As a somber, black-clad Saddam Hussein marched to the gallows in the early morning hours of Dec. 30, Ralph Ayar thought about his father. Ayar, now 55 and living outside Detroit, was only 12 years old when members of Saddam's Baath Party arrested his father in the family's northern Iraqi village of Tel Kief. His crime: friendly connections to local Kurds, an ethnic group despised by the government. "They gave him no trial," Ayar told WORLD. "They led him straight from the jail to the gallows."
Ayar remembers listening with his family, including his mother, three brothers, and two sisters, as Baathist officials rounded up fellow villagers to witness the hanging in the public square: "It was devastating. . . . To this day it's devastating."
Decades later, several dozen members of Ayar's extended family, all Chaldean Catholics, gathered around a television at a cousin's home near Detroit to watch coverage of Saddam's execution. The mood, he said, was celebratory: "I believe justice was served."
The Ayars weren't alone. At the news of Saddam's death, celebrations rang throughout Detroit, a city with one of the largest concentrations of Iraqi immigrants and refugees in the country. Many fled to America to escape Saddam's brutal regime. Hundreds of Iraqi-Americans in neighboring Dearborn danced, waved Iraqi flags, and chanted: "No more Saddam!"
Saddam was executed in Baghdad just after 6 a.m. Dec. 30-three years and 17 days after the dictator emerged from an eight-foot hole in the ground outside Tikrit and told U.S. forces, "My name is Saddam Hussein. I am the president of Iraq and I want to negotiate."
Negotiations ended for the 69-year-old last month when an Iraqi court sentenced Saddam to death for ordering the deaths of 148 Shiite men in the village of Dujail. Iraq's highest court rejected an appeal on Dec. 25 and ordered that he be executed within 30 days, even though he faced additional charges stemming from a campaign to wipe out Kurds in the north.
The U.S. military, which held Saddam in solitary confinement at a base near Baghdad, turned him over to Iraqis at 5:30 a.m. "This process was carried out by Iraqis from A-Z," said Iraq's National Security Advisor and a witness, Mowaffak al-Rubaie. "It went like a blink of an eye. I couldn't imagine it faster than this." He said Saddam's death marked "the day Iraq is finished with a whole era of ruthlessness."
But for some the end of an era is the beginning of fresh controversy as Iraqi officials quickly launched an investigation into a bootlegged video of Saddam's execution-apparently filmed via cell phone by one of the 25 witnesses who attended the hanging. It portrayed guards taunting Saddam just before the gallows trapdoor opened beneath his feet: "You have destroyed us. You have killed us. You have made us live in destitution." As Saddam retorted, the masked guard cursed, "God damn you." Saddam replied, "God damn you."
For Saddam, whose time in captivity was marked by courtroom tirades and steadfast lack of remorse, that his end should likewise be less than dignified-and marked by violence-was no surprise. Within hours of the execution at least 75 people died in nine bombing attacks, most of the kind Sunni insurgents who have remained loyal to Saddam carry out against Shiite targets. At a popular fish market in Kufa, a Shiite holy city, a car bomb killed 34 and wounded 38 on Dec. 31.
But far more Iraqis turned out to cheer Saddam's death, echoing exiles in the United States. "Here in Iraq most of us feel that today justice has been served. Those who mourn him are a few," said Iraqi blogger Mohammed Tammouz. No one, he said, believes violence will end overnight. "His orphans are still murdering our people in cold blood trying to deny us the right to build a model of life away from the culture of death the dictator created," Tammouz wrote on his blog, Iraq the Model, the day of Saddam's execution.
"The people who have been feeding violence, thinking maybe one day Saddam can make peace in Iraq, now that thought has to end, and that's good," said Insaf Safou, an Iraqi now living in Toronto. Safou, a physics teacher, had to flee Iraq with her family after she refused to inflate grades for children of Baath Party members. Safou's husband was forced to serve in Saddam's army for 12 years. A chef at one of Saddam's 170 palaces, he coordinated the preparation of a daily menu to be duplicated at each and every palace, so that no matter where Saddam showed up to dine, he could expect the same meal. "Iraqis dreaded and feared Saddam, or they believed he was the only solution, but no Iraqi was unaffected by his rule," Safou said.
