President Bush said Sunday's conviction and death sentence for former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and two of his cronies is a "major achievement" for Iraq's new government and a giant leap forward as the country pursues democracy.

"Saddam Hussein's trial is a milestone in the Iraqi people's efforts to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law. It's a major achievement for Iraq's young democracy and its constitutional government," Bush said before boarding Air Force One on his way to campaign events for congressional candidates in Nebraska and Kansas.

On Sunday, a Baghdad court delivered a guilty verdict to Hussein for crimes against humanity and a death by hanging sentence for the murder of 148 Shiite villagers in 1982. Always defiant, the deposed despot has asked to be put in front of a firing squad instead.

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President Bush heard the news around 5:00 a.m. EST., about two hours after the verdict. Bush said it should come as relief to three of the victims' family members, who mustered the courage to testify against the mass murderer.

"The man who once struck fear in the hearts of Iraqis had to listen to free Iraqis recount the acts of torture and murder that he ordered against families. Today, the victims of this regime have received a measure of the justice that many thought would never come," Bush said.

Earlier in the day, the president's spokesman said the verdict demonstrates Iraq's independent judicial system.

"The fact that you had an independent judiciary holding a trial under difficult circumstances, and doing it carefully and publicly, also having an automatic right of appeal and being ready to publish everything that went into their decision, the president thinks it's an important moment for the Iraqi people because it is confirmation now that they have an independent judiciary," Press Secretary Tony Snow told FOX News.

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The Dujail massacre, as it is known, was in retribution for an attempted assassination of Hussein. The retaliation included the arrest of 399 townspeople and the razing of farmlands. Hundreds of women and children from the town were jailed for years in desert internment camps.

"The verdict against the Butcher of Baghdad closes one of the most painful and bloody chapters in dictatorial history," said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich. "The voices of 300,000 innocent people killed at the hands of Saddam Hussein cried out for justice, and the Iraqi people were finally able to answer the call today."

The verdict is just one in what is actually a multi-part trial, with each part representing an alleged crime by Hussein and his cohorts against the Iraqi people.

The outcome of the trial will automatically go to a nine-member judicial appeal. Hussein's chief lawyer condemned the trial as a "farce," claiming the verdict was planned. He said defense lawyers would appeal within 30 days.

Bush said through the appeals process, Hussein will "continue to receive the due process and legal rights that he denied to the Iraqi people."

Satisfaction with the verdict crossed the political aisle in Washington, D.C., though Democrats used the opportunity to blast the president once more for what they say is a failed Iraq policy.

"Any time a tyrant is found guilty, it is good news. But despite this verdict, the attacks against our troops in Iraq continue and President Bush still hasn't articulated a plan to improve the situation," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a leading Democratic critic of the Iraq war.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said the verdict brought long deserved justice for Iraqis. But he said Iraq has "descended into a civil war" and Iraqis "have traded a dictator for chaos" since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

"On this day of justice for the Iraqi people, President Bush must explain to the American people how he intends to change course, so that our troops will finally have a strategy to complete the mission, Iraqis will finally have a plan to restore order to their country and the mission can finally be accomplished," Reid said in a written statement.

Snow denied that the U.S. had any role in the timing of the verdict, two days before Americans vote in an election widely viewed as a referendum on Bush's Iraq policy. Democrats could take the House and possibly Senate majority in Tuesday's balloting.

"You know the conspiracy theorists are climbing out of the woodwork trying to manipulate things," Snow said. "The most important thing to know is that the Iraqis are running their own system. We're not telling them what to do, when to do or how to do it. ... The idea that somehow the president and the Iraqi government have been working hand in glove is just idiotic."

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on CBS' "Face the Nation" that "a special place reserved in hell" for Hussein. He added that he didn't think the day of the verdict, which was scheduled about a month ago, would impact the election.

"I think it was kind of a foregone conclusion," Biden said.

While the trial was lauded for its fairness, it wasn't without disruptions. During the course of the trial, one of Hussein's 13 lawyers was assassinated the day after the opening session. Two more were later killed and a fourth fled the country.

Three of the five judges who began on the panel considering the Hussein evidence had been replaced. Many of the judiciary panel involved have been threatened, and one member of the 20-judge Iraqi High Tribunal was assassinated in May 2005.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the verdict "a hopeful reminder to all Iraqis that the rule of law can triumph over the rule of fear and that the peaceful pursuit of justice is preferable to the pursuit of vengeance."

She added that the U.S. government and American people are proud of the "brave Iraqis, whether they be judges, prosecutors, or defense attorneys, who continue to work every day in the name of justice, democracy, and the rule of law for Iraq."

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said Saddam "has come long way from torturing and killing his own people to hiding in a hole in the ground to experiencing the very rights he denied his fellow citizens."

The top Democrat on the House International Relations Committee said the verdict was just. But Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., said in a statement it "must not distract Americans from the more pressing issue: the need for a change in the direction of our country's policy toward Iraq, both the conduct of the war effort and our pathetic, corruption-stained attempt at reconstruction."

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FOX News' Sharon Kehnemui Liss and The Associated Press contributed to this report.