By CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA and QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA
Associated Press Writers
BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) - Clutching a Quran and refusing a hood, Saddam Hussein went to the gallows before sunrise Saturday, executed by vengeful countrymen after a quarter-century of remorseless brutality that killed countless thousands and led Iraq into disastrous wars against the United States and Iran.
In Baghdad's Shiite enclave of Sadr City, people danced in the streets while others fired guns in the air to celebrate the former dictator's death. The government did not impose a round-the-clock curfew as it did last month when Saddam was convicted to thwart any surge in retaliatory violence.
It was a grim end for the 69-year-old leader who had vexed three U.S. presidents. Despite his ouster, Washington, its allies and the new Iraqi leaders remain mired in a fight to quell a stubborn insurgency by Saddam loyalists and a vicious sectarian conflict.
The execution took place during the year's deadliest month for U.S. troops, with the toll reaching 108.
President Bush said in a statement issued from his ranch in Texas that bringing Saddam to justice "is an important milestone on Iraq's course to becoming a democracy that can govern, sustain and defend itself, and be an ally in the war on terror."
He said that the execution marks the "end of a difficult year for the Iraqi people and for our troops" and cautioned that Saddam's death will not halt the violence in Iraq.
On Saturday, a bomb planted aboard a minibus exploded in a fish market south of Baghdad, killing 15 people, said Haidr Nahi, service director of the al-Furat al-Awssat Hospital.
Ali Hamza, a 30-year-old university professor, said he went outside to shoot his gun into the air after he heard of Saddam's death.
"Now all the victims' families will be happy because Saddam got his just sentence," said Hamza, who lives in Diwaniyah, a Shiite town 80 miles south of Baghdad.
"We are looking for a new page of history despite the tragedy of the past," said Saif Ibrahim, a 26-year-old Baghdad resident.
But people in the Sunni-dominated city of Tikrit, once a power base of Saddam, lamented his death.
"The president, the leader Saddam Hussein is a martyr and God will put him along with other martyrs. Do not be sad nor complain because he has died the death of a holy warrior," said Sheik Yahya al-Attawi, a cleric at the Saddam Big Mosque.
As a security precaution, police blocked the entrances to Tikrit and said nobody was allowed to leave or enter the city for four days.
State-run al-Iraqiya television initially reported that Saddam's half-brother Barzan Ibrahim and Awad Hamed al-Bandar, the former chief justice of the Revolutionary Court, also were hanged. However, three officials later said only Saddam was executed.
"We wanted him to be executed on a special day," National Security adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie told state-run al-Iraqiya.
Sami al-Askari, the political adviser of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, told The Associated Press that Saddam briefly struggled when he was taken from his cell in an American military prison but was composed in his last moments.
He said Saddam was clad completely in black, with a jacket, trousers, hat and shoes, rather than prison garb.
Shortly before the execution, Saddam's hat was removed and Saddam was asked if he wanted to say something, al-Askari said.
"No I don't want to," al-Askari, who was present at the execution, quoted Saddam as saying. Saddam repeated a prayer after a Sunni Muslim cleric who was present.
"Saddam later was taken to the gallows and refused to have his head covered with a hood," al-Askari said. "Before the rope was put around his neck, Saddam shouted: 'God is great. The nation will be victorious and Palestine is Arab."'
Saddam was executed at a former military intelligence headquarters in Baghdad's Shiite neighborhood of Kazimiyah, al-Askari said. The neighborhood is home to the Iraqi capital's most important Shiite shine, the Imam Kazim shrine.
Al-Askari said the government had not decided what to do with Saddam's body. Issam Ghazzawi, a member of Saddam's defense team, said he was worried the body would be buried in an unmarked location.
Photographs and video footage were taken, al-Rubaie said.
"He did not ask for anything. He was carrying a Quran and said: 'I want this Quran to be given to this person,' a man he called Bander," he said. Al-Rubaie said he did not know who Bander was.
"Saddam was treated with respect when he was alive and after his death," al-Rubaie said. "Saddam's execution was 100 percent Iraqi and the American side did not interfere."
The station earlier was airing national songs after the first announcement and had a tag on the screen that read "Saddam's execution marks the end of a dark period of Iraq's history."
The execution came 56 days after a court convicted Saddam and sentenced him to death for his role in the killings of 148 Shiite Muslims from a town where assassins tried to kill the dictator in 1982. Iraq's highest court rejected Saddam's appeal Monday and ordered him executed within 30 days.
A U.S. judge on Friday refused to stop Saddam's execution, rejecting a last-minute court challenge.
Al-Maliki had rejected calls that Saddam be spared, telling families of people killed during the dictator's rule that would be an insult to the victims.
The prime minister's office released a statement that said Saddam's execution was a "strong lesson" to ruthless leaders who commit crimes against their own people.
"We strongly reject considering Saddam as a representative of any sect in Iraq because the tyrant only represented his evil soul," the statement said. "The door is still open for those whose hands are not tainted with the blood of innocent people to take part in the political process and work on rebuilding Iraq."
U.S. troops cheered as news of Saddam's execution appeared on television at the mess hall at Forward Operating Base Loyalty in eastern Baghdad. But some soldiers expressed doubt that Saddam's death would be a significant turning point for Iraq.
