Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi dictator who got his start in politics as an assassin and who never lost that brutal approach as he led Iraq for more than 30 years, was led to the gallows by a group of burly men in balaclavas and executed early Saturday morning.
Hussein was executed for the only crime for which he's been convicted: the 1982 murder of more than 200 people from the village of Dujail. Many Iraqis, though, particularly the Shiites and Kurds who lost hundreds of thousands to his bloody regime, saw his death as justice for the broader crimes of his rule.
Yet peace is unlikely to follow, analysts say. Hussein still has the power to arouse fierce passions among Iraqis. His death was cheered by millions of Iraqis, setting off wild celebrations in the Shiite quarters of Baghdad and other cities. Many Sunnis, however, saw it as a national humiliation - a proud Arab leader put to death at the hands of a government the United States helped to install - and were angered by the fact that the execution took place on Eid al-Adha, Islam's most important holiday.
Still, the demise of the man who led bloody wars against Iran and the United States, and whose police state was famously called the "republic of fear" by one dissident, may now be oddly irrelevant to Iraq's future, as the country's broad sectarian violence has moved far beyond camps of Hussein supporters and opponents.
While the US once believed Hussein's fall would help stabilize Iraq - his capture in a dim spider hole three years ago set off celebrations in US military command centers "akin to VE day," one US military intelligence officer recalls - that is no longer the case. What was once described as an insurgency largely made up of Baathist holdouts and some Sunni Islamist fighters, is now seen as a battle for power among Iraq's major sects.
President Bush reflected that view when he cautioned against too much optimism on Saturday.
"Bringing Saddam Hussein to justice will not end the violence in Iraq," Mr. Bush said in a statement. "But it is an important milestone on Iraq's course to becoming a democracy."
Since Hussein's capture and trial, tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed in the deepening civil conflict, and sectarian militias have mushroomed throughout the country. Shiite death squads allied to some of Iraq's major political parties have been particularly active in Baghdad and Basra, the country's second largest city, and have used torture techniques to rival those of Hussein's feared secret police.
Last Monday, for instance, British forces raided and then destroyed the serious crimes unit in Basra, which they said was a base of operations for a Shiite militia. They found more than 100 prisoners there, many of whom had been tortured with electric shocks, burned with cigarettes, or shot in the knees.
Before Hussein's execution, US and Iraqi forces braced for a possible surge in violence. About 70 people were killed around Iraq following his death, most by two suicide car bombs, one in the Shiite town of Kufa, the other in Baghdad, a level of violence that has been fairly common in recent months.
The move to execute Hussein was swift. He was on trial facing charges of genocide against Iraq's Kurds, and at least four other trials were expected to follow. While US advisers to the court had said that they expected that the execution would be delayed to allow the justice process to go forward for his other crimes, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite Islamist whose popularity has flagged as Iraq's violence has deepened and unemployment has surged, grew determined to see Hussein killed without further delay.
Ahead of the execution, Mr. Maliki said the swift carrying out of the sentence underscored his government's commitment to protecting "human rights."
Michael Scharf, a legal scholar at Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio, and expert in war-crimes tribunals who has provided legal advice to the judges who tried Hussein, former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic, and other dictators, says that he is "saddened" that Hussein won't face further charges.
But, he says, he understands why the Iraqi government made the decision. "In a way, it cheapens his crimes. It's like treating Saddam as if he were Al Capone. Crimes against humanity are a very serious charge, but there is a hierarchy of evil, and at the top of that pyramid is genocide."
Hussein's execution was held in a former torture facility of Hussein's in the Shiite neighborhood of Khadimiya, another piece of symbolism designed to appeal to Iraq's Shiite majority. State television showed the noose being put around Hussein's neck, and later displayed footage of his body. Celebratory gunfire - Iraqis call it "happy fire" - broke out, particularly in Sadr City, the stronghold of militant cleric and Shiite militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, who US officers now say is among the greatest threats to peace and stability.
In a statement, Maliki said that the carrying out of Hussein's sentence provided a "lesson" to dictators around the world. He said it was wrong to view him as a Sunni Arab, or to blame Sunni Iraqis in general for Hussein's crimes.
"The tyrant represented nothing but his own evil soul," the statement reads.
Many observers note that Hussein's foreign wars, and the international sanctions that followed his 1991 attempt to annex Kuwait, drove the economy into the ground. But he is also remembered by many Iraqi Sunni Arabs and some Shiites as presiding over an unprecedented era of prosperity. He came to power amid the region's oil boom, and his Arab Socialist Republic, as he called it, poured much of that wealth into health and literacy programs that left the country with the best university system in the region and its largest middle class.
Hussein was also a popular figure in the broader Middle East, where state-controlled media almost never reported his crimes. Instead, he was seen as a rare Arab leader willing to stand up to the US, and who took a strong stand in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, giving thousands of dollars to the families of Palestinians killed in attacks on Israel.
Most Arab regimes, close to the US but mindful of the popularity of the ousted dictator among their people, have avoided comment on the execution so far, though Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi declared three days of national mourning. In contrast, Iran, which lost hundreds of thousands of its citizens in the war with Iraq in the 1980s, hailed the execution as an act of justice.
Few doubt that Hussein was responsible for mass murder and the routine torture of political opponents and even one-time friends - he ordered the executions of a number of the men who helped him seize power in 1968, his two sons-in-law, and was alleged to have personally murdered opponents in the Baath Party during his rise to power.
But the fairness of his trial was criticized by international human rights organization. Human Rights Watch charged in a report last month that his trial was "deeply flawed" and damaged the rule of law in Iraq. Among the group's concerns was the violence against the court - three defense lawyers were assassinated in the course of the trial -as well as what it alleged was government interference in the workings of the court, and "demonstrated bias" of the presiding judge, an ethnic Kurd who lost family members when Hussein's government attacked the Kurdish village of Halabja with sarin nerve gas.
Mr. Scharf disputed the criticisms of Human Rights Watch and others. He says that he would give the tribunal a "low passing grade" and agrees with Maliki that it does send a message to dictators.
"We are really entering this new period where dictators can't count on a comfortable retirement," he says. "With [Chilean dictator Augusto] Pinochet dying under house arrest, Milosevic dying in custody, and now this. I tell the critics they should read the 298-page judgment against Saddam - the largest war-crimes judgment since Nuremberg - before going any further."
Scharf says that the government decided the cost of allowing Hussein to live to face further charges was greater than ending his life now. "Early on, there was a feeling that people would want him around to face justice in these other cases," he says, "but [their view is that] he's been not only a continuing disruptive influence in court but actually inciting violence outside of it."