in 1982.
The U.S-backed trial was marred by allegations of bias and by courtroom speeches and outbursts from the defendants. Intended to deliver justice to Iraqis oppressed under Hussein, the proceedings unfolded against a backdrop of escalating sectarian strife that took thousands of lives and widened the gap between Sunnis and Shiites.
Talabani, a Kurd, is firmly against the death penalty. But in past cases he has deputized one of the vice presidents -- Adel Abdel-Mehdi, a Shiite, and Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni -- to sign execution orders on his behalf. All three signatures are required for an execution order to be valid.
Some analysts in Baghdad questioned whether Hashemi would endorse the execution. But they also noted that he had recently called on President Bush at the White House.
If the government does not send Hussein to the gallows, the Iraqi High Tribunal's code would ensure his execution by other means, legal experts said.
Several officials close to Maliki, a Shiite, said Tuesday that he plans to proceed with the execution as soon as legally possible. "Definitely," said Sadiq Rikabi, a political adviser to the president. "This is in order to open a new page in the history of the Iraqi people."
The nine-judge appeals court also upheld execution sentences for Barzan Ibrahim, Hussein's half brother, and former judge Awad Haman Bander for their roles in the Dujail killings. The judges also changed the sentence of former vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan from life to death.
"In the name of the good Sunnis, the liberal Sunnis, the patriotic Sunnis, we are happy to hear this decision," said Mithal al-Alousi, an influential Sunni politician. "The people are asking us to make political pressure to execute Saddam immediately. We need to close this file. There's no other way for Iraq to move forward."
Hussein's lawyer warns of region's reaction
Saleh al-Armouti, one of Hussein's lawyers, warned against a hanging. "The region now will be more in flames, and the resistance will increase across the Arab world," he said, speaking by telephone from neighboring Jordan. "His absence will lead to more strife and civil war inside Iraq."
Armouti said that Hussein, who is being held at Camp Cropper, a U.S. military prison near Baghdad airport, had expected the appeals court's decision. "His morale is very high," Armouti said. "He doesn't fear death. His will and his faith are very strong."
International human rights groups criticized the Dujail trial as unfair and improperly run, describing it as a victor's court. Human rights activists said they had hoped the appeals court would carry out a careful and comprehensive legal review and correct what they viewed as major flaws in the conduct of the trial.
"We think, given the unfairness in the proceedings, it would be indefensible to execute Saddam Hussein regardless of the crimes alleged in Dujail in 1982," said Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice Program of New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Dicker criticized the appeals court for reaching a decision so soon after Hussein's attorneys filed an appeal, which they did Dec. 3. He said the former president's defense team did not even receive the written judgment from the trial until weeks after the verdict was pronounced, which delayed their preparation for the appeal. "The whole manner in which this has unfolded suggests a highly politicized, nonjudicial approach to what is such an important case," Dicker said.
Bassam Ridha, who serves as a government liaison to the Iraqi High Tribunal, disputed charges that the government had interfered in the judicial process. "It was a very fair process," Ridha said, adding that the trial met international legal standards. "What we are doing is not a human rights violation. Where were these activists when my people were slaughtered?"
In Dujail, residents described the decision as bringing them a step nearer the closure they have awaited for nearly 25 years. "Now I feel that there is actually a God up there in Heaven," said Haiyder Hamed, 43, a farmer.
Other residents wondered what the future would bring in a world without Hussein. "Executing Saddam is achieving justice on earth and in heaven," said Hussein Mahmoud, 28, a police officer. "But will executing him bring Iraq as it used to be or will it make Iraq a burnt land?"
In Mosul, college student Sardar Mohamad Hassan, 25, said Hussein should not be executed because he still faces charges of crimes against humanity in at least a dozen other cases.
Anfal trial underway
In the current phase of the trial, Hussein and six co-defendants are accused of orchestrating the killing or wounding of hundreds of thousands of Kurds with poison gas and other weapons during the so-called Anfal campaign of the late 1980s. Hussein is scheduled to return to court on Jan. 8.
Ridha said the Anfal trial would continue even if Hussein is executed and that Kurdish victims would get the justice they seek. "If Saddam Hussein is gone, it doesn't mean all these guys go free," he said.
In the northern city of Tikrit, Hussein's home town, residents reacted angrily to the decision. "We should not pour oil on the fire," said Khairallah Muhammad 45, a merchant. "This verdict is going to be the end to America, and it will be another Vietnam."
At Hannah restaurant in Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood, employees and regular customers crowded around the butcher's table to talk about the possible execution. Each said he had a relative or friend who had been imprisoned or killed by Hussein's government.
Sadiq Esa, 31, said he wants more than to see him executed. "I swear to God, I will kill him with my own hands," he said, sipping a cup of sweet tea at a table covered with raw meat and blood.
Jafar Hani, the 22-year-old butcher, called Hussein a "monster." As he diced and skewered pieces of meat, he said, "The whole world wants him to be put in the center of Baghdad so everyone can see him hang."
Special correspondents Saad al-Izzi, Naseer Nouri, Waleed Saffar, Muhanned Saif Aldin and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.