BAGHDAD, Iraq – Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shiites poured into the streets of the capital to rejoice at the death sentence for Saddam Hussein, but the former dictator's fellow Sunnis paraded through his hometown chanting, "We will avenge you Saddam."
Both Saddam and the Shiite prime minister who has sought his execution called on their countrymen on Sunday to end the sectarian violence that has pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war, but the starkly differing reactions to the verdict and sentence throughout the country — though largely peaceful on Sunday — stoked fears that worse was to come.
In Sadr City, the Shiite stronghold of northeast Baghdad, youths took to the streets dancing and singing, despite a curfew declared for Sunday over the most restive parts of the country.
"Execute Saddam," they chanted. Many carried posters of Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical anti-American cleric whose Mahdi Army militia effectively runs the district.
"This is an unprecedented feeling of happiness," said 35-year-old Abu Sinan. "The verdict declares that Saddam is paying the price for murdering tens of thousands of Iraqis," he said.
Police said at least three people, including a two-year-old child, were killed and eight wounded in clashes between gunmen and Iraqi police in Baghdad's dominantly Sunni Azamiyah district. Residents said rockets and mortars began falling on the area beginning Saturday night and blamed Mahdi Army fighters.
Saddam was sentenced to death by Iraq's High Tribunal for crimes against humanity, along with his half brother and former intelligence chief Barzan Ibrahim, and Awad Hamed al-Bandar, head of the former Revolutionary Court. Three other defendants received lesser sentences and one was acquitted.
"This is the fate of all those who violated the sanctity of the citizens and shed the honest blood. This is the disgraceful end to the person who brought ordeals, pains and reckless wars to this country," Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said in a television address to the nation following the verdict.
"I say to all deluded remnants of the previous regime: The period of Saddam and his party is gone as did other dictators' like Mussolini and Hitler," said al-Maliki, who was forced into exile during Saddam's rule.
He called for an end to sectarian violence. Saddam issued a similar call, said his lawyer, Khalil al-Dulaimi.
"His message to the Iraqi people was 'pardon and do not take revenge on the invading nations and their people,"' al-Dulaimi said. "The president also asked his countrymen to 'unify in the face of sectarian strife."'
In Tikrit, deep in the Sunni heartland north of Baghdad where support for Saddam runs hand-in-hand with deep distrust of Iraq's new Shiite-dominated government, gunshots rang out from rooftops and street corners as Saddam addressed the court. Sunni insurgents with AK-47s and heavy machine guns paraded in scores of vehicles in defiance of the curfew. A crowd about 1,000, including some policemen and many people holding aloft pictures of Saddam, chanted: "We will avenge you Saddam."
"The violence will only rise in the area after the hanging of Saddam, but the Americans care nothing about spilled Iraqi blood," said Mohammed Abbas, a 60-year-old retired teacher. "We are tribal people ... when any ordinary member of our tribe is killed, we will kill one from the enemy tribe, to say nothing of an important person like Saddam," Abbas said.
The U.S. military announced the deaths Saturday of a soldier in fighting in western Baghdad and a Marine assigned to Regimental Combat Team 7, who died from non-hostile causes Saturday in Anbar province. At least 13 U.S. troops have died in Iraq this month.
Celebrations were heady but mostly peaceful throughout the predominantly Shiite south, where Saddam's elite Republican Guard massacred thousands during a failed uprising in 1991. A line of cars festooned with plastic flowers wound through the streets of the holy city of Najaf, and crowds burned portraits of Saddam and his family. Salih Mahdi said Saddam's sentencing would help heal the loss of his brother Ali, who was 22 when he was arrested in Saddam's 1982 crackdown on the Dawa party, then an underground opposition and now linked to the prime minister. Ali Mahdi has not been seen since.
Mahdi, a retired civil servant, cursed Saddam and sobbed, saying: "You are cruel and cowardly and it was our misfortune that you ruled and terrorized us."
Celebratory gunfire also rang out in Kurdish neighborhoods across the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, where 40-year-old Khatab Ahmed sat on a mattress in his living room to watch the trial coverage with his wife and six children.
"Thank God I lived to see the day when the criminals received their punishment," said Ahmed, a taxi driver.