Published December 30, 2006
BAGHDAD, Iraq – In Sadr City, Baghdad's largest Shiite enclave, men, women and children spilled into the streets Saturday to celebrate Saddam Hussein's hanging. They sang and danced. Passing cars honked.
"God will give him his punishment," said Laila Nagi Habib, 42, a Shiite and homemaker who lives outside Sadr City. "I hate him, but he can no longer feel my hate now that he is dead."
But in many areas of Baghdad — both Shiite and Sunni alike — the reaction was more muted. Although officials imposed curfews in the northern city of Samarra and in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, no restrictions were ordered on the normally explosive capital.
"We are tired of this Saddam case. It has been too many years for him in prison," said Rabiaa Awthib Mowhsh, a 60-year-old Shiite resident of Baghdad. She said she was happy about the execution, but was too terrified to party in the streets.
"We celebrate and maybe somebody shoots us," she said. "So we don't celebrate."
The pre-dawn hanging threatened to divide a country already teetering on the edge of a civil war between its Shiite majority and Sunni minority, the sect favored under Saddam's regime. While some Iraqis danced in the streets and fired assault rifles into the air, others wore black and vowed revenge. Some said their country may finally be turning a corner. Others braced for more bloodshed.
Haider Hamed, a candy store owner in eastern Baghdad, applauded the execution, saying his uncle had been kidnapped and killed by Saddam's special forces. But he said the sectarian bloodbath gripping the capital and many other parts of the country only flared up after Saddam's ouster by American troops.
"We brought problems on ourselves after Saddam because we began fighting Shiite on Sunni and Sunni on Shiite," said Hamed, a 34-year-old Shiite. "He's gone, but our problems continue."
Outside the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Ramadi, west of the capital, loyalists marched with Saddam pictures and waved Iraqi flags. Defying curfews, hundreds took to the streets vowing revenge in Samarra, north of Baghdad, and gunmen paraded and fired into the air in support of Saddam in Tikrit.
"The president, the leader, Saddam Hussein is a martyr and God will put him along with other martyrs," said Yahya al-Attawi, who led a prayer at a towering Sunni mosque constructed by Saddam in Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad.
Um Abdullah, a Sunni and teacher in Tikrit, said she would wear black.
"Saddam will be a hero in our eyes," she said. "I have five kids and I will teach them to take revenge on Americans."
There were cheers at the cafeteria of a U.S. outpost in Baghdad as soldiers having breakfast learned Saddam had been hung.
But members of the Army's 2nd Battalion, 17th Field Artillery Regiment, on patrol in an overwhelming Shiite neighborhood in eastern Baghdad, said the execution wouldn't get them home any faster — and therefore didn't make much difference.
"Nothing really changes," said Capt. Dave Eastburn, 30, of Columbus, Ohio. "The militias run everything now, not Saddam."
Staff Sgt. David Earp, who also fought in Operation Desert Storm, said the execution worried him.
"In my opinion, something big is going to happen," said Earp, of Colorado Springs, Colo. "There will be a response. Probably not today because they know we are looking for one, but soon."
But another member of Earp's unit, Sgt. Jesse Kobussen, said the opposite could be true.
"The Baathist guys may calm down," said Kobussen, 22, of New Holstein, Wis. "They'll get it through their heads that (Saddam's) not coming back to power."
Col. Ahmaed, a police commander in Baghdad who asked that his last name and position not appear in print for fear of assassination, said he ordered his men to be on alert for attacks from Sunni insurgents.
"Whether Saddam is killed or not killed, it does not stop the terrorists," said Ahmaed, who wept as he told how his brother was jailed and beaten until suffering brain damage for allegedly speaking out against Saddam's regime.
Ahmaed said he served in Saddam's army for 17 years, but was held up for promotion because he is Shiite. Still, he acknowledged that Iraq was less violent and chaotic in those days.
"In the beginning, we feel that the new government is better than Saddam. But not now," he said. "With Saddam, things were safer for everyone. Now the streets are very dangerous."
Madetha Autheeb, of a U.S.-backed neighborhood council for the sprawling Diyala section of eastern Baghdad, said the hanging "could be the beginning of the end of the past."
Between calls on her ever-ringing cell phone, Autheeb said the execution could have a long-term calming effect.
"A lot of people believe Saddam is an idea more than a person, an idea of law and order," she said. "The execution will maybe end those beliefs."
But Eastburn, the U.S. Army captain, said other leaders on both sides of the Shiite-Sunni divide will keep battling to fill the power vacuum.
"For every one Saddam you execute, there are like 20 little Saddams ready to take his place," he said. "We can't stop them all."