At two minutes past 3 a.m. (GMT) today, Saddam Hussein’s boast that he would die a heroic martyr ended when he saw the gallows.
He began to tremble and his eyes filled with what one observer called “his terror at impending death. For the first time he was feeling what so many others had done facing execution from his actions.”
One hour before – 2 a.m. on a cold Baghdad morning – his cell door had opened. Standing there was the Iraqi commander of the execution squad. He ordered the two American guards, who had stood their last death watch, to withdraw. In their place stepped two muscular Iraqi soldiers.
The commander told Saddam he would be hanged in the hour. There then followed the ritual formalities for execution.
Saddam ate a meal of boiled chicken and rice he had ordered at midnight. With the food he drank several cups of hot water laced with honey. It was a drink which dated back to his childhood.
After the meal he was invited to use the cell toilet – to avoid the public embarrassment of wetting himself in the execution chamber.
Saddam refused the offer.
At 2:30 a.m. he performed his final religious ablutions, kneeling and washing his hands, face and feet.
He then sat on the edge of his iron-cot bed and began to read the Quran. It had been a gift from his wife, sent to him at the outset of his trial. But only after the court’s death sentence had been passed had Saddam begun to study it.
Meantime, in the execution chamber, final rehearsals were under way.
A sack filled with builder’s sand was used to test the gallows trapdoor. Twice the trapdoor swung open and the bag plunged into the void. The hangman judged the rope had been fully stretched.
After each test an Iraqi technician checked the trapdoor. Each flap was secured to the gallows platform by three steel and oiled hinges. The trap opening had been made wider than usual to avoid any chance of Saddam’s body catching the sides of the platform.
At 2:45 a.m. two mortuary attendants arrived with a plain wooden coffin. They placed it beside the gallows platform.
By 2:50 a.m. the handful of invited witnesses stood against one wall of the execution chamber. They included members of the Iraqi judiciary, clerics, a representative of the Iraqi government and a doctor.
Their whispered talking fell silent as the chamber door opened. Gripped by the two hooded Iraqi guards, Saddam Hussein stood there blinking in the bright lights.
These had been switched on for the Iraqi video cameraman. It was 3:01 a.m. The tripod camera was in a corner of the chamber, providing a wide-angle shot of the gallows. Each time the test sack had plunged through the trapdoor, the cameraman had filmed a test video to check his framing.
Now at 3:01 a.m. Saddam stood there for a moment longer. Gripped firmly by the elbows, his two guards then motioned him forward towards the 12 steps leading up to the gallows platform.
At the foot of the steps, an Iraqi government official stepped forward and began to read from a single sheet of paper. It was the official death sentence.
An observer recalled: “Saddam’s mouth started to work. But no words came. The terror in his eyes was there for us all to see. He started to struggle. But he had no muscular power.”
The official withdrew. Gripped even tighter by the guards, Saddam was half-forced up the steps.
The executioner – another Iraqi – came forward. In his hand he held a hood. He offered the blindfold up to Saddam.
Saddam shook his head, his mouth opened and closed.
“From where I stood he seemed to look down at the trapdoor as if he wanted to avoid it,” said one of the observers.
Saddam Hussein and his executioners
One of his guards quickly pinioned Saddam’s hands behind his back. A black cloth had been placed around his neck where the noose was now positioned.
He was maneuvered onto the center of the platform.
The silence in the room was total.
Suddenly there was the sound of a lever being pushed down hard. The trapdoor swung open. Saddam’s body plunged through.
Saddam’s body, neck broken, hung suspended for a few minutes. Then the doctor stepped forward and listened through a stethoscope for a heartbeat. There was none.
The two morticians stepped under the platform and cut the body down. The knife they used to slice through the rope looked like the kind a butcher would use.
At 3:14 a.m. Saddam Hussein’s body was placed in the plain wooden coffin and taken to a mortuary storage vault while a final decision was taken on the manner of its disposal. His widow had already made a request for it to be handed over to her for burial.
Gordon Thomas, a regular contributor to Joseph Farah’s G2 Bulletin, is the author of “Gideon’s Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad,” the new edition of which will be published in January 2007. He specializes in international intelligence matters.
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