"First it was weapons of mass destruction. Then when there were none, it was that we had to find Saddam. We did that, but then it was that we had to put him on trial," said Spc. Thomas Sheck, 25, of Philadelphia, who is on his second tour in Iraq. "So now, what will be the next story they tell us to keep us over here?"
Sgt. Elston Miramonte, 25, of Monticello, N.Y., said Saddam got what he deserved.
"All the people that he killed, did they deserve to die? He had a fair trial, and it was time to execute him," he said.
The execution was carried out around the start of Eid al-Adha, the Islamic world's largest holiday, which marks the end of the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, the hajj. Many Muslims celebrate by sacrificing domestic animals, usually sheep.
Sunnis and Shiites throughout the world began observing the four-day holiday at dawn Saturday, but Iraq's Shiite community - the country's majority - was due to start celebrating on Sunday.
Human Rights Watch criticized the execution, calling Saddam's trial "deeply flawed."
"Saddam Hussein was responsible for massive human rights violations, but that can't justify giving him the death penalty, which is a cruel and inhuman punishment," said Richard Dicker, director of Human Rights Watch's International Justice Program.
The hanging of Saddam, who was ruthless in ordering executions of his opponents, will keep other Iraqis from pursuing justice against the ousted leader.
At his death, he was in the midst of a second trial, charged with genocide and other crimes for a 1987-88 military crackdown that killed an estimated 180,000 Kurds in northern Iraq. Experts said the trial of his co-defendants was likely to continue despite his execution.
Many people in Iraq's Shiite majority were eager to see the execution of a man whose Sunni Arab-dominated regime oppressed them and Kurds.
Before the hanging, a mosque preacher in the Shiite holy city of Najaf on Friday called Saddam's execution "God's gift to Iraqis."
"Oh, God, you know what Saddam has done! He killed millions of Iraqis in prisons, in wars with neighboring countries and he is responsible for mass graves. Oh God, we ask you to take revenge on Saddam," said Sheik Sadralddin al-Qubanji, a member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
On Thursday, two half brothers visited Saddam in his cell, a member of the former dictator's defense team, Badee Izzat Aref, told the AP by telephone from the United Arab Emirates. He said the former dictator handed them his personal belongings.
A senior official at the Iraqi defense ministry said Saddam gave his will to one of his half brothers. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
In a farewell message to Iraqis posted Wednesday on the Internet, Saddam said he was giving his life for his country as part of the struggle against the U.S. "Here, I offer my soul to God as a sacrifice, and if he wants, he will send it to heaven with the martyrs," he said.
One of Saddam's lawyers, Issam Ghazzawi, said the letter was written by Saddam on Nov. 5, the day he was convicted by an Iraqi tribunal in the Dujail killings.
The message called on Iraqis to put aside the sectarian hatred that has bloodied their nation for a year and voiced support for the Sunni Arab-dominated insurgency against U.S.-led forces, saying: "Long live jihad and the mujahedeen."
Saddam urged Iraqis to rely on God's help in fighting "against the unjust nations" that ousted his regime.
Najeeb al-Nauimi, a member of Saddam's legal team, said U.S. authorities maintained physical custody of Saddam until the execution to prevent him being humiliated publicly or his corpse being mutilated, as has happened to previous Iraqi leaders deposed by force. He said they didn't want anything to happen to further inflame Sunni Arabs.
"This is the end of an era in Iraq," al-Nauimi said from Doha, Qatar. "The Baath regime ruled for 35 years. Saddam was vice president or president of Iraq during those years. For Iraqis, he will be very well remembered. Like a martyr, he died for the sake of his country."
Iraq's death penalty was suspended by the U.S. military after it toppled Saddam in 2003, but the new Iraqi government reinstated it two years later, saying executions would deter criminals.
Saddam's own regime used executions and extrajudicial killings as a tool of political repression, both to eliminate real or suspected political opponents and to maintain a reign of terror.
In the months after he seized power on July 16, 1979, he had hundreds of members of his own party and army officers slain. In 1996, he ordered the slaying of two sons-in-law who had defected to Jordan but returned to Baghdad after receiving guarantees of safety.
Saddam built Iraq into a one of the Arab world's most modern societies, but then plunged the country into an eight-year war with neighboring Iran that killed hundreds of thousands of people on both sides and wrecked Iraq's economy.
During that war, as part of the wider campaign against Kurds, the Iraqi military used chemical weapons against the Kurdish town of Halabja in northern Iraq, killing an estimated 5,000 civilians.
The economic troubles from the Iran war led Saddam to invade Kuwait in the summer of 1990, seeking to grab its oil wealth, but a U.S.-led coalition inflicted a stinging defeat on the Iraq army and freed the Kuwaitis.
U.N. sanctions imposed over the Kuwait invasion remained in place when Saddam failed to cooperate fully in international efforts to ensure his programs for creating weapons of mass destruction had been dismantled. Iraqis, once among the region's most prosperous, were impoverished.
The final blow came when U.S.-led troops invaded in March 2003. Saddam's regime fell quickly, but political, sectarian and criminal violence have created chaos that has undermined efforts to rebuild Iraq's ruined economy.
While he wielded a heavy hand to maintain control, Saddam also sought to win public support with a personality cult that pervaded Iraqi society. Thousands of portraits, posters, statues and murals were erected in his honor all over Iraq. His face could be seen on the sides of office buildings, schools, airports and shops and on Iraq's currency.
Associated Press Writer Will Weissert contributed to this report.