BAGHDAD, Iraq - Saddam Hussein, the shotgun-waving dictator who ruled Iraq with a remorseless brutality for a quarter-century and was driven from power by a U.S.-led war that left his country in shambles, was taken to the gallows and executed Saturday, Iraqi state-run television reported.
It was a grim end for the 69-year-old leader who had vexed three U.S. presidents. Despite his ouster, Washington, its allies and the new Iraqi leaders remain mired in a fight to quell a stubborn insurgency by Saddam loyalists and a vicious sectarian conflict.
Also hanged were Saddam's half-brother Barzan Ibrahim and Awad Hamed al-Bandar, the former chief justice of the Revolutionary Court. State-run Iraqiya television news announcer said "criminal Saddam was hanged to death and the execution started with criminal Saddam then Barzan then Awad al-Bandar."
Mariam al-Rayes, a legal expert and a former member of the Shiite bloc in parliament, told Iraqiya television that the execution "was filmed and God willing it will be shown. There was one camera present, and a doctor was also present there."
Al-Rayes, an ally of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, did not attend the execution. She said Al-Maliki did not attend but was represented by an aide.
The station earlier was airing national songs after the first announcement and had a tag on the screen that read "Saddam's execution marks the end of a dark period of Iraq's history."
The execution came 56 days after a court convicted Saddam and sentenced him to death for his role in the killings of 148 Shiite Muslims from a town where assassins tried to kill the dictator in 1982. Iraq's highest court rejected Saddam's appeal Monday and ordered him executed within 30 days.
A U.S. judge on Friday refused to stop Saddam's execution, rejecting a last-minute court challenge.
Al-Maliki had rejected calls that Saddam be spared, telling families of people killed during the dictator's rule that would be an insult to the victims.
"Our respect for human rights requires us to execute him, and there will be no review or delay in carrying out the sentence," al-Maliki's office quoted him as saying during a meeting with relatives before the hanging.
The hanging of Saddam, who was ruthless in ordering executions of his opponents, will keep other Iraqis from pursuing justice against the ousted leader.
At his death, he was in the midst of a second trial, charged with genocide and other crimes for a 1987-88 military crackdown that killed an estimated 180,000 Kurds in northern Iraq. Experts said the trial of his co-defendants was likely to continue despite his execution.
Many people in Iraq's Shiite majority were eager to see the execution of a man whose Sunni Arab-dominated regime oppressed them and Kurds.
Before the hanging, a mosque preacher in the Shiite holy city of Najaf on Friday called Saddam's execution "God's gift to Iraqis."
"Oh, God, you know what Saddam has done! He killed millions of Iraqis in prisons, in wars with neighboring countries and he is responsible for mass graves. Oh God, we ask you to take revenge on Saddam," said Sheik Sadralddin al-Qubanji, a member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
On Thursday, two half brothers visited Saddam in his cell, a member of the former dictator's defense team, Badee Izzat Aref, told The Associated Press by telephone from the United Arab Emirates. He said the former dictator handed them his personal belongings.
A senior official at the Iraqi defense ministry said Saddam gave his will to one of his half brothers. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
In a farewell message to Iraqis posted Wednesday on the Internet, Saddam said he was giving his life for his country as part of the struggle against the U.S. "Here, I offer my soul to God as a sacrifice, and if he wants, he will send it to heaven with the martyrs," he said.
One of Saddam's lawyers, Issam Ghazzawi, said the letter was written by Saddam on Nov. 5, the day he was convicted by an Iraqi tribunal in the Dujail killings.
The message called on Iraqis to put aside the sectarian hatred that has bloodied their nation for a year and voiced support for the Sunni Arab-dominated insurgency against U.S.-led forces, saying: "Long live jihad and the mujahedeen."
Saddam urged Iraqis to rely on God's help in fighting "against the unjust nations" that ousted his regime.
Najeeb al-Nauimi, a member of Saddam's legal team, said U.S. authorities maintained physical custody of Saddam until the execution to prevent him being humiliated publicly or his corpse being mutilated, as has happened to previous Iraqi leaders deposed by force. He said they didn't want anything to happen to further inflame Sunni Arabs.
"This is the end of an era in Iraq," al-Nauimi said from Doha, Qatar. "The Baath regime ruled for 35 years. Saddam was vice president or president of Iraq during those years. For Iraqis, he will be very well remembered. Like a martyr, he died for the sake of his country."
Iraq's death penalty was suspended by the U.S. military after it toppled Saddam in 2003, but the new Iraqi government reinstated it two years later, saying executions would deter criminals.
Saddam's own regime used executions and extrajudicial killings as a tool of political repression, both to eliminate real or suspected political opponents and to maintain a reign of terror.
In the months after he seized power on July 16, 1979, he had hundreds of members of his own party and army officers slain. In 1996, he ordered the slaying of two sons-in-law who had defected to Jordan but returned to Baghdad after receiving guarantees of safety.
Saddam built Iraq into a one of the Arab world's most modern societies, but then plunged the country into an eight-year war with neighboring Iran that killed hundreds of thousands of people on both sides and wrecked Iraq's economy.
During that war, as part of the wider campaign against Kurds, the Iraqi military used chemical weapons against the Kurdish town of Halabja in northern Iraq, killing an estimated 5,000 civilians.
The economic troubles from the Iran war led Saddam to invade Kuwait in the summer of 1990, seeking to grab its oil wealth, but a U.S.-led coalition inflicted a stinging defeat on the Iraq army and freed the Kuwaitis.
U.N. sanctions imposed over the Kuwait invasion remained in place when Saddam failed to cooperate fully in international efforts to ensure his programs for creating weapons of mass destruction had been dismantled. Iraqis, once among the region's most prosperous, were impoverished.
The final blow came when U.S.-led troops invaded in March 2003. Saddam's regime fell quickly, but political, sectarian and criminal violence have created chaos that has undermined efforts to rebuild Iraq's ruined economy.
While he wielded a heavy hand to maintain control, Saddam also sought to win public support with a personality cult that pervaded Iraqi society. Thousands of portraits, posters, statues and murals were erected in his honor all over Iraq. His face could be seen on the sides of office buildings, schools, airports and shops and on Iraq's currency.