In a world sharply divided on Iraq since the U.S.-led war began in 2003, Saddam Hussein's death sentence unleashed fears of fresh violence, European condemnation of capital punishment and new questions about the fairness of the tribunal that ordered him to hang.

Underscoring the fault lines that split the international community and widened the divide between Muslims and Christians, Islamic leaders warned that Sunday's verdict could inflame those who revile the United States — undermining U.S. policy in the volatile Middle East and inspiring terrorists to strike.

Critics accused U.S. President George W. Bush of deliberately arranging the timing of the sentence, handed down two days before pivotal midterm elections in which Democrats are fighting to regain control of the U.S. Congress.

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"The hanging of Saddam Hussein will turn to hell for the Americans," said Vitaya Wisethrat, a respected Muslim cleric in Thailand, where a bloody Islamic insurgency is raging in the country's south.

"The Saddam case is not a Muslim problem but the problem of America and its domestic politics," he said. "The Americans are about to vote in a midterm election, so maybe Bush will use this case to tell the voters that Saddam is dead and that the Americans are safe. But actually the American people will be in more danger with the death of Saddam."

The White House praised the Iraqi judiciary for its independence, and denied that the Bush administration had been "scheming" to arrange a pre-election verdict. "The idea is preposterous," spokesman Tony Snow said.

Many European nations voiced their opposition to the death penalty, including France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden, and a leading Italian opposition figure called on the continent to press for Saddam's sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment.

Although some voiced doubts that Saddam would actually be put to death, the International Federation for Human Rights denounced the use of the death sentence, warning that it "will generate more violence and deepen the cycle of killing for revenge in Iraq." And the Council of Europe called it "futile and wrong" to execute Saddam.

Louise Arbour, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, urged Iraq to ensure a fair appeals process and to refrain from executing Saddam even if the sentence is upheld.

In Pakistan, the opposition religious coalition claimed that American forces have caused more deaths in Iraq in the past 3 1/2 years than Saddam did during his 23-year reign, and insisted Bush should stand trial for war crimes.

"Who will punish the Americans and their lackeys who have killed many more people than Saddam Hussein?" asked Hafiz Hussain Ahmed, a senior lawmaker from the Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal coalition, which is critical of Pakistan's military cooperation with the United States.

Reaction was mixed across the Arab world. Some Muslims saw the sentence as divine justice, but others denounced it as a farce.

"If Saddam is condemned to death, then they must make it fair and sentence Mr. Bush to death ... and they should send Israel's Ehud Olmert to death, too, because of what he did in Lebanon," said Ibrahim Hreish, a jeweler in Amman, Jordan.

Iran, a bitter foe of both Iraq and the U.S., hailed the death sentence and said it hoped that Saddam — denounced by one lawmaker as "a vampire" — still would be tried for other crimes.

Key U.S. allies said Saddam got what he deserved for crimes against humanity committed during years of brutal dictatorship.

"I welcome that Saddam Hussein and the other defendants have faced justice and have been held to account for their crimes," British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said in a statement decrying the "appalling" atrocities committed by Saddam's regime.

Australia's foreign minister, Alexander Downer, called Saddam "an evil tyrant" and said the death sentence — which will be subject to an automatic appeal before he can be hanged — came as no surprise.

"An Iraqi court has rightly handed down this verdict, and it is just," said Congressman Tom Lantos, the top Democrat on the U.S. House International Relations Committee.

"But this development 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," he said in a statement.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose country withdrew its troops from Iraq, said he found it "alarming" that conditions have worsened since the U.S.-led invasion and called for a "change of strategy by the chief actors to this conflict."

Amnesty International questioned the fairness of the trial, and international legal experts said Saddam should be kept alive long enough to answer for other atrocities. Only then, they said, will Iraqis brutalized by years of his despotic rule see true justice done.

"The longer we can keep Saddam alive, the longer the tribunal can have to explore some of the other crimes involving hundreds of thousands of Iraqis," said Sonya Sceats, an international law expert at the Chatham House foreign affairs think tank in London.

"The problem really is that this tribunal has not shown itself to be fair and impartial — not only by international standards, but by Iraqi standards," she said.

Chandra Muzaffar, president of the Malaysian-based International Movement for a Just World, also voiced concerns that Saddam's trial "violated many established norms of international jurisprudence."

"But Saddam was undoubtedly a brutal dictator, and even though I wouldn't subscribe to the death penalty, he deserves to be punished severely for the enormity of his crimes," said Chandra, a well-known Muslim social commentator.

Underlining the volatility of his homeland, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said in Paris that he thought the trial was fair but refused to elaborate, fearing his remarks could inflame tensions. France urged Iraqis to show restraint.

In Russia, the Kremlin-allied head of the international affairs committee in the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, told Ekho Moskvy radio the sentence will deepen divisions in Iraq.

But the official, Konstantin Kosachyov, said he doubted that Saddam would actually be executed, calling the verdict "most of all a moral decision — retribution that modern Iraq is taking against Saddam's regime."

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