Dueling demonstrations continue after Saddam verdict

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Jubilant Shiites marched by the hundreds Monday, celebrating Saddam Hussein’s conviction and death sentence as Sunnis held defiant counter-demonstrations.

The surge in violence expected after the Sunday verdict on Saddam’s trial for crimes against humanity still did not materialize. An Interior Ministry spokesman credited a round-the-clock curfew in Baghdad, which has a mixed Shiite-Sunni population, and two restive Sunni provinces. Checkpoints were closed along Iraq’s border with Jordan and Syria, a standard precaution taken during domestic emergencies.

Officials said the clampdown would likely be lifted by Tuesday morning. On Monday, Baghdad was largely quiet, with offices and the international airport closed and few cars or pedestrians on the streets.

“We need to keep on guard over any kind of response from Saddam supporters,” Brig. Abdel-Karim Khalaf said.

In mainly Shiite Hillah, 60 miles south of Baghdad, around 500 people marched carrying placards and shouting slogans denouncing the former dictator, who is accused of killing tens of thousands of Shiites following a 1991 uprising.

“Yes, yes for the verdict, which we have long been waiting for!” chanted the crowd, largely made up of students and government workers.

At least three people were wounded after gunfire broke out at a Shiite rally in the southwestern Baghdad neighborhood of Amil, a mixed Shiite-Sunni area, police Lt. Maithem Abdel-Razaq said.

Ethnic Kurds abandoned plans for a celebration rally in the northern city of Mosul over security concerns, said Ghayath al-Sorchi, an official with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which is led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

Al-Sorchi said PUK activists instead distributed gifts to families who lost relatives in crackdowns under Saddam. Saddam is scheduled to appear in court again on Tuesday, when proceedings resume against him and six co-defendants in a separate trial over a crackdown against Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s.

Underscoring the widening divide between Shiite and Sunni, about 250 pro-Saddam demonstrators took to the streets in the Sunni city of Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. They were dispersed by Iraqi soldiers for breaking the curfew. Another 400 pro-Saddam protesters marched through Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad.

The curfew was temporarily lifted in Tikrit to give allow residents to shop and run errands. Angry crowds had gathered in the city on Sunday, holding aloft Saddam portraits, firing guns and chanting slogans vowing to avenge his execution.

Saddam was sentenced by the Iraqi High Tribunal for ordering the execution of nearly 150 Shiites from the city of Dujail following a 1982 attempt on his life.

Iraq’s president, whose office must ratify the death penalty sentence against Saddam if it is upheld on appeal, said from Paris Sunday that the trial of the ousted Iraqi leader was fair.

Jalal Talabani would not comment on the guilty verdict or death sentence for fear it could inflame tensions in his volatile nation.

If the appeals court upholds the sentences, they must be ratified by Talabani, a Sunni Kurd, and his two vice presidents, one a Sunni Arab.

Talabani has opposed the death penalty in the past, but found a way around it by deputizing a vice president to sign an execution order on his behalf.

Saddam was found hiding with an unfired pistol in a hole in the ground near his home village north of Baghdad in December 2003, eight months after he fled the capital ahead of advancing American troops.

Barzan Ibrahim, Saddam’s half brother and intelligence chief during the Dujail killings, was sentenced to join him on the gallows, as was Awad Hamed al-Bandar, head of Iraq’s Revolutionary Court, which issued the death sentences against the Dujail residents.

Former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan was convicted of premeditated murder and sentenced to life in prison, while three other defendants were given up to 15 years in prison for torture and premeditated murder. A local Baath Party official was acquitted for lack of evidence.

A nine-judge appeals panel has unlimited time to review the case. If the verdicts and sentences are upheld, the executions must be carried out within 30 days.

A court official told The Associated Press that the appeals process was likely to take three to four weeks once the formal paperwork was submitted. If the verdicts are upheld, those sentenced to death would be hanged despite Saddam’s second, ongoing trial on charges of murdering thousands of Iraq’s Kurdish minority.

President Bush called the verdict “a milestone in the Iraqi people’s efforts to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law.”

Symbolic of the split between the United States and many of its traditional allies over the Iraq war, many European nations voiced opposition to the death sentences in the case, including Britain _ America’s closest ally.

Prime Minister Tony Blair said Monday he opposed the death penalty “whether it’s Saddam or anyone else.” But he said the trial “gives us a chance to see again what the past in Iraq was, the brutality, the tyranny, the hundreds of thousands of people he killed, the wars.”