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Iraqis pay respects to Hussein on anniversary of his death

December 31, 2007|Alexandra Zavis | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Hundreds of mourners visited the tomb of Saddam Hussein on Sunday to light candles and recite from the Koran in memory of the ousted dictator who was hanged a year ago.

Security forces braced for possible attacks in Baghdad and the Sunni Arab heartland north of the capital, where Hussein's execution heightened the alienation many Sunnis feel under Iraq's new Shiite Muslim rulers.

Driving bans were imposed in the tinderbox cities of Baiji and Dawr to ward against car bombs, and extra checkpoints went up in and around Tikrit, Hussein's hometown. But there were no reports of violence associated with the anniversary.

Many Hussein loyalists have joined forces with U.S. and Iraqi troops in the last year to fight the religious extremists they once tolerated, a decision U.S. officials credit with helping to reduce bloodshed across the country by 60% since June. Although most remain opposed to the U.S. presence in Iraq, the extreme violence and the austere interpretation of Islam imposed by groups such as Al Qaeda in Iraq dismayed them.

In Al Auja, Hussein's birthplace on the outskirts of Tikrit, children lighted candles in the hall where the dictator was laid to rest. Hundreds of people paid their respects at the tomb decked in flowers and the Iraqi flag, but it was a far cry from the crowds of thousands that Hussein could command in his lifetime.

Residents chafed at the beefed-up security presence in their village.

"We were surprised with these measures taken by the government, curfews in some areas and the blockage of various streets," said Thamer Baker, an unemployed former civil servant from Hussein's Albu Nasir tribe. "Why? Do they fear us? Where is the democracy they talk about?"

In the chaos of competing armed factions and near-daily bombings, some in Iraq hanker for the comparative stability of his brutal regime.

"He was not a dictator," declared Saif Nateek, a policeman from Hussein's tribe. "He was able to keep this country united, to hold it with a firm grip."

In nearby Tikrit, graffiti linger from the day Hussein was hanged: "Shame on the government" and "Long live Saddam."

Members of Iraq's Shiite-led government had hoped the execution would unite the country and lay the past to rest. Instead, footage showing Shiite onlookers taunting Hussein as the noose was placed around his neck sparked outrage among his fellow Sunnis.

The grainy images, which were captured on a cellphone and posted on the Internet, fueled a day of bloodshed last year that claimed at least 78 lives. The timing of the hanging, on the day Sunnis began celebrating the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, deepened the betrayal felt here and in Sunni Arab countries such as Egypt, Syria and Jordan.

Even in Shiite parts of Iraq, which suffered the brunt of Hussein's oppression, it was a day that many preferred to forget.

"This is a bad memory to have during the Eid days, and we want to erase it from our history," said Abed Hadi Hussein, a Shiite security guard who lives in the vast Baghdad slum known as Sadr City. "We want to turn a new page among the people. . . . We don't want to make this day a divisive day."

Ziad Tariq, a Sunni civil servant in Baghdad, said he had forgotten about the anniversary.

"With things moving toward the better, people don't want to be reminded about sad things," he said.

The anniversary passed without comment on state-run television and in parliament, where insufficient lawmakers turned up to make a quorum to vote on the national budget and a bill that would ease employment restrictions on former members of Hussein's regime.

Poor turnout has been a persistent problem for the legislature, where leaders of Iraq's main ethnic and religious factions are deadlocked over key power-sharing laws. The main Sunni alliance pulled most of its ministers out of the Cabinet over the summer in frustration.

Hussein was executed for the killings of 148 Shiite men and boys from the town of Dujayl after a 1982 assassination attempt, a fraction of the tens of thousands of deaths for which he is blamed during his nearly four-decade rule. He is buried near his sons, Uday and Qusai, and 14-year-old grandson, Mustafa, who were killed in a 2003 gunfight with U.S. forces in the northern city of Mosul.

Hussein's half brother and former intelligence chief, Barzan Ibrahim Hasan, and Awad Hamed Bandar, the former head of Iraq's Revolutionary Court, also were hanged in the Dujayl case.

In other news Sunday, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki underwent a health checkup at a British hospital, and his office described the results as "very reassuring." Aides denied reports that the prime minister was suffering from exhaustion when he left suddenly Saturday for what he described as a checkup.

A U.S. soldier died Sunday of noncombat-related injuries, the military said in a statement. The death is under investigation. At least 3,902 U.S. personnel have been killed in Iraq since the war began in 2003, according to the independent website


Times staff writers Saif Rasheed and Saif Hameed in Baghdad contributed to this report along with special correspondents in Baghdad and Tikrit.

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