BAGHDAD (AFP) -Judges have put Saddam Hussein’s appeal process into motion as Baghdad found itself once more under round-the-clock curfew after the ousted president’s death sentence stirred Iraq’s sectarian tensions.
Saddam was sentenced to hang by the Iraqi High Tribunal, which found him guilty of crimes against humanity Sunday in the case of 148 Shiite civilians killed in revenge for an 1982 attempt on the then Iraqi leader’s life.
The verdict served only to deepen Iraq’s bitter religious divide, with Shiites celebrating it as a victory against their former oppressor and some Sunni Arabs protesting this latest humiliation to the ousted regime.
Tribunal spokesman Raed Juhi said the court has 10 days, starting Monday, within which it must submit its ruling justifying Saddam’s execution to an appeals committee. This panel will then invite input from the prosecution.
Defence lawyers have also said they will submit their arguments.
Twenty days after that, the case will be sealed and the panel will retire to consider its verdict. No date has been set for their final judgement, which is binding, said Juhi, who is also the court’s investigative judge.
If the final verdict confirms Saddam’s guilt, he will be executed within 30 days, and some powerful Iraqi voices are calling for the judges not to dawdle.
“We strongly feel that every day he lives is not good for the Iraqi people. We need to put an end to him, to this dictator,” Bassam Ridha, a senior aide to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, told AFP.
“I hope this issue comes to an end quickly. Hopefully, in the next few months — before next summer — he will be dead,” he said, adding that he was giving his personal view and not seeking to influence the verdict.
The satisfaction of Maliki’s Shiite-led government at the verdict was mirrored in the joyful street rallies held to celebrate the death sentence in Shiite and Kurdish areas across Iraq.
“This just sentence on Saddam has comforted me greatly,” said Fatima Mohammed a teacher in her 50s living in the mainly Shiite city of Kut, who lost six brothers to Saddam’s security forces in a 1982 purge against Maliki’s then banned Dawa party.
“It’s a great day. We do not know how we can express our feelings on such a great day,” Wahid Dairam, a 45-year-old writer living in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, told AFP.
“The blood of our brothers and fathers in the mass graves was not spilled in vain. Today, their killer is facing a just fate,” he added.
But among Saddam’s supporters in Iraq’s angry Sunni Arab minority, there was anger at a ruling many argued had been forced on Iraq by foreign powers, in particular the United States.
In Hawijah, a Sunni town in northern Iraq, hundreds of school children and women gathered and linked their arms bearing portraits of Saddam and placards demanding their former leader’s release.
Here — as elsewhere in Sunni regions of Iraq — the threat of violence was not far from the surface.
“The Americans and the Iraqis who are with them will see black days ahead of them in Iraq,” warned Abdullah Zamar Hassan, a 49-year-old shopkeeper.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi authorities tried to keep a lid on the boiling tensions with a total lockdown in the capital. The streets were empty, the airport closed and security patrols out in force.
A security official said that the Baghdad curfew had been successful, with almost no violent incidents reported overnight in a city which has for months been at the centre of a bloody sectarian turf war.
Elsewhere, fighting continued. US headquarters announced that three of their soldiers had been killed over the weekend fighting insurgents in western Iraq.
And on Monday, a US helicopter crashed in the north of the country, killing two soldiers on board.
“Two Task Force Lightning soldiers attached to 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, were killed when a helicopter crashed in Salaheddin province,” the statement said, adding that no enemy fire had been observed in the area.
“The incident is under investigation,” it added.
The latest deaths brought the US military’s death toll in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion to 2,832 according to an AFP count based on Pentagon figures.
There are still 150,000 US troops in Iraq more than three-and-a-half years after Saddam’s overthrow and falling domestic support for their mission has become the key issue in Tuesday’s US congressional elections.