In Iraq and U.S., a time to celebrate

Times Staff Writers

From a dusty Iraqi town to a bustling Detroit suburb, survivors of Saddam Hussein's regime spoke out Saturday about life, death and decades of suffering under one of the world's most ruthless strongmen.

Within hours of Hussein's execution, Iraqi residents and those who had escaped their war-torn homeland shouted for joy, while others expressed bittersweet emotions now that the despot was finally gone.

In Iraq, many hugged and cried as others fired guns into the morning sky. Others said that one hanging was not enough: They wished Hussein could have been killed a thousand times for his crimes.

In the United States, Iraqi expatriates danced in the streets. Others said Hussein's death would not stop the civil war that convulses Iraq.

And in Victorville, Calif., the mother of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq said the execution means that her son did not die in vain.

Gunfire and music

Dujayl Mayor Mohammed Zubaidi had hoped to see Saddam Hussein hanged Saturday. But residents of the small Shiite farming town -- the focus of the trial that led to Hussein's execution -- were not invited.

The disappointment was short-lived. At dawn, gunfire erupted across Dujayl when the execution was announced.

"The people of Dujayl have been waiting for this day for long, long years because he has left deep wounds in the body of the town," Zubaidi said.

Crowds gathered at mosques and political party headquarters, and triumphant music was broadcast from loudspeakers. Residents went from house to house to congratulate the families of the dead.

"Some people were wishing that he dies a thousand times, others that they cut him to pieces," Zubaidi said.

For the mayor, the execution signified an eye for an eye.

When Hussein retaliated against the Shiite town for a failed 1982 assassination attempt, Zubaidi's father and brother were already in jail. Still, they were hanged with at least 146 other men and boys.

"This is the justice of God who made it that Hussein should be hanged in the same way," Zubaidi said, tired but exultant.

Grins and cheers

In Dearborn, Mich., home to the nation's largest concentration of Iraqi immigrants, hundreds of celebrators spilled onto the street Friday night.

Along Warren Avenue, Christians embraced Muslims. Dozens chanted, "No more Saddam!" until their voices grew hoarse. The darkness was broken by the flash of cellphone cameras snapping shots of the chaotic scene.

At midnight, police dispersed the crowd. By dawn, many had returned to their celebration near a prominent mosque.

Crowds spread into nearby shops, where men chain-smoking cigarettes monitored TV news broadcasts from Iraq. Again and again, the footage showed a thick noose being slid around Hussein's neck.

Each time, the grim scene elicited grins from those watching.

Tears for victims

Those celebrating also paused to remember Iraq's dead.

On Warren Avenue, Ajmy Al Saidi stood silent, tears glistening on his cheeks.

Two brothers and a nephew were imprisoned and killed by Hussein's regime in the 1980s. Their dismembered bodies were dumped at the family's door.

Other relatives and neighbors routinely disappeared. If the families were lucky, Al Saidi said, their corpses were returned -- tossed into the street.

Nearby, the George family clung to one another in silence. Sameh George was a 15-year veteran in the Iraqi army when he tried to retire and move his family from Baghdad. He was arrested in 1996 -- and kept in prison for more than a year.

Four months ago, his younger brother Saher, an interpreter for the U.S. Marines in Iraq, was killed by a suicide bomber.

For the Georges and Al Saidi, it was a day of retribution.

"We have lived with fear for our lives and anger in our hearts for too long," said Al Saidi, 50, a former Iraqi national volleyball team member. "I have prayed for this day to come, but I still can't believe it's true."

Peace of mind

Joseph and Patricia Wiscowiche learned of Hussein's execution while watching TV in the bedroom of their Victorville home. Patricia leapt from the bed and clapped, almost in spite of herself.

She asked about Hussein's family.

"I had some sympathy for his family -- I guess that's a motherly thing -- but I had no sympathy for him. It was almost like Saddam was my son's murderer."

Marine Lance Cpl. William Wiscowiche had taken part in the attacks that ousted Hussein in 2003. A combat engineer, the 20-year-old also blew up safes in Hussein's palaces.

He was killed by a mine the following year, during his second tour in Iraq.

"Since they hung Saddam, I feel my son did not die in vain," said Patricia Wiscowiche, 52. "It was kind of closure for me. We're spiritual people, but I'm just glad he got what he deserved."

Joseph Wiscowiche, 71, a Vietnam War veteran, said he had been a "little depressed" over the U.S. military's lack of progress in Iraq, but Hussein's execution brought some peace of mind.

"At least we're getting something out of this," he said.

The parents said the wealth in Hussein's palaces disgusted her son. "Willie could not stand that man," said Patricia, adding that he would be "ecstatic" over Hussein's hanging.

"If I know Willie, he would be out running around, clicking his heels and drinking a beer. He'd say, 'Dad, we killed that SOB.' "

Lingering bitterness

In Dujayl, for all of Saturday's joy, there was also bitterness.

Residents had hoped the town would thrive again after Hussein's capture. During his regime, hundreds vanished or were jailed. Bulldozers leveled the lush orchards, turning the prosperous town into a backwater.

Since then, there has been little reconstruction. Worse, Dujayl has raised the ire of Sunni Arab insurgents, who attack local food and fuel convoys.

"The town is living in a state of siege," Mayor Zubaidi said. "We were expecting something from the government, but there has been nothing."

Hopes realized

One Dearborn man counted his blessings.

Baqer al-Jabry, 26, told of the day in 1981 when Hussein's soldiers came to his family's home in Najaf and took away his father.

For two years, his family went to the police and begged for information. At first, they met only silence. Then came threats.

"The police told me that if we kept asking questions, what happened to my father would happen to us," said Al-Jabry, a carpenter who came to the U.S. in 1992. "We were so scared, we hid inside our rooms for days."

One day, police came for Al-Jabry. He left home the next day, but stayed in touch with the family, never losing hope that Hussein might someday fall.

All day Saturday, his calls to Iraq raised only a busy signal. Finally, he got through to a cousin.

"I never thought I would see this day," he shouted into the phone. "We can finally rest easy."

zavis@latimes.com

p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

Zavis reported from Baghdad and Huffstutter from Dearborn. Times staff writers Paul Pringle in Los Angeles and John M. Glionna in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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