Saddam laid to rest

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – The U.S. military announced Sunday the deaths of two soldiers, raising the number of Americans who have died in the Iraq war to at least 3,000, a somber milestone in the 46-month-old conflict.

On the final day of an exceedingly bloody year, Saddam Hussein was buried in the town where he was born.

There was a relative lull in the bombings and assassinations that have threatened to rip Iraq apart along sectarian seams. Police reported finding 12 bodies dumped in Baghdad Sunday as well as 12 other violent deaths nationwide, both relatively low numbers by recent standards.

The day after Saddam was hanged in Baghdad, his body was transferred by American helicopter to the U.S. military base at Tikrit, 80 miles north of the capital, officials in Tikrit said.

He was interred in a compound he built in the village of Ouja, a few miles south of Tikrit, where he was born 69 years and eight months before.

Tikrit, the capital of Salahuddin province on the Tigris River, was a major power base for Saddam, who ruled Iraq through intimidation and fear for nearly a quarter century.

Hundreds of clan members and supporters visited Saddam’s burial place, which was likely to become a shrine to the fallen leader. Dozens of relatives and other mourners, some of them crying and moaning, attended Saddam’s funeral shortly before dawn.

Witnesses said the building was decorated with teak wood walls in a Moroccan motif. The domed burial chamber was about 20 feet tall and hung with a green chandelier.

A few mourners knelt before his flag-draped grave with a large framed photograph of Saddam propped up on a chair nearby.

“I condemn the way he was executed and I consider it a crime,” said 45-year-old Salam Hassan al-Nasseri, one of Saddam’s clansmen, who attended the interment.

Mohammed Natiq, a 24-year-old college student, said “the path of Arab nationalism must inevitably be paved with blood.”

“God has decided that Saddam Hussein should have such an end, but his march and the course which he followed will not end,” Natiq said.

Police on Saturday 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 to the streets, carrying pictures of Saddam, shooting into the air and calling for vengeance.

Saddam was captured in an underground hide-out near Ouja on Dec. 13, 2003, eight months after he fled Baghdad ahead of advancing American troops. He was convicted and sentenced to death last month for crimes against humanity for his role in the killings of 148 Shiite Muslims from Dujail after a failed 1982 assassination attempt there.

His burial place is about two miles from the graves of his sons, Odai and Qusai, in the main town cemetery. Both sons and a grandson were killed in a gunbattle with the American forces in Mosul in July 2003.

“We received the body of Saddam Hussein without any complications. There was cooperation by the prime minister and his office’s director,” clan chief Sheik al-Nidaa told state-run Al-Iraqiya television. “We opened the coffin of Saddam. He was cleaned and wrapped according to Islamic teachings. We didn’t see any unnatural signs on his body.”

The American death toll in Iraq rose to at least 3,000, according to an Associated Press count. The milestone was reached following the announcement Sunday of two additional deaths.

The White House said the president mourned each death but would not issue a statement about the 3,000th.

One soldier was killed Saturday in a roadside bombing in the capital, the military said. The soldier’s name and unit were not given.

The Department of Defense said on its Web site that another soldier died Thursday and identified him as Spc. Dustin R. Donica, 22, of Spring, Texas. He was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Airborne Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division.

In his New Year’s greeting, President Bush noted the continuing violence in Iraq. “Last year, America continued its mission to fight and win the war on terror and promote liberty as an alternative to tyranny and despair,” Bush said in the statement wishing Americans a happy new year.

“In the New Year, we will remain on the offensive against the enemies of freedom, advance the security of our country, and work toward a free and unified Iraq. Defeating terrorists and extremists is the challenge of our time, and we will answer history’s call with confidence and fight for liberty without wavering.”

At least 111 U.S. service members have been reported killed in December, the bloodiest month of 2006. That brought the toll of U.S. military deaths in Iraq to at least 820 in 2006, according to the AP count.

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