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Two Hussein Allies Are Hanged; One Is Decapitated

16 January, 2007

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BAGHDAD: Iraq’s turbulent effort to reckon with the violence of its past took a macabre turn today when the execution of Saddam Hussein’s half-brother ended with the hangman’s noose severing his head from his body after he fell through the trapdoor.

An official video shown more than 13 hours later to a small group of reporters showed the half-brother, Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, former chief of Mr. Hussein’s secret police, standing nervously on the trapdoor in a flame-orange jumpsuit of the kind used at the American detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Beside him in identical garb was Awad Hamad al-Bandar, the former chief judge of Mr. Hussein’s revolutionary court.

After the executioners pulled black hoods over the heads of the two men, tightened nooses around their necks and pulled the lever opening the trapdoors, both fell like deadweights. But the hangmen’s calculations of weight, gravity and inertia — a grim science that has produced detailed “drop charts” used for decades around the world to ensure enough force for certain, rapid death but no more — appeared in Mr. Tikriti’s case to have been seriously awry.

Iraqi officials who attended the hanging said later that for Mr. Tikriti, a man of medium height and build, the calculation allowed a “drop” of 2.4 meters, or nearly 8 feet, and about that length of thick yellow rope could be seen coiled at Mr. Tikriti’s feet before the hanging. But the video showed his head being snapped from his body as he fell, and ending up, still inside the hood, lying in the pit of the gallows about 5 feet from Mr. Tikriti’s headless body.

Mr. Bandar could be seen dangling from the rope above Mr. Tikriti, whose body was lying front-down on the floor of the dark, dank pit, blood pooling beside his severed neck.

The three-minute video ended at that point, with the officials who played it saying that it would not be shown again to reporters or to the public. To ensure that no illicit copies were made with cellphone cameras, as happened at the execution of Mr. Hussein on Dec. 30, reporters were deprived of their cellphones by Iraqi security men as they entered the room for the showing.

The grim decapitation mishap early today — described as “a rare incident” in an official statement — appeared to unnerve the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

The government’s Shiite leaders came under worldwide criticism after illicit camera phone recordings showed Mr. Hussein being subjected to sectarian taunts as he stood with the noose around his neck before his hanging. President Bush described those scenes later, in an interview with Fox News, as second only for their shock effect in the Iraq war to the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal that became known in 2004.

Under American pressure, the hanging of Mr. Tikriti and Mr. Bandar, who were sentenced to death together with Mr. Hussein in an Iraqi court in November, was delayed for more than two weeks while the lessons learned from the Hussein hanging were reviewed and new procedures adopted.

The aim, American and Iraqi officials said, was to prevent a recurrence of the abusive scenes that turned Mr. Hussein, a mass murderer in his years in power, into a figure of sympathy at his death and, in much of the Arab world, into an icon of dignity and courage.

But what happened at the gallows in the predawn hours today had something of the same surreal quality that enveloped the Hussein hanging, for at least some of the Iraqis present and for the Americans who flew the two men to the execution aboard a military helicopter from the American detention center outside Baghdad.

The Iraqis were so shaken by the decapitation that they waited more than seven hours after the executions, carried out at 3 a.m. local time, to formally announce them. The statement they read made only a passing reference to the severing of Mr. Tikriti’s head.

After several paragraphs that traced the “big crimes against humanity” committed by the two men, the statement concluded: “In a rare incident, the head of the convict Barzan Ibrahim al-Hassan” — his name as it appeared on court documents — “was separated from his body during the execution.”

The statement offered no details, leaving those to a news conference another six hours later, when rumors had begin circulating among Sunni Arab loyalists of the former regime and on Arabic-language television channels broadcasting across the Middle East that Mr. Tikriti had been deliberately decapitated in an act of revenge by the Maliki government.

When officials from Mr. Maliki’s office appeared at the Baghdad Convention Center with the video, along with several members of the execution party, they were at pains to offer a minutely detailed account of the procedures followed in the hangings.

Their accounts were both chagrined and self-justifying, apologetic and assertive, as they explained how Mr. Tikriti had come to have his head severed and how sympathy for him and his family should be tempered in the light of the brutalities he committed when serving the regime of his half-brother.

Ali al-Dabbagh, Mr. Maliki’s spokesman, said that in an effort to prevent any recurrence of the abusive scenes at Mr. Hussein’s execution, all those who attended this morning’s executions — they were all Iraqis, as was the case with Mr. Hussein — had been required to sign documents promising to behave with dignity and restraint at the hangings.

Mr. Dabbagh held up a signed copy of one of the documents as another of Mr. Maliki’s aides, Basam Ridha, an Iraqi with American citizenship who lived for years in California before returning to Baghdad, summarized what he said was an air of restraint at the hangings.

“The whole process was very transparent,” Mr. Ridha said, lapsing into a passage of somewhat fractured English that compared the hangings to what happened to Mr. Hussein. “No ethnics, no chanting, everything a very smooth transaction, everyone very well behaved,” he said.

He told a reporter later that he personally felt no unease at what happened to Mr. Tikriti, and said he felt steeled against pity for him by the sufferings he had inflicted on many Iraqis. “He was a very bad man,” Mr. Ridha said.

Others in the execution party seemed somewhat more taken aback. “When the trapdoor opened, I realized that I was looking at the rope hanging free, and asked myself, ‘Where did Barzan go?’ ” said Jaafar al-Moussawi, who was chief prosecutor at the trial that ended with the death sentences for Mr. Hussein, Mr. Tikriti and Mr. Bandar.

“I thought that somehow he had gotten loose,” Mr. Moussawi said. “So I moved forwards towards the pit and looked down and saw the convict Barzan lying on the ground without his head. At that point, one of the other men there said, ‘The head is in the black hood.’ ”

After the hanging of Mr. Hussein, his body was kept on the back of a police pickup truck in the parking lot of Mr. Maliki’s office in the Green Zone in Baghdad for 18 hours, while an argument raged over whether to hand the corpse over to members of his Albu-Nasir tribe for burial. That dispute was resolved by the Americans, who insisted that the Iraqi leader hand over Mr. Hussein’s body.

After today’s hanging, in what one Iraqi official described as another lesson learned, the bodies of the two executed men were handed over more swiftly. Like Mr. Hussein’s remains, they were carried by American military helicopter to Tikrit, about 100 miles north of Baghdad, for burial near Mr. Hussein’s — and Mr. Tikriti’s — hometown.

Officials in the office of the local governor there said that the burials occurred in darkness tonight. He did not say exactly where they were buried, only that it was not at the visitors’ hall in Awja, Mr. Hussein’s native village, where the former dictator’s coffin, covered by an Iraqi flag, has drawn thousands of mourners.

Mr. Bandar’s fealty to his old boss, Mr. Hussein, was reflected in his decision, said by Iraqi officials to have been written in his will, to be buried at Tikrit in Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland, and not in Basra, the predominantly Shiite southern city where Mr. Bandar, a Sunni Arab, was born.

That decision seemed to be justified by the scenes that developed in Basra after the hangings were announced. A report from the city said that people there drove through the city honking car horns and waving Iraqi flags.

“Some people noted that Barzan’s head was separated from his body during the execution and said that this was God’s punishment for his crimes,” a report filed to The New York Times in Baghdad said. “They said this punishment was an expression of what a bad man he was during his life.”

Courtesy: New York Times

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