BAGHDAD – Iraqi security forces were on high alert Sunday around Baghdad and in the Sunni heartland north of the capital as the country marked the one-year anniversary of Saddam Hussein's execution.
In Baghdad, Iraq army Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said security forces were "ready and prepared for any emergencies that might happen."
In Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, hundreds of people and school children visited his burial site to pay homage and lay flowers. Some gave fiery speeches while others just stood quietly by the tomb, located in a large mausoleum in the Tigris River village of Ouja — the small hamlet just outside Tikrit where Saddam was born.
Children chanted "with our blood, with our souls, we sacrifice for you Saddam," Associated Press Television News footage showed. The tomb was covered in Iraq flags and flowers and flanked by large pictures of a smiling Saddam.
Saddam is buried next to his sons Odai and Qusai, who died in a gun battle with U.S. forces in a 2003 in the northern city of Mosul.
He was hung on Dec. 30 in Baghdad. Footage of the execution, filmed on a mobile phone and showing the former Iraqi leader being taunted just before he died, was leaked to the media and shown across the world. It provoked an outcry, particularly among many of Iraq's Sunni Arabs, and sparked a horrific day of violence that left 80 people dead from bombings and other attacks.
Iraq then plunged into its bloodiest cycle of violence since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, and American officials at the time feared the country was on the brink of civil war. The violence forced them to rethink their strategy and surged about 30,000 troops back into the country.
Jamal Salman, a 35-year-old Sunni in Baghdad, said that "We had wished that Saddam's death would be part of the solution but it became part of a problem."
Saddam was executed shortly after being convicted on charges of killing 148 Shiite men and boys in Dujail, north of Baghdad, after a botched assassination attempt in 1982.
Sunnis were not only outraged that Saddam was put to death on the day that they began celebrations for Eid al-Adha, a major Muslim festival, but many were also incensed by the unruly scene in the execution chamber, in which Saddam was taunted with chants of "Muqtada, Muqtada, Muqtada."
The chants referred to Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric who leads the Mahdi Army militia.
But a year later, al-Sadr's decision to declare a cease-fire, the influx troops of thousands of U.S. troops and a decision by tens of thousands of predominantly Sunni tribesmen to back America instead of al-Qaida has managed to turn the tide. Violence in the past six months has dropped by 60 percent, the U.S. military has said.
But tensions are still rife and the anniversary of Saddam's execution reminded many Iraqis that violence is never far away.
A leaflet scattered in the Sunni north Baghdad neighborhood of Azamiyah and issued in the name of the outlawed Baath party once led by Saddam said that Sunday marked "the first anniversary of the remembrance of the crime of Saddam's assassination committed by the Americans and the Iranian agents they have collaborated with to carry out a fake trial."
But in a predominantly Shiite area in east Baghdad, people wanted to forget Saddam.
"I don't care so mush for this occasion, but it was a black page and was turned over. We hoped that after his death matters would be more better, but the result was the opposite," said Najim Jamal, 41. A Shiite, Jamal said violence got worse after Saddam's death before getting better.
A year after the execution, Iraq remains to a great degree divided along sectarian lines, although the U.S. military has said the increased security should help efforts at national reconciliation.
In one such example, the top U.S. commander in Iraq said Al Qaeda was becoming increasingly fearful over losing the support of Sunni Arabs and has begun targeting the leaders of tribal councils who have switched allegiances in favor of America.
Gen. David Petraeus made the comments a few hours before a new audiotape of Osama bin Laden emerged, warning Iraq's Sunni Arabs against joining the councils fighting al-Qaida or participating in any unity government.
He denounced Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, the leader of the Anbar Awakening Council, a tribal force fighting Al Qaeda in western Iraq. Abu Risha was killed in a bombing in September. The Awakening Council has since morphed into a mass movement that now includes more than 70,000 fighters in Anbar, Baghdad and other Sunni-dominated provinces.
Also known as Concerned Local Citizens, the councils are funded by the United States and have slowly started becoming a political force — organizing themselves and actively seeking more participation in Iraq's Shiite-dominated political life.