BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Saddam Hussein’s former vice president was hanged for crimes against humanity early on Tuesday, the fourth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein from power.
Former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan was the third of Saddam’s top aides to be hanged since the former president was executed in December after a trial in a U.S.-backed Iraqi tribunal that was criticized by human rights groups as unfair.
The executions have done nothing to subdue violence that has engulfed Iraq since 2003, and some Sunni Arabs say they have exacerbated sectarian fighting that now borders on civil war.
Witnesses said Ramadan’s body, wrapped in an Iraqi flag, was received as a martyr by hundreds of people in Awja, the town north of Baghdad where Saddam was born. Gunmen fired shots in the air to honor him.
He was buried near Saddam’s sons and two aides hanged earlier this year, Awad al-Bander and Barzan al-Tikriti, outside the hall housing Saddam’s tomb, as requested in his will.
Government spokesman Ali Dabbagh said the execution of Ramadan went according to plan and measures were taken to ensure there was no repeat of Barzan’s botched hanging that left him decapitated.
Shortly after Ramadan was hanged in the early hours, a car bomb near a Baghdad police station killed at least five people and wounded 17 and another car bomb in Baghdad killed three. Mortar bombs later killed seven in southern Baghdad.
In western Anbar province, tribal fighters and police clashed with al Qaeda linked militants near Falluja. A provincial official in Ramadi said 39 militants were killed, along with nine tribal fighters and eight policemen.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, accused by Washington of failing to stop fighters crossing the border into Iraq and of helping insurgents there, said his country had no interest in destabilizing Iraq.
“It’s not in our interest to have chaos in a neighboring country, or to maintain it, because we will directly pay the bill ... Even years later, we will end up paying in one way or another,” he told French television channel France 2.
Salih Abu Mehdi, 43, a security guard and father of six children, said he felt Iraq was lost four years into the war.
“We never expected this would happen. We were hoping to live like a European country, not to be living like this,” he said.
“I was not one of Saddam’s supporters but, as many Iraqis would say now, Saddam’s days were better. At least things were more secure and calm. What shall we do with this democracy now?”
President George W. Bush warned skeptical Americans on Monday of the dire consequences of a swift troop withdrawal.
Bush, whose approval ratings are near the low point of his presidency, appealed for more time for his plan to send in nearly 30,000 more troops, mostly to stabilize Baghdad.
“It can be tempting to look at the challenges in Iraq and conclude our best option is to pack up and go home. That may be satisfying in the short run, but I believe the consequences for American security would be devastating,” he said.
A CNN poll showed U.S. support for the war had fallen to 32 percent, with 63 percent opposing it. Another poll showed four out of five Iraqis have little or no trust in U.S.-led forces and most think their presence is making security worse. Despite that, only about a third want them to leave now.
Ramadan’s sister, Khadija Yassin Ramadan, said he spoke to relatives in Yemen by phone before his execution.
“It is (gratifying) enough for us to die as martyrs for the homeland. We did not bow our heads to the occupiers,” she quoted him as saying to the family.
“Our country is not implementing the law; it is carrying out vengeance,” Khadija told Reuters in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa.
Saddam’s cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as “Chemical Ali”, is among other former top aides facing charges for crimes against humanity. His trial for genocide against Kurds in the late 1980s is already under way, while others such as Tareq Aziz are in detention. Charges have not yet been laid against them.
Additional reporting by Mohammed Sudam in Sanaa