Before Hanging, a Push for Revenge and a Push Back From the U.S.
This article was reported by John F. Burns, James Glanz, Sabrina Tavernise and Marc Santora and written by Mr. Burns.
BAGHDAD, Jan. 6 — When American soldiers woke Saddam Hussein
in his cell near Baghdad airport at 3:55 a.m. last Saturday, they told
him to dress for a journey to Baghdad. He had followed the routine
dozens of times before, traveling by helicopter in the predawn darkness
to the courtroom where he spent 14 months on trial for his life.
When his cell lights were dimmed on Friday night, Mr. Hussein may
have hoped that he would live a few days longer, and perhaps cheat the
According to Task Force 134, the American military unit responsible
for all Iraqi detainees, Mr. Hussein “had heard some of the rumors on
the radio about potential execution dates.” But never one to understate
his own importance, he had told his lawyers for months that the
Americans might spare him in the end, for negotiations to end the
insurgency whose daily bombings rattled his cellblock windows.
As Mr. Hussein prepared to walk out into the chill of the desert
winter, dressed in a tailored black overcoat, that last illusion was
shattered. After being roused and told that he was being transferred to
Iraqi custody, a task force statement e-mailed to The New York Times a
week later revealed, “he immediately indicated that he knew the
execution would soon follow.”
“As he left the detention area, he thanked the guards and medics for
the treatment he had received,” said Lt. Col. Keir-Kevin Curry,
spokesman for the task force. Mr. Hussein was then driven to a waiting
Black Hawk helicopter for a 10-minute flight to the old Istikhbarat
prison in northern Baghdad, where a party of Iraqi officials awaited
him at the gallows. “During this brief period of transfer, Saddam
Hussein appeared more serious,” the task force said.
The time as the helicopter took off was 5:05 a.m., and Mr. Hussein
had 65 minutes to live. But as he flew over Baghdad’s darkened suburbs,
he can have known little of the last-minute battle waged between top
Iraqi and American officials — and among the Americans themselves —
over whether the execution, fraught with legal ambiguities and Islamic
religious sensitivities, should go ahead.
American opposition to executing him in haste centered partly on
the fact that the Id al-Adha religious holiday, marking the end of the
annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, began for Sunnis at sunrise on
Saturday. In Baghdad, the sun was to rise at 7:06 a.m. Iraqi government
officials had promised the hanging would be over before the dawn light
began seeping through the palms that shade the capital’s streets.
The taunts Mr. Hussein endured from Shiite guards as he stood with
the noose around his neck have made headlines around the world, and
stirred angry protests among his fellow Iraqi Sunnis. But the story of
how American commanders and diplomats fought to halt the execution
until midnight on Friday, only six hours before Mr. Hussein was hanged,
is only now coming into focus, as Iraqi and American officials, in the
glare of international outrage over the hanging, compete with their
versions of what happened.
Tensions Boil Over
It is a story of the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki,
trying to coerce second-tier American military and diplomatic officials
into handing over Mr. Hussein, first on Thursday night, then again on
Friday. The American push back was complicated by the absences of
Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and the top American military commander,
Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who were both out of Iraq on leave. The American message throughout was that rushing Mr. Hussein to the gallows could rebound disastrously, as it did.
It is a story, too, of the Americans disagreeing among themselves.
After a final call to Mr. Maliki at 10:30 p.m. Friday, American and
Iraqi officials said, Mr. Khalilzad concluded that there was no
prospect of persuading the Iraqis to delay the execution and passed
that message to Washington. The conclusion found little favor with the
military, who were the ones who had to transport Mr. Hussein to the
For General Casey and Mr. Khalilzad, close partners here, the messy
ending for Mr. Hussein was made worse by the confirmation this week
that Mr. Bush will soon replace both men as he refashions his Iraq war
There were disputes among the Iraqis as well. At least one senior
judge from the tribunal that sentenced Mr. Hussein to die, and three
American lawyers who worked closely with the Iraqis at his trials,
fought their own rearguard battle, telling fellow Iraqis how surprised
they were that he received the death sentence in the narrow case that
produced it — the “systematic persecution” of Dujail, a small Shiite
town north of Baghdad, after an alleged assassination attempt against
Mr. Hussein there in 1982.
In interviews with dozens of American and Iraqi officials involved
in the hanging, a picture has emerged of a clash of cultures and
political interests, reflecting the widening gulf between Americans
here and the Iraqi exiles who rode to power behind American tanks. Even
before a smuggled cellphone camera recording revealed the derision Mr.
