Celebratory gunfire swept across parts of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities Sunday as Saddam Hussein and two former top Iraqi officials were sentenced to die for crimes against humanity.
Defiant as the historic verdict was read, Mr. Hussein accused the judge of the US-created tribunal of being a "mouthpiece of occupation and colonialism," and cursed "your law and your articles and clauses."
Amid fears and explicit warnings that a death sentence would deepen bloodshed, Baghdad and two restive provinces were placed under an open-ended curfew for vehicles and pedestrians.
The tribunal is the first such court since Nuremburg's Nazi war-crimes trials to hand down a death sentence. After appeal, Hussein faces hanging.
The tribunal's creators had hoped that the forum would play a central role in closing the door on 30 years of ruthless oppression under Hussein. Indeed, Shiites and Kurds, who bore the brunt of tens of thousands of deaths at the hands of the regime, were jubilant. But that joy was tempered among Sunnis disenfranchised by Hussein's overthrow, and angry over what many saw as a political trial overly dependent on American experts and resources. The result, experts say, is a positive step for Iraqi justice, but one that reveals a deep and continuing weakness in the rule of law.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki heralded the result as "the end of a dark era," and a reason for hope among Iraqis battered by 3-1/2 years of Sunni-led insurgency and sectarian violence that the UN says takes nearly 3,000 Iraqi lives each month.
"Maybe this will alleviate the pain of the widows and orphans, and those forced to bury their loved ones," Maliki said. "The era of Saddam is now the era of the past. It is an era of dictators like Mussolini and Hitler. We are determined to build an Iraq without mass graves, without Anfal, and without wars, without military coups."
US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad called the verdict an "important milestone" for Iraq.
The tribunal, partly due to its heavy reliance on American resources and expertise and the blatant interference of senior Iraqi officials, has drawn criticism from international legal experts. Maliki recently said: "God willing, the verdict of death will soon be issued against the tyrant Saddam."
"This tribunal has suffered an unusual number of problems, compared to other tribunals" such as those of the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, says Miranda Sissons, head of the Iraq program of the New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice.
Deteriorating security has been a crucial issue, experts say, along with the inexperience of Iraqi judges and lawyers, and little reference to lessons learned from other international tribunals, or to non-US experts.
"If there is one thing that will make this court a laughing stock, it is continued executive interference in its work," says Ms. Sissons. "Mistakes were made in setting up the tribunal that shouldn't have been made."
Still, she adds, "this was not a sham trial. It was always an ambitious undertaking. The judges have done their best in difficult circumstances, coming from a very low base."
Amnesty International, which opposes capital punishment, said on Sunday that the tribunal had missed an opportunity to establish the rule of law in Iraq, and to ensure "truth and accountability for the massive human rights violations perpetrated by Saddam Hussein's rule."
The case dealt with a 1982 assassination attempt against Hussein in the town of Dujail, which prompted revenge killings of 148 people, deportation of 400, and razing of orchards. One intelligence document indicated the level of torture used against the 148, noting that "of those who were sentenced to death, 46...had been eliminated or died during the investigation."
But it is only the first in a dozen or so being prepared against Hussein and the former regime by the troubled Iraqi High Tribunal, which has been dogged by legitimacy issues, the murder of three defense lawyers, the resignation of one chief judge, an array of confusing testimony, and a multitude of farcical in-the-dock antics by Hussein and his codefendants.
The second, much larger case, charges genocide and covers the 1988 Anfal campaign against the Kurds in which up to 180,000 were killed. Legally, Sunday's death sentences will go through an automatic appeals process with no deadline. If the verdict is confirmed, the sentence must be carried out within 30 days. Hussein had requested execution by firing squad, normally reserved for the military.
Death sentences Sunday were also delivered to Barzan Ibrahim, Hussein's half-brother and former intelligence chief, and Awad Hamed al-Bandar, former head of the Revolutionary Court. Former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan was sentenced to life in prison; three lesser officials were handed 15-year jail sentences. The oldest defendant, a local Baath Party official in Dujail at the time, was acquitted for lack of evidence.
The Iraqi High Tribunal was expressly set up to enable Iraqis to feel "closer" to justice in the "New Iraq" created by the 2003 US invasion and subsequent occupation.
When the first trial began in October last year, Iraqis were at first riveted by the proceedings of the court, in which tearful witnesses – often testifying anonymously from behind a curtain – spelled out their suffering after the Dujail incident.
But it was not long before the novelty began to wear off of seeing Hussein and his co-accused engaging in feisty, irreverent arguments with judges and even guards during the trial's 39 sessions. Average Iraqis became more focused on day-to-day survival amid ongoing carnage. Sunday's verdict, finally, caught the nation's attention again.
"Saddam deserves to face such a court and I don't know how he could escape a guilty verdict for Dujail or more important cases," says Wamidh Nadhmi, a political science professor in Baghdad who manages a Sunni-led political coalition. "But now we are seeing more killing, more bloodletting than during his era."
Mr. Nadhmi helped Hussein in 1959, when he fled to Cairo after participating in a botched assassination attempt against the sitting leader.
"They promised us – the Americans – there would be democracy and human rights. But we see them violated in every day's happenings," says Professor Nadhmi. "The majority of Iraqis think the drastic failure of this regime and the Americans to bring security and human rights to Iraq, does not entitle them to conduct such a trial [or] issue a guilty verdict."
But the sentencing, regardless of its imperfections, is likely to be seen as justice by Iraqis who often did not grasp the magnitude of Hussein regime crimes – often heard about, but rarely physically encountered – until scores of mass graves began being unearthed starting in 2003.
Besides the Dujail and Anfal cases, tribunal investigators say they have documented evidence of more than 100,000 people tortured and killed in the aftermath of the 1991 Shiite uprising.
Some 5,000 Kurds were killed by chemical weapons in Halabja in 1988. Hussein ordered his armies into Iran in 1980, sparking nearly a decade of war that left 1 million dead and wounded, and in which Iraq used chemical munitions. And Iraqi troops occupied Kuwait in 1990.
Iraqis reeled from the legacy of those acts, but could rarely quantify them until the regime fell. Among the most poignant scenes came in late April 2003, just two weeks after the fall of Baghdad, at a graveyard adjacent to the Abu Ghraib prison. There, some 993 graves were marked only with crude numbered signs, until families, most of them Shiites, found lists that matched victims' names with numbers. "O my father, my father!" lamented Mustapha al-Fadil at the time, weeping uncontrollably at grave No. 659, when his family came to dig up the remains for reburial.
Fadil Sadoun, an overtly religious man, had been arrested in 1996 and never came home. "You should be happy," mourned the son. "Saddam is gone."
The scene repeated itself hundreds of times that day, with broken families taking home the broken remains of executed loved ones. At least they could be identified; most mass graves around Iraq are filled with anonymous victims.
But if state-sanctioned violence defined the former regime, Hussein threatened its use again on Sunday, when defense lawyers reported, after a lengthy talk with their client, that the former Iraqi dictator vowed to "die with honor and with no fear."
Americans in Iraq, defense lawyers quoted Hussein as saying, "will see rivers of blood for years to come. It will dwarf Vietnam," Reuters reported.
Days earlier, Hussein's chief defense counsel, Khalil al-Dulaimi, said after a guilty verdict, "The doors of hell will open in Iraq, the sectarian divide in the country will deepen, and many more coffins will be sent back to America."
But Iraq's prime minister, whose own Islamic Dawa Party had claimed responsibility for the Dujail assassination attempt, saw it differently. "The martyrs and all Iraqis have a right to smile," said Mr. Maliki.