(photo credit: AP)
World political and religious leaders were divided over whether former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's execution Saturday was a milestone toward peace or further conflict in the Middle East.
US President George W. Bush said that Saddam's execution marked the "end of a difficult year for the Iraqi people and for our troops" and cautioned that his death will not halt the violence in Iraq. The execution took place during the year's deadliest month for US troops in Iraq, with the toll reaching 108.
Yet, Bush said in a statement issued from his ranch in Texas, "it is an important milestone on Iraq's course to becoming a democracy that can govern, sustain and defend itself, and be an ally in the war on terror."
Bush went on to say that Saddam was executed "after receiving a fair trial - the kind of justice he denied the victims of his brutal regime."
"Bringing Saddam Hussein to justice will not end the violence in Iraq, but it is an important milestone on Iraq's course to becoming a democracy that can govern, sustain and defend itself, and be an ally in the war on terror," Bush said in a statement.
In London, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said Saddam had "now been held to account for at least some of the appalling crimes he committed against the Iraqi people," while at the same time condemning the death penalty.
"We have made our position very clear to the Iraqi authorities, but we respect their decision as that of a sovereign nation," Beckett said in a statement. "Iraq continues to face huge challenges. But now it has a democratically elected government, which represents all communities and is committed to fostering reconciliation."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a key ally of the US in the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam's regime, was not planning to comment on the execution, a Downing Street spokeswoman said, because Beckett's statement represented the British government's position.
The Vatican's spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, called the execution "tragic and reason for sadness."
Speaking on Vatican Radio, Lombardi said Saddam's death "will not help efforts aimed at justice and reconciliation" and "risks increasing violence." He also reiterated the Vatican's opposition to the death penalty.
The former Iraqi dictator was executed before dawn on Saturday morning in Baghdad. The hanging took place near the beginning of the festival of Eid al-Adha, one of the two most important holidays in Islam.
In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai appeared to criticize the timing of the execution, but said it was "the work of the Iraqi government" and would have "no effect" on Afghanistan.
"We wish to say that Eid is a day for happiness and reconciliation. It is not a day for revenge," Karzai told reporters at the presidential palace after offering an Eid prayer at Kabul's main mosque early Saturday.
In Australia, another US ally in the Iraq war, Prime Minister John Howard said the execution was significant because Iraqis had given the brutal dictator a fair trial.
"I believe there is something quite heroic about a country that is going through the pain and the suffering that Iraq is going through, yet still extends due process to somebody who was a tyrant and brutal suppressor and murderer of his people," Howard told reporters.
"That is the mark of a country that is trying against fearful odds to embrace democracy," he said.
In Sydney, scores of Iraqi-Australians - many of them refugees who fled Saddam's brutality - celebrated throughout the day in the main street of suburban Auburn.
Many danced and cheered: "Saddam Hussein is dead; Saddam Hussein has gone to hell," media reported.
Indian officials worried the execution could trigger more sectarian violence.
"We had already expressed the hope that the execution would not be carried out. We are disappointed that it has been," External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said in a statement.
"We hope that this unfortunate event will not affect the process of reconciliation, restoration of peace and normalcy in Iraq," he added.
Former Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh, who was forced from office in 2005 over his alleged involvement in the UN oil-for-food scandal in Iraq, said the execution would lead to increased tension in the Middle East.
"It will have a very adverse impact on the region for decades to come," he told CNN-IBN news channel.
In Pakistan, an Islamic ally in the US-led war on terror, a leader of a coalition of six religious parties said Saddam had not received justice.
"We have no sympathy with Saddam Hussein, but we will also say that he did not get justice," Liaquat Baluch, a leader of the Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal, also known as the United Action Forum, told The Associated Press by phone.
"The execution of Saddam Hussein will further destabilize Iraq. There will be more sectarian violence in Iraq, and we believe that the execution of Saddam Hussein is part of the American plan to disintegrate Iraq," he added.
Former Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pinsuwan, a Muslim, said he expected the execution would increase tension in the war on terror because of Saddam's many followers.
Iran hailed the execution of Hussein as "enforcer of the most horrendous crimes against humanity" but many Iranians said Saddam should have stood trial for invading Iran and Kuwait before being hanged.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in a telephone conversation later Saturday that Saddam's execution prevented exposure of the secrets and crimes the former dictator committed during his brutal rule, state-run television reported.
"With the death of this dictator and strengthening of the (Iraqi government), I hope full security will prevail for the Iraqi people," the TV quoted Ahmadinejad as saying.
"Saddam, enforcer of the most horrendous crimes against humanity, has been put to death," Iran's state-run television reported Saturday.
"With the execution of Saddam, the dossier of one of the world's most criminal dictators was closed," it said.