Hussein faced on the gallows, the hanging had become a metaphor, among
Mr. Maliki’s critics, for how the “new Iraq” is starting to resemble
the repressive, vengeful place it was under Mr. Hussein, albeit in a
The hanging spread wide dismay among the Americans. Aides said
American commanders were deeply upset by the way they were forced to
hand Mr. Hussein over, a sequence commanders saw as motivated less by a
concern for justice than for revenge. In the days following the
hanging, recriminations flowed between the military command and the
United States Embassy, accused by some officers of abandoning American
interests at midnight Friday in favor of placating Mr. Maliki and
But for Mr. Maliki’s inner circle, the hanging was a moment to
avenge decades of brutal repression by Mr. Hussein, as well as a moment
to drive home to Iraq’s five million Sunnis that after centuries of
subjugation, Shiites were in power to stay. At the “White House,” as
his officials now describe Mr. Maliki’s headquarters in the Green Zone,
a celebratory dinner began Friday night even before the Americans
withdrew their threat not to hand over Mr. Hussein.
An Iraqi who attended the hanging said the government saw the
Americans as wasting time with their demands for a delay until after
the four-day Id al-Adha holiday, and for whatever time beyond that
required to obtain the legal authorizations they considered necessary.
For the Americans to claim the moral high ground afterward by
disavowing the hanging, the Iraqi said, was disingenuous.
“They cannot wash their hands, this is a joint responsibility,” he
said. “They had the physical custody, and we had the legal custody. At
one point, I asked, ‘Is it our call or is it your call?’ They said,
‘It’s your call.’ I said, ‘If it’s our call, we’ve made the decision.’
” Legal niceties could not save Mr. Hussein, he said, concluding, “The
man has to go.”
In a speech on Saturday, a week after the hanging, Mr. Maliki showed
that he remains as angry as the Americans. Hitting out at governments
and human rights organizations around the world that have condemned the
hanging, he said they were hypocritical. “We’re wondering where these
organizations were during the crimes of Anfal and Halabja,” he said,
referring to Mr. Hussein’s persecution of Iraqi Kurds. “Where were they
during the mass graves and the executions and the massacres that killed
hundreds of thousands of Iraqis?”
The countdown to the hanging began eight weeks earlier, on Nov. 5,
as Raouf Abdel-Rahman, the chief judge in the Dujail case, passed death
sentences on Mr. Hussein and two associates, Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti,
Mr. Hussein’s half-brother, and Awad al-Bandar, chief judge of Mr.
Hussein’s revolutionary court, for crimes against humanity in the
hanging of 148 men and boys from the Shiite town. “Go to hell, you and
the court!” Mr. Hussein yelled as bailiffs ushered him out.
The widespread expectation was that the appeal of the death
sentences would run for months, allowing time for the more notorious
Anfal case, involving charges of genocide in the killing of 180,000
Kurds, to be completed before Mr. Hussein was hanged. American lawyers
in the embassy’s Regime Crimes Liaison Office, the behind-the-scenes
organizer of the trials, predicted Mr. Hussein’s execution in the
When the tribunal’s appeals bench announced that it had upheld the
death sentences on Dec. 26, three weeks into the appeal, even
prosecutors were stunned. Defense lawyers said Mr. Hussein was being
railroaded under pressure from Mr. Maliki, who told a BBC interviewer
shortly after the Dujail verdict that he expected the ousted ruler to
be hanged before year’s end.
The suspicion that the judges had submitted to government pressure
was shared by some of Americans working with the tribunal, who had
stifled their growing disillusionment with the government’s
interference for months. Among a host of other complaints, the
Americans’ frustrations focused on the government’s dismissal of two
judges seen as too indulgent with Mr. Hussein, and its failure to
investigate seriously when three defense lawyers were killed. The
appeals court’s apparent eagerness to fast-forward Mr. Hussein to the
gallows — and the scenes at the execution itself — was, for some of the
Americans, the last straw.
On the Thursday before the hanging, American military officials were
summoned. Both Mr. Khalilzad and General Casey were on vacation, so the
American team handling negotiations with Mr. Maliki and his officials
was headed by Maj. Gen. Jack Gardner, head of Task Force 134, the
detainee unit, and Margaret Scobey, head of the embassy’s political
Iraqi officials said neither carried much weight with Mr. Maliki,
who had learned through bruising confrontations to be wary of
alienating Mr. Khalilzad and General Casey, both of whom have direct
access to President Bush. At the Thursday afternoon meeting, tempers
frayed. According to an Iraqi legal expert at the meeting, Iraqi
officials demanded that the Americans hand over Mr. Hussein that night,
for an execution before dawn on Friday.
