BAGHDAD, Iraq – Amid celebratory gunfire, the embattled government in Iraq declared Sunday’s death sentence against Saddam Hussein as the end of an ugly chapter and an opportunity for the strife-torn country to begin to unify.

But purported loyalists to Saddam, who was convicted of crimes against humanity and murder, vowed revenge, and the nation braced itself for a potential new wave of violence.

Coming just two days before the American midterm elections, the Iraqi court’s sentence of a hanging death gave President Bush the first opportunity in weeks to speak of a success in Iraq.

“Saddam Hussein’s trial is a milestone in the Iraqi people’s efforts to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law,” he said in Waco, Texas, before launching his final pre-election campaign trip. “It’s a major achievement for Iraq’s young democracy and its constitutional government.”

Despite a city-wide curfew that kept most Baghdad residents confined to their homes, crowds of people took to the streets to celebrate the verdict, and the sounds of gunfire continued for 30 minutes in some Shiite neighborhoods. In Dujail, the northern city where Saddam was found guilty of executing innocent people, residents played music and fired their weapons into the air.

Alla Hussein, 42, a day worker, said, “Today my dream and all the aggrieved Iraqis’ dream came true with the issuance of this death against Saddam. We thank God because he saved us from this criminal. This will be a lesson to anyone wants to be like him.”

But in Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, residents carried pictures of the former dictator and promised a rise of retaliatory attacks if the former president is killed. “If our president and his colleagues are executed, rivers of blood will flow,” said a 47-year-old grocery store owner who only wanted to be referred to as Abu Ahmed. Sunni politicians complained that Saddam and his seven co-defendants were convicted before an illegitimate court, designed to serve America’s interests, not Iraq’s.

The Iraqi Special Tribunal sentenced Saddam and two of his co-defendants to death in a case charging that they ordered the execution of 148 people after an unsuccessful assassination attempt against Saddam in Dujail in 1982.

As his sentence was read, Saddam initially reverted to his more violent rhetoric. “God is greater!” he told Judge Raouf Abdul Rahman repeatedly as the judge read the sentence: death for murder, 10 years for forcible deportation, 10 years for torture.

“Long live the Iraqi people, damnation for the damned,” Saddam told the panel of judges. “You are the servants of the colonizers.”

In all, Saddam faced six charges, including murder and crimes against humanity, and was convicted of all but one of the charges – of enforced disappearance.

As the judge read the verdict Saddam, clutching his Quran, went into a rant. Referring to the court, he said: “You don’t issue sentences; you are servants of those who want to colonize us.” But in an echo of some of the first Islamic leaders, who on their deathbeds told followers to pardon their killers, Saddam also said, “I recommend the Iraqi people to pardon those who deviated … and to have the will to forgive the people of the countries that invaded Iraq.”

An automatic appeals process was immediately launched, so Saddam’s hanging could be months away. He also is still being tried for allegedly gassing thousands of Kurds in the late 1980s, and he is scheduled to be back in court Tuesday for the next hearing in that case.

Saddam’s half-brother, Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, the former head of intelligence, and Awad Hamad al-Bandir, former head of the Iraqi Revolutionary Court, also were sentenced to death by hanging. Bandir also kept shouting, “God is greater” over the reading of the verdict.

Taha Yassin Ramadan, Saddam’s vice president at the time the regime fell, was sentenced to life. Abdullah Kathim Ruwaid, his son Mizhar Abdullah Kathim Ruwaid and Ali Dayih Ali – all local Baath Party officials in 1982 when someone shot at Saddam’s convoy during his visit to the mostly Shiite city of Dujail – received 15-year sentences.

One defendant, a lower-ranking Baath official in the city of Dujail, where the case centered upon, was immediately cleared of all charges.

Seven guards surrounded Saddam, who wore a gray suit and white shirt. He initially refused to stand up as the verdict was being read, only doing so after two guards forced him up.

In a rare televised address, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said that with the verdict, “it was the end of the Saddam era,” adding Iraqis would no longer face mass graves, gassing at the hands of their leader or ethnic cleansing.

“He is facing the punishment he deserves,” said Maliki.

Hassan al-Sinead, a member of Maliki’s Dawa Party, said he was not surprised that some Sunni politicians were disappointed about the verdict, but said at a press conference afterward that he hoped they would now embrace the government because “the dictatorship is not coming back.”

U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalizad cautioned that Iraqis may face “difficult days in the coming weeks.” But he added that Sunday’s verdict was “an opportunity to unite and build a better future. As the Iraqi people move forward, the United States will support them in their efforts to build a just and democratic society.”

The proximity of the verdict to Tuesday’s American elections was the talk of the Sunday talk shows in the United States, with some pundits suggesting it could help soften what is expected to be a difficult day at the polls for many Republican candidates. A McClatchy/MSNBC poll of eight contested Senate races found that Iraq dominates voters’ concerns and drives them to support Democrats by margins of as much as 8 to 1.

On ABC’s “This Week,” Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean said: “Saddam is a war criminal, and he is getting what he deserves. But I don’t think it has any impact on the safety of America.”

The trial, and full-scale curfew, brought at least a temporary halt to the wave of violence that swept Baghdad and other regions during the month of October. All of the nation’s security forces were ordered to work, and the government extended an indefinite curfew for the capital that banned residents from walking or driving.

Haider Garib, 37, of the holy city of Karbala, said the hiatus will be brief. Nothing will stop the terrorists, he said, because “their ugly deeds have nothing to do with the Saddam trial or even with Saddam himself. They are following an American plan to make Iraq the battlefield against the terrorists.”

The five-judge panel adjourned immediately after reading the verdicts without elaborating on how they were reached except to say the decisions were unanimous. The panel is expected to release a several hundred-page explanation by Thursday.

The trial, which began in October 2005, charged that Saddam and his cohorts rounded up innocent residents of Dujail, took them off to camps and tortured and killed them – all in response to an apparent assassination attempt against Saddam. Saddam was visiting the town in 1982 when someone fired on his convoy.

In all, 27 residents testified about their ordeal, sometimes retelling their stories verbatim. Some testified while facing the former dictator directly; others from behind a curtain. Another 32 gave their testimony in statements read in court. The defense presented nearly twice as many witnesses.

In between, the head judge stepped down and three defense attorneys were assassinated. The remaining defense attorneys walked out of the proceedings toward the end of the hearings.

During the trial Saddam and Bazran al-Tikriti often delivered long diatribes, questioning the legitimacy of the court, while sitting in a cage placed in the middle of the courtroom that faced the five-judge panel. In one session, Saddam told the judge to “go to hell.”

U.S. officials concede the process did not always proceed smoothly, but said overall, it was monumental – the first trial that brought a former dictator to trial in front of his countrymen.

Saddam faced the death sentence before in his life. As an early member of the Baath Party, he was part of a failed assassination attempt of then-Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul Karim Qassim. Saddam fled to Egypt and was sentenced to death in absentia in 1963. When he returned to Iraq a year later, he was jailed, only to escape in 1967. The following year, he was part of a bloodless coup that brought down the government and named him vice president.

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