In Detroit, grief mixed with gladness as many in the crowd spoke of horrors they endured under Saddam's oppressive hands. Yahia Al-Aboudi, 60, told the Detroit Free Press that members of the dictator's regime hanged him from a ceiling and beat him. Abdulanir Jumaa, 42, said the scars on his arm and legs were inflicted during an 11-year imprisonment in the Abu Ghraib jail in Baghdad. Ali Al-Nassiri, 50, remembered two brothers killed by Saddam's regime. Dave Alwatan, 32, said Saddam's forces also tortured and killed members of his family: "Peace . . . now there will be peace for my family."
But not all who suffered in Iraq supported the execution. Joseph Kassab, who fled Iraq in his early 20s and now heads the Chaldean Federation of America, said his group, which serves many Catholics, opposed Saddam's execution because it opposes all taking of human life. The group's position is consistent with the Vatican, which issued a statement denouncing the execution as "tragic."
Christians disagree on whether the death penalty should have been applied to Saddam, notes Middle East expert Walid Phares, but they should acknowledge the Iraqi government's authority to carry out justice. "Saddam Hussein is not an ordinary person. He conducted mass murder and horrific crimes. The victims were in the tens of thousands, maybe close to a million over 30 years. He represents a criminal ideology and behavior comparable to Nazism. Hence, when the overwhelming majority of Iraqis decided, through voting, forming a government and a judiciary, to consider him a war criminal, a death sentence is a logical outcome."
But the "blink of an eye" execution may challenge government unity. Kurds in the government called for a delay so that Saddam could be tried on the larger war crimes Saddam committed in the north, where as many as 100,000 Kurds were killed under his regime and thousands were gassed to death during the Iran-Iraq war. Nouri al-Maliki, prime minister and head of the ruling Shiite coalition, pressed for the quick execution, voiding a constitutional procedure that required a three-man presidency council-composed of a Kurd, a Sunni, and a Shiite-to all vote for the hanging.
"I would have wished that he had been tried for many other crimes," Phares said, "and that these crimes would have been shown to the world in a clearer manner. The U.S. public would have better understood why it was legitimate to end the regime of Saddam after all these massacres."
Also potentially lost in Saddam's death is the trail to his missing fortune, estimated at $29 billion. After a brief period of cooperation when first captured, Saddam refused to help investigators. They now want to interview two of Saddam's three daughters living in Jordan.
Iraqis like Ralph Ayer in Detroit also wonder about the fate of those who disappeared at Baathist hands: "They would take people off to jail and you would never see them again." Ayer, who attends a large Chaldean Catholic church, says he believes Saddam's punishment was just. Life under Saddam's rule, he said, was "miserable." He fled the misery after Baathist officials confiscated his family's business and home. Now an American citizen, and after years of hard work, he bought a hotel and a grocery store with his brother. He is married with one son, five daughters, and three grandchildren.
Ayer's children were among the family who gathered to watch live news coverage on the night of Saddam's execution. As he went to bed, Ayar says he couldn't stop thinking about the family member who was missing: "I was hoping I would see my father in my dreams."
1937: Saddam Hussein is born.
1957: Joins the Baath Party.
1959: Flees to Egypt after attempting to assassinate Iraq's ruler.
1963: Returns when Baath Party takes power but is imprisoned after Baath Party is ousted.
1967: Escapes prison and begins underground internal security group.
1968: Helps Baath Party regain power.
1979: Seizes power himself, purging Baathists.
1980: Invades Iran.
1986: Launches Anfal campaign against Kurds.
1990: Invades Kuwait.
1991: U.S.-led forces launch Gulf War, evicting Iraq from Kuwait.
2003: U.S.-led forces invade Iraq; Saddam captured.
2006: Convicted and hanged for the 1982 Dujail killings.