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Iraqis ask if anything will change for the better

    BAGHDAD, Iraq — Iraqis awoke Saturday to television images of a noose being slipped over Saddam Hussein’s neck and his white-shrouded body, the pre-dawn work of black-hooded hangmen. They went to bed as new video emerged showing Saddam exchanging taunts with onlookers before the gallows floor dropped away and the former dictator swung from the rope.
    In Baghdad’s Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City, victims of his three decades of autocratic rule took to the streets to celebrate, dancing, beating drums and hanging Saddam in effigy. Celebratory gunfire erupted across other Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad and other predominantly Shiite regions of the country.
    There was no sign of a feared Sunni uprising in retaliation for the execution, and the bloodshed from civil warfare was not far off the daily average — 92 from bombings and death squads.
    Outside the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Ramadi, west of the capital, loyalists marched with Saddam pictures and waved Iraqi flags. Defying curfews, hundreds took to the streets vowing revenge in Samarra, north of Baghdad, and gunmen paraded and fired into the air in support of Saddam in Tikrit, his hometown.
    Still, authorities imposed curfews sparingly in contrast to the several-day lockdown put in place after Saddam was sentenced to death Nov. 5.
    Saddam went to his execution dressed in a black overcoat, dark trousers and a hat. It was unclear if he had been told in advance that he would be hanged just before dawn Saturday. He looked baffled and uncomprehending as one of the hangmen explained the procedure.
    He refused to put on a hood that was offered before a black cloth was wound around his neck and the noose draped over his head and tightened.
    New video, first broadcast by Al-Jazeera satellite television early Sunday, had sound of someone in the group invited to watch the execution praising the founder of the Shiite Dawa Party, who was executed in 1980 along with his sister by Saddam.
    Saddam appeared to smile at those taunting him from below the gallows. He said they were not showing manhood.
    Then Saddam began reciting the ‘‘Shahada,’’ a Muslim prayer that says there is no god but God and Muhammad is his messenger, according to an unabridged copy of the same tape, apparently shot with a camera phone and posted on a Web site.
    Saddam made it to midway through his second recitation of the verse. His last word was Muhammad.
    The floor dropped out of the gallows.
    ‘‘The tyrant has fallen,’’ someone in the group of onlookers shouted. The video showed a close-up of Saddam’s face as he swung from the rope.
    Then came another voice: ‘‘Let him swing for three minutes.’’
    The responses within Iraq to Saddam’s death echoed the larger reaction across the Middle East, with his enemies rejoicing and his defenders proclaiming him a martyr. While Iranians and Kuwaitis welcomed the death of the leader who led wars against each of their countries, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the execution prevented exposure of the secrets and crimes the former dictator committed during his brutal rule.
    Some Arab governments denounced the timing the 69-year-old former president’s hanging just before the start of the most important holiday of the Islamic calendar, Eid al-Adha. Libya announced a three-day official mourning period and canceled all celebrations for Eid.
    Within Iraq and across the world, the airwaves were alive with pictures of Saddam in death, a bruise on his cheek, his neck elongated and twisted impossibly to the right — grisly proof that the man who had tormented and killed so many during a bloody quarter-century rule was truly dead.
    But some Iraqis — like 34-year-old Haider Hamed, a candy store owner in east Baghdad — wondered what would really change with the execution of Saddam, who was just four months shy of his 70th birthday.
    ‘‘He’s gone, but our problems continue,’’ said the Shiite Muslim, whose uncle was killed in one of Saddam’s many brutal purges. ‘‘We brought problems on ourselves after Saddam because we began fighting Shiite on Sunni and Sunni on Shiite.’’
    At least 80 Iraqis died in bombings and other attacks Saturday, and police said 12 more tortured bodies were found dumped in Baghdad. The U.S. military announced six more service-members — three soldiers and three Marines — were killed.
    The execution took place on the penultimate day of the year’s deadliest month for U.S. troops, with the toll reaching 109. At least 2,998 members of the U.S. military have died in Iraq since the war began in March 2003, according to an AP count.
    Arab satellite television channels said Saddam’s body had been be returned to Tikrit for Sunday burial next to his sons Odai and Qusai in the main cemetery in the nearby town of Ouja, where Saddam was born. The sons and a grandson were killed in a gunbattle with the Americans in Mosul in July 2003.
    State-run Al-Iraqiya television later confirmed the body had been handed to the Salahuddin province governor and the leader of Saddam’s Albu-Nassir clan.
    Um Abdullah, a Sunni and teacher in Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, said she would wear black to mourn the city’s favorite son.
    ‘‘Saddam will be a hero in our eyes,’’ she said. ‘‘I have five kids and I will teach them to take revenge on Americans.’’
    Police blocked the entrances to Tikrit and said nobody was allowed to leave or enter the city for four days. Despite the security precaution, gunmen took into the streets, carrying pictures of Saddam, shooting into the air and calling for vengeance.
    Security forces also set up roadblocks at the entrance to another Sunni stronghold, Samarra, and a curfew was imposed after about 500 went into the streets to protest the execution.
    Among minority Sunnis there was deep anger, born not only of Saddam’s execution but of the loss of their decades-long political and economic dominance that began with Saddam’s ouster in the U.S. invasion nearly four years ago.
    ‘‘The president, the leader, Saddam Hussein is a martyr and God will put him along with other martyrs,’’ said Yahya al-Attawi, who led prayer at a towering Sunni mosque constructed by Saddam in Tikrit.
    There were cheers at the cafeteria of a U.S. outpost in Baghdad as soldiers having breakfast learned Saddam had been hanged.
    But members of the Army’s 2nd Battalion, 17th Field Artillery Regiment, on patrol in an overwhelmingly Shiite neighborhood in eastern Baghdad, said the execution wouldn’t get them home any faster — and therefore didn’t make much difference.
    ‘‘Nothing really changes,’’ said Capt. Dave Eastburn, 30, of Columbus, Ohio. ‘‘The militias run everything now, not Saddam.’’
    Staff Sgt. David Earp, who also fought in 1991’s Operation Desert Storm, said the execution worried him.
    ‘‘In my opinion, something big is going to happen,’’ said Earp, of Colorado Springs, Colo. ‘‘There will be a response. Probably not today because they know we are looking for one, but soon.’’

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