General Gardner responded with demands of his own, for letters
affirming the legality of the execution from Mr. Maliki, President
Jalal Talabani and the chief judge of the high tribunal that convicted
Mr. Hussein, the Iraqi legal expert said. The focus was on two issues:
a constitutional requirement that Iraq’s three-man presidency council
approve all executions, and a Hussein-era law forbidding executions
during religious holidays.
Mr. Talabani, a death penalty opponent, refused to sign off on the
hanging, but did sign a letter for Mr. Maliki saying he had no
objections if the government went ahead. The Iraqis, bolstering their
case, said that the Hussein tribunal’s own statute, drafted by the
Americans, placed its rulings beyond review. They dismissed the holiday
ban on executions, saying Iraq’s death penalty law had been suspended
by the Americans in 2003 and that the new Iraqi Parliament, in reviving
it in 2004, had not reinstituted the ban.
An Iraqi participant who opposed the hanging said that Mowaffak
al-Rubaie, Mr. Maliki’s national security adviser, said angrily, “This
is an Iraqi issue,” and added, “Who is going to execute him anyway, you
or us?” When the Americans insisted they would not hand over Mr.
Hussein without the letters, another Iraqi official exploded: “Just
give him to us!”
By Thursday evening, pressures for a quick hanging were growing.
Esam al-Gazawi, a Hussein lawyer, said by telephone from Jordan that
his legal team had been denied a final visit to Camp Cropper, the
American detention center, and that they had been told to send somebody
to collect Mr. Hussein’s personal belongings.
Around midnight on Thursday, the meeting broke up, and General
Gardner contacted commanders at Camp Cropper to tell them to stand
down. By then, the American command had entered what it called its
“X-hour sequence,” a 10-hour countdown to the execution that provided a
timeline for everything the Americans needed to do to ensure Mr.
Hussein’s “secure and dignified” delivery to the execution site.
Negotiations resumed Friday morning. In Phoenix, 10 time zones away,
General Casey was monitoring the exchanges in signals traffic from
Baghdad. American military officials remained opposed to an immediate
hanging, telling Mr. Maliki that beyond the legal issues, there was a
question of his government’s need to gain international support by
carrying out the hanging in a way that could withstand any criticism.
“We said, ‘You have to do it by international law, you have to do
it in accordance with international standards of decorum, you have to
establish yourselves as a nation under law,’ ” an American official
recounted. When Mr. Maliki said the Americans should respect Iraq’s
right to decide matters for itself, American officials said, one of the
Americans said: “Forget about us. You’re in front of the international
community here. People will be watching this.”
The arguments continued deep into the Iraqi night. General Gardner
and Ms. Scobey returned at one point to the former Republican Palace,
the American headquarters in the Green Zone, seeking Washington’s
advice. Workarounds for the legal problems were discussed.
At 10:30 p.m., Ambassador Khalilzad made a last-ditch call to Mr.
Maliki asking him not to proceed with the hanging. When the Iraqi
leader remained adamant, an American official said, the ambassador made
a second call to Washington conveying “the determination of the Iraqi
prime minister to go forward,” and his conclusion that there was
nothing more, consistent with respect for Iraqi sovereignty, that the
United States could do.
Senior Bush administration officials in Washington said that Mr.
Khalilzad’s principal contact in Washington was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice,
and that she gave the green light for Mr. Hussein to be turned over,
despite the reservations of the military commanders in Baghdad. One
official said that Ms. Rice was supported in that view by Stephen J.
Hadley, Mr. Bush’s national security adviser.
“It literally came down to the Iraqis interpreting their law, and
our looking at their law and interpreting it differently,” the official
said. “Finally, it was decided we are not the court of last appeal for
Iraqi law here. The president of their country says it meets their
procedures. We are not going to be their legal nannies.”
Mr. Khalilzad had suggested that the Iraqis get a written ruling
approving the execution from Midhat al-Mahmoud, the chief judge of
Iraq’s Supreme Judicial Council; Mr. Mahmoud refused. Then, the Iraqis
played their trump card: a call to high-ranking Shiite clerics in the
holy city of Najaf, asking for approval from the marjaiya, the supreme
authority in Iraqi Shiism. When his officials reported that they had
it, Mr. Maliki signed a letter authorizing the hanging. It was 11:45
The Americans suggested that foreign reporters be invited to the hanging, along with United Nations
observers. American commanders feared the concern for procedure might
be swept away by the urge for revenge. “Anybody who’s been involved in
a firefight will tell you there’s a moment when rage takes over,” an
American official said. The Iraqis dismissed the idea of outside
observers and assembled an execution party of 14 Shiite officials and a
Sunni cleric invited to help Mr. Hussein with his prayers.
