Saddam, before being executed. Photo: REUTERS. | ALI HAIDER

BAGDAD-REUTERS. A subdued Saddam Hussein was led shackled into a hall early on Saturday in Baghdad, a noose was placed around his neck and a guard pulled a lever that swiftly ended his life and a chapter of Iraq's history. Sami al-Askari, a prominent Shiite politician close to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, witnessed the event and told Reuters the process of Saddam's execution lasted about 25 minutes but once he was dropped through a trap door his death was very quick. «One of the guards pulled a lever and he dropped half a meter into a trap door. We heard his neck snap instantly and we even saw a small amount of blood around the rope,» Askari told Reuters.

«They left him hanging for around 10 minutes before a doctor confirmed his death and they untied him and placed him in a white bodybag,» he added. State-funded television channel Iraqiya showed the final moments of Saddam's life but stopped short of broadcasting the actual hanging or his corpse.

The footage showed a group of guards dressed in civilian clothes and wearing ski masks helping Saddam up a small metal staircase where a cloth was put around his neck before stepping onto the trap door. A red metal barrier, like a witness box, surrounded the trap door in the low-ceilinged, grey concrete, cell-like room.

The hangman, wearing a beige leather jacket, placed the thick rope over Saddam's head and tightened the noose on the left side of his neck. The hangman exchanged a few words with Saddam, who nodded in return. Saddam wore a black coat over a black V-neck jumper and a white shirt and had black trousers and black shoes. Askari said he was told to take off a woolly black hat before his execution.

Another official witness confirmed Saddam died instantly. «He seemed very calm. He did not tremble,» said the official, adding Saddam, 69, recited the Muslim profession of faith before he died: «There is no God but God and Mohammed is his prophet.»

Askari said Saddam, executed for his role in the killing of 148 men and boys from the Shiite town of Dujail after a failed attempt on his life in 1982, was executed at 6:10 am (0310 GMT) according to his watch at an Iraqi army base in Kadhimiya. The base was the former headquarters of Saddam's military intelligence where many of his victims were tortured and executed in the same dark gallows. The northern Baghdad district is also home to one of Shi'ite Islam's holiest shrines. «After he entered the small hall, Saddam had a seat as a judge read him the details of the sentence. But as he saw the camera come in to record, he began shouting the same rubbish we have seen in court. Long live Palestine and other slogans,» he said. He said Saddam's hand-cuffs that tied his arms in front of his body when he came in were reversed when he was led to the noose with his arms tied behind his body.

Askari said about 15 people were present, including government ministers, members of parliament, relatives of victims and representatives from the special court and Justice Ministry. U.S. military and embassy officials declined to comment on whether any U.S. representative was present. Askari said no cleric was present as Saddam had not requested one and that he had no final requests. Askari said those present remained silent during the execution, but congratulated each other after Saddam was confirmed dead.

An Iraqi television channel later showed footage of Saddam's body in a white shroud. The low-quality footage on Biladi, a Shi'ite-run channel, showed Saddam lying with his neck twisted at an awkward angle, with what appeared to be blood or a bruise on his left cheek. The short clip appeared to have been filmed on a mobile phone or small camera by a visitor invited to view the corpse. Jawad al-Zubaidi, a victim who testified at Saddam's trial and who was allowed to view the corpse during a private reception at Maliki's office, said: «When I saw the body in the coffin, I cried. I remembered my three brothers and my father who he had killed. I approached the body and told him: This is the well-deserved punishment of every tyrant».