Shias and Kurds greet verdict with celebratory gunfire while the Sunnis talk of seeking revenge for the 'son of Iraq'
Jubilation in Sadr City after the Saddam verdict. Photograph: Karim Kadim/AP
Reaction to the verdict was divided along ethnic and sectarian lines, with many once-dominant Sunni Arabs expressing sympathy for Saddam, who is also Sunni, and long-oppressed Shia and Kurds celebrating.
Celebratory gunfire erupted in the Shia city of Dujail moments after the verdict was announced as residents took to the streets in defiance of the curfew, carrying photographs of loved ones they said were lost during the 1982 crackdown.
Abdul Zahara Hatow, 80, who bears the scars of torture from the time he was rounded up by mukhabarat officers, said, "I would like today to raise my shirt and show the whole world what the regime did to me. I feel that this sentence will be like a bandage to my wounds."
Hussein al Haydari, another Dujail resident, said: "We've been waiting for justice since 1982, but today is great day for the people of Dujail."
There were similar demonstrations of support for the verdict in the mostly Shia port city of Basra, and other cities in the south, including Kut, Hilla, Najaf and Amarah. In Basra, Karima Mohamed Ali, 55, said her son, Hayder, was killed by Saddam's security forces during the Shia uprising in 1991. "Nothing can bring him back. Executing Saddam will be some compensation for my son's murder," she said through tears.
In Baghdad's huge impoverished Shia district of Sadr city, tens of thousands took to the streets to celebrate, also in defiance of the total curfew. Sadr issued a call to his followers, who have been accused of orchestrating attacks on Sunnis, to keep the peace and said any violence against Sunnis would be considered treason. "You are called upon now to perform a thanksgiving prayer," said a statement broadcast from local mosques.
Abdul Aziz al Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and head of the ruling Shia alliance, praised the verdict and urged Iraqis to unite: "I hope the verdict will bring closure to this tragic and brutal episode in Iraqi history. We must never forget and we must always be vigilant never to let tyranny rise here in Iraq ever again - but it's time to move on."
In Tikrit, Saddam's hometown, hundreds of protesters defied the curfew by marching along a main street, clutching palm fronds, waving Iraqi flags and photos of their former leader, chanting: "You are still the son of Iraq, we will avenge you."
A number of masked gunmen fired kalashnikovs from surrounding rooftops. Sheikh Fawas Hamed al Tikriti, one of the city's leading figures, said the verdict was "arbitrary and politicised" and would provoke violence. "It is all in the interests of the US elections, and this will not pass without revenge," he said.
Ali Salem, 35, a government employee who had come to show support from the nearby city of Samarra, said: "The verdict is unfair and illegal under the occupation and it serves the political interests of the governing parties in Iraq." Ali al Harbawi, a lecturer at Tikrit university, said: "I express my anger and total rejection at this unfair verdict. The tribunal is unacceptable and illegal."
Support for Saddam could be found from the deserts of western Iraq, the insurgents' heartland, to the streets of Mansour, a middle class neighbourhood in western Baghdad. Many disaffected Sunnis said they saw the trial as a conspiracy by Iran and the US, aimed not just at Saddam, but all of Iraq's Sunni Arabs.
In Baghdad's al-Qahira neighbourhood, Mohammed Qasir, said: "This verdict is from treacherous people and foreign agents, not a verdict from the real Iraqi people. I tell Saddam Hussein that they will never assassinate the voice of truth. I don't mean to say I love Saddam. I'm just making a comparison between the old regime and the government today."
Leading Sunni political figures were forthright in their condemnation. Salah al-Mutlaq, who heads the second largest Sunni bloc in parliament, part of the government of national unity, said the verdict would spark even greater bloodshed. "This government will be responsible for the consequences, with the deaths of hundreds, thousands or even hundreds of thousands," he said.
There were armed clashes between residents and Iraqi security forces in the Baghdad Sunni stronghold of Adhamiya, as well as attacks in the western town of Fallujah.
There was celebratory gunfire in the Kurdish neighbourhoods of the contested city of Kirkuk, but inside the northern Kurdish self-rule region, where heavy mountain rain may have helped to dampen festivities, the reaction was one of quiet satisfaction rather than outright jubilation.
Many Iraqi Kurds said they were waiting for their day in court with the ongoing Anfal trial, in which Saddam and six other former officials are accused of genocide for their part in the murder of more than 50,000 Kurds during the notorious 1988 Anfal operation. Kurds are also hoping to see Saddam face justice for his alleged role in the gassing of Halabja, also in 1988.
In Sulaymaniyah, Nabaz Munzir, 37, who works in a cement factory, said: "It is like a dream came true, it is the best verdict. I say this deep from my heart. This is the best verdict because at least 40 to 42 million Kurds from all parts of Kurdistan are happy about it."
Salar Ahmed Sultan, 31, a documentary film director, said: "Personally, I don't like the death penalty. That's why I want life sentences for Saddam and his aides, not execution."
Kurdish leaders expressed their confidence that the Anfal trial would continue, even if Saddam were to be executed before its conclusion. "Today justice has spoken, and I am happy for the grieving families in Dujail," said Fuad Hussein, a senior aide to the Kurdistan regional president, Massoud Barzani. "But we as Kurds need to see justice. The Anfal has become part of our identity."
He predicted that the execution of Saddam would not deliver an end to violence in Iraq, but it would be "a severe blow to those Ba'athists who cherished hopes of one day returning to power."
Iraqi exiles in London
By yesterday afternoon, a small cross-section of Britain's tens of thousands of Iraqis had gathered in the cafes on London's Edgware Road to sip coffee and debate the verdict. Akhausran Ramadan, 31, an Iraqi Kurd visiting her brother, said she was delighted. "Everyone who died under his dirty hands can lie safe in their grave," she said.
Across the road, in Palms Palace cafe, run by Iraqi Kurds, the mood was more resigned. "I'm not in a mood for a party," said Aziz Majeed, 29, from Irbil. "What difference is his execution going to make to the chaos in Iraq? I hate Saddam, of course I do. But I can't blame him for the current situation - my country has been turned into the most dangerous place on earth. Where is the freedom the Americans promised?"
It was a concern shared by Mazim Younis, who runs the Iraqi League, an anti-war exile group. "The verdict won't halt the destruction - if anything, it will make the situation worse. Iraq used to have one dictator. Now we have 20."
· Additional reporting: Salaam Jihad and Zaineb Naji, Baghdad; Dawood Salman, Anbar province; Jasim al Sabawy, Tikrit and Hawija; Ammar al-Salih, Basra