The ‘X-Hour Sequence’
At Camp Cropper, the X-hour sequence was running for a second night.
Helicopters were positioned. Special security measures went into effect
along the flight path. The Americans dispatched sniffer dogs along the
route of Mr. Hussein’s final steps and into the execution chamber, the
only time any American set foot there.
Before he left the camp, Mr. Hussein bade farewell to American
soldiers who guarded him during the latter stages of his 1,110 days in
solitary confinement. There, and again after the helicopter carrying
him landed at 5:15 a.m. at Camp Justice, the American military post in
the Kadhimiya district of northern Baghdad that encloses the
Istikhbarat prison, the former dictator went man to man, thanking each
of the Americans for looking after him.
At 5:21 a.m., he was led into the prison, a forbidding, four-story
concrete building that once housed the headquarters of Mr. Hussein’s
military intelligence agency and now is a base for an Iraqi Army
brigade. The Americans took him to a holding room and exchanged papers
with the prison governor formalizing the transfer.
“At that point, he was dignified,” Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV,
the American command’s chief spokesman, said at a briefing later. “He
said farewell to his interpreter. He thanked the military police squad,
the lieutenant who was the squad leader, the medical doctor we had
present, the American colonel who was on site.” He added, with
emphasis, “And then we had absolutely nothing to do with any of the
procedures or any of control mechanisms or anything from that point
At 5:30 a.m., the Iraqis took over. An American official who watched
said Mr. Hussein’s demeanor “changed in the Iraqi prison when the Iraqi
governor assumed control of him.” Mr. Hussein had long since told his
American captors that he trusted them but not the Iraqis.
“He was still dignified, but he was scornful,” the American official said.
Mr. Rubaie, the security adviser, said that when Mr. Hussein
stepped into the execution block, an ill-lighted concrete structure
behind the main prison building where thousands of hangings took place
under Mr. Hussein, he seemed composed.
“He made some joking remarks,” he said. “He said to me, ‘Don’t be
afraid,’ as if I was going to be hanged. I didn’t reply, but one of the
guards shouted, ‘You did bad things to Iraq.’ And he said, ‘I made this
backward country into an advanced and prosperous nation.’ ”
After that, the story is taken up by the illicit cellphone video
that has caused an uproar among Iraqi Sunnis and across the world,
showing Mr. Hussein erect on the gallows in his black overcoat and gray
beard, staring ahead, and answering back, as taunts flowed from Shiites
gathered in front of the platform.
Mr. Hussein got halfway through the most sacred of Muslim prayers.
“There is no God but God, and Muhammad. …” The trapdoor clanged open.
It was 6:10 a.m.
Securing the Body
Before 7 a.m., helicopters ferried Iraqi officials back to the Green
Zone, along with Mr. Hussein’s body. For nearly 17 hours, Mr. Maliki
and his officials remained locked in a dispute with Sunni officials and
leaders of Mr. Hussein’s Albu Nasir tribe, with Mr. Maliki’s officials
refusing to release the body, saying they wanted no shrine to him.
Throughout, the body, in a white shroud, remained inside the ambulance
in the parking lot behind Mr. Maliki’s office.
For the last time, the Americans intervened, flying a delegation
from Tikrit, Mr. Hussein’s hometown, to Baghdad, and returning them 110
miles north again after Mr. Maliki, at nearly midnight, agreed to let
the body go.
It was transferred to a pine coffin, loaded onto the open back of a
police pickup, and driven back to Landing Zone Washington, the Green
Upset by events in the execution chamber, and concerned at
attracting any fresh anger from Iraqi Sunnis, the Americans ordered
their troops not to touch Mr. Hussein’s body after the execution, even
as it was loaded and unloaded from their helicopters.
This left Iraqi officials to unload the stretcher carrying the body
when the execution party returned to the Green Zone from the prison.
Mr. Rubaie, the security adviser, said he helped carry the stretcher
bearing the body from the helicopter to a waiting ambulance.
“We weren’t walking, we were jogging” to the ambulance, he said.
“This was a chapter we wanted to get done and finished with. We just
wanted it to be over.”
David E. Sanger contributed reporting from Washington, and Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Baghdad.