BAGHDAD — Saddam Hussein's date with the executioner could come any day, after an appeals court upheld the deposed Iraqi leader's death sentence Tuesday, saying he must hang for ordering mass slayings of Shiite Muslim villagers in 1982.
The decision, announced at a hastily convened news conference in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, could worsen bloodshed between Iraq's ascendant Shiite Muslim majority and a disaffected Sunni Arab minority that was favored under Hussein.
Government and security officials said they were bracing for more violence when the sentence was carried out, but insisted that any surge would be short-lived.
Aref Shahin, chief judge of the appeals court, said there was no further legal recourse for Hussein and that he could be sent to the gallows "any day ... starting from tomorrow." The execution must be carried out within 30 days.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and his two vice presidents have to sign off on the execution order before it can be carried out. Talabani, a Kurd, opposes the death penalty but in previous cases has deputized a vice president to sign on his behalf.
The Iraqi High Tribunal handed down death sentences against Hussein and two codefendants Nov. 5 for orchestrating retaliation 24 years ago against the Shiite village of Dujayl after an assassination attempt on the former leader. Hundreds of residents were detained, tortured and forced out of their homes, and 148 people were executed.
Under Iraqi law, the verdicts and sentences automatically were sent for review before a nine-judge panel.
The White House called the appeals court ruling a milestone in efforts to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law.
"Saddam Hussein has received due process and legal rights that he denied the Iraqi people for so long," White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said.
But legal experts said the verdict came too soon, just three weeks after defense lawyers filed lengthy appeals on Hussein's behalf, reinforcing assertions that the trial was politically tainted.
Some Kurds had hoped for a delay so Hussein could finish standing trial over a separate 1980s military campaign against the ethnic minority that prosecutors have called genocide.
"It is not acceptable to finish everything with the Dujayl case and leave 180,000 victims with no trial," said Vian Dizayee, a member of the Kurdish parliament in the northern city of Irbil.
Baghdad lawyer Hibba Mansouri said government leaders would not postpone Hussein's execution for the sake of the Kurdish trial.
Four other defendants in the Dujayl case received prison terms ranging from 15 years to life. One person was acquitted.
Tribunal spokesman Raed Juhi said the panel deliberated for three days before deciding to uphold the death sentences against Hussein; Barzan Ibrahim Hasan, his half brother and intelligence chief; and Awad Hamed Bandar, the chief judge of Hussein's Revolutionary Court.
The judges concluded that the life sentence against former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan was too lenient and referred his case back to the tribunal for the death penalty. They did not alter the other sentences.
When the decision was announced on national television, victims' families in Dujayl burst into tears and ululations, saying justice would finally be served and calling for a swift execution.
Residents in Hussein's hometown of Tikrit seethed, dismissing the trial as political theater staged by the U.S. and its Shiite allies in the Iraqi government.
"Implementing the verdict is like driving ... Iraq into hell," said Ismail Mohammed, a 48-year-old teacher. "It is an American verdict and has nothing to do with the will of the Iraqis."
The announcement, which came at dusk, did not provoke any immediate outbursts, but tension was high in some predominantly Sunni areas.
"A lot of blood will follow as consequence of this political verdict," said Osama Mohammed, a 19-year-old college student in Ramadi, a center of the Sunni insurgency west of Baghdad.
Saleh Mutlak, leader of the second-largest Sunni political party, said more Iraqis were dying now than under Hussein.
"I feel the government is not qualified to push [a death sentence] under this situation," he said. "I think this verdict is going to increase the violence and decrease the chance of reconciling."
But the decision delighted Shiites, who were brutally repressed under Hussein.
"We wish to see Saddam hanged on our TV screens," said Sattar Jabar, a 32-year-old contract worker in the southern city of Basra.
In Dujayl, residents passed out candy and soft drinks and celebrated without the usual gunfire, said Maj. Gen. Nabil Darwash, police chief in nearby Balad.
Darwash said police and soldiers remained on alert, fearing mortar attacks and neighborhood clashes in the days or weeks leading up to the execution. But he said carrying out the sentence would ultimately help restore stability across Iraq.
"When they execute Saddam, they will kill any attempt that targets the security of Iraq," he said.