BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Angry crowds in the Iraqi town of Tikrit fired weapons in the air and chanted "God is great" yesterday as they received the flag-draped bodies of two former aides to Saddam Hussein who were hanged early in the day.
Barzan Ibrahim and Awad Hamed al-Bandar were executed for their roles in killing scores of Shiite Muslim villagers in the 1980s. The hanging by rope ripped off the head of Ibrahim, Hussein's half brother and a fellow native of Tikrit.
Ibrahim had served as leader of Iraq's feared intelligence service, while al-Bandar headed the Revolutionary Court that sentenced 148 villagers to death after a 1982 assassination attempt against the late president.
Hussein was taunted by his jailers before his hanging Dec. 30, a scene captured on an unauthorized cell phone camera and distributed. The images heightened sectarian tensions between Shiite Muslims and his fellow Sunni Arabs.
Some worried that Ibrahim's beheading could ruffle sensibilities in a Muslim society that reveres the sanctity of corpses. But Iraqi officials described the separation of head and body as a freak accident. Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told reporters that a doctor present at the executions signed an affidavit attesting to the unintended nature of the beheading.
The official government video of the side-by-side hanging that was shown to a small group of reporters, including one from the Associated Press, showed Ibrahim and al-Bandar wearing red prison jumpsuits. As they reached the gallows, black hoods were put on their heads and five masked men surrounded them. The silent video showed the trapdoors opening.
Al-Bandar could be seen dangling from the rope, while Ibrahim's body in a blur fell to the floor, chest down, his still-hooded severed head resting several yards away. The government played the video for the reporters apparently to allay any suspicions that Ibrahim's body was mutilated after death.
"We will not release the video, but we want to show the truth," al-Dabbagh said. "The Iraqi government acted in a neutral way."
But some voiced doubts.
"It is really rare," said Omar Abdul-Sattar, a physician and Sunni member of Iraq's parliament. "I am doctor and I would not believe such a thing could happen unless the rope is too short or the defendant weighs 400 or 500 pounds."
Shiites living in Dujail rejoiced yesterday at news of the hangings. The town, once a lush agricultural center with fruit orchards and canals, was bulldozed and transformed into an impoverished backwater after the assassination attempt against Hussein.
"People started distributing candies and visit each other for congratulations," said Mohammad Zubaidi, the town's mayor. "The happiness at the execution of Barzan was more than Saddam. He was directly in charge of what happened in the town at that time."
But many Sunnis denounced the executions as another provocation by the Shiite-dominated government against their embattled community. In Tikrit, the two former aides were hailed as martyrs.
"God has honored them and made them heroes for us and for every honorable Iraqi and Muslim Arabs," said Sabah Khalil, a Tikrit resident attending the funeral of the two men, who were buried side by side near the site where Hussein was laid to rest. "They are being celebrated like grooms on their wedding nights."
Human rights activists said the death penalty rules of the Iraqi special court, called the Iraqi High Tribunal (IHT), fell far short of worldwide norms.
"Under the international covenant of political rights, anyone sentenced to death has the right to seek commutation," said Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch, a New York advocacy group. "The IHT statute explicitly prohibits commutation."
But despite angry chanting by some of the two defendants' fellow tribesman, the hangings spurred little of the outrage that followed Hussein's execution.
"The people convicted represented numbers in the file but the most important number is Saddam," said Abdul-Sattar, the Sunni physician. "No one else could be important after his execution."
Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times.