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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ: JOY AND BITTERNESS

In Iraq and U.S., a time to celebrate

Survivors of Hussein's rule recall their decades of suffering and share their joy over the news of his execution.

December 31, 2006|Alexandra Zavis and P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writers

From a dusty Iraqi town to a bustling Detroit suburb, survivors of Saddam Hussein's regime spoke out Saturday about life, death and decades of suffering under one of the world's most ruthless strongmen.

Within hours of Hussein's execution, Iraqi residents and those who had escaped their war-torn homeland shouted for joy, while others expressed bittersweet emotions now that the despot was finally gone.

In Iraq, many hugged and cried as others fired guns into the morning sky. Others said that one hanging was not enough: They wished Hussein could have been killed a thousand times for his crimes.

In the United States, Iraqi expatriates danced in the streets. Others said Hussein's death would not stop the civil war that convulses Iraq.

And in Victorville, Calif., the mother of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq said the execution means that her son did not die in vain.

Gunfire and music

Dujayl Mayor Mohammed Zubaidi had hoped to see Saddam Hussein hanged Saturday. But residents of the small Shiite farming town -- the focus of the trial that led to Hussein's execution -- were not invited.

The disappointment was short-lived. At dawn, gunfire erupted across Dujayl when the execution was announced.

"The people of Dujayl have been waiting for this day for long, long years because he has left deep wounds in the body of the town," Zubaidi said.

Crowds gathered at mosques and political party headquarters, and triumphant music was broadcast from loudspeakers. Residents went from house to house to congratulate the families of the dead.

"Some people were wishing that he dies a thousand times, others that they cut him to pieces," Zubaidi said.

For the mayor, the execution signified an eye for an eye.

When Hussein retaliated against the Shiite town for a failed 1982 assassination attempt, Zubaidi's father and brother were already in jail. Still, they were hanged with at least 146 other men and boys.

"This is the justice of God who made it that Hussein should be hanged in the same way," Zubaidi said, tired but exultant.

Grins and cheers

In Dearborn, Mich., home to the nation's largest concentration of Iraqi immigrants, hundreds of celebrators spilled onto the street Friday night.

Along Warren Avenue, Christians embraced Muslims. Dozens chanted, "No more Saddam!" until their voices grew hoarse. The darkness was broken by the flash of cellphone cameras snapping shots of the chaotic scene.

At midnight, police dispersed the crowd. By dawn, many had returned to their celebration near a prominent mosque.

Crowds spread into nearby shops, where men chain-smoking cigarettes monitored TV news broadcasts from Iraq. Again and again, the footage showed a thick noose being slid around Hussein's neck.

Each time, the grim scene elicited grins from those watching.

Tears for victims

Those celebrating also paused to remember Iraq's dead.

On Warren Avenue, Ajmy Al Saidi stood silent, tears glistening on his cheeks.

Two brothers and a nephew were imprisoned and killed by Hussein's regime in the 1980s. Their dismembered bodies were dumped at the family's door.

Other relatives and neighbors routinely disappeared. If the families were lucky, Al Saidi said, their corpses were returned -- tossed into the street.

Nearby, the George family clung to one another in silence. Sameh George was a 15-year veteran in the Iraqi army when he tried to retire and move his family from Baghdad. He was arrested in 1996 -- and kept in prison for more than a year.

Four months ago, his younger brother Saher, an interpreter for the U.S. Marines in Iraq, was killed by a suicide bomber.

For the Georges and Al Saidi, it was a day of retribution.

"We have lived with fear for our lives and anger in our hearts for too long," said Al Saidi, 50, a former Iraqi national volleyball team member. "I have prayed for this day to come, but I still can't believe it's true."

Peace of mind

Joseph and Patricia Wiscowiche learned of Hussein's execution while watching TV in the bedroom of their Victorville home. Patricia leapt from the bed and clapped, almost in spite of herself.

She asked about Hussein's family.

"I had some sympathy for his family -- I guess that's a motherly thing -- but I had no sympathy for him. It was almost like Saddam was my son's murderer."

Marine Lance Cpl. William Wiscowiche had taken part in the attacks that ousted Hussein in 2003. A combat engineer, the 20-year-old also blew up safes in Hussein's palaces.

He was killed by a mine the following year, during his second tour in Iraq.

"Since they hung Saddam, I feel my son did not die in vain," said Patricia Wiscowiche, 52. "It was kind of closure for me. We're spiritual people, but I'm just glad he got what he deserved."

Joseph Wiscowiche, 71, a Vietnam War veteran, said he had been a "little depressed" over the U.S. military's lack of progress in Iraq, but Hussein's execution brought some peace of mind.

"At least we're getting something out of this," he said.

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