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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Thousands of Sunni Arabs vented their anger on Tuesday over Saddam Hussein's execution as the Iraqi government promised an investigation into illicitly filmed footage of Shi'ite officials taunting him on the gallows.
A court official said he nearly halted the hanging over the jeering, which has inflamed sectarian passions in a nation already on the brink of civil war. Data showed civilian deaths hit a new record in December and were over 12,000 in 2006.
In the video, widely seen on the Internet, observers chant the name of Shi'ite cleric and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr as Saddam stands on the scaffold, a convicted mass killer appearing dignified in contrast to the uproar below him.
By rushing through the execution just four days after the former president's appeal failed, over the reservations of the U.S. ambassador who urged a two-week delay, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki made good on a promise to fellow Shi'ites that few had once found credible -- that Saddam would not live to see 2007.
But a moderate lawmaker from Saddam's Sunni community said the uncensored images of the hasty hanging were a blow to Maliki's calls for national reconciliation.
Prosecutor Munkith al-Faroon, who can be heard appealing for order on the Internet video, said he threatened to leave the room if the jeering did not stop. That would have halted the execution as a prosecution observer must be present by law.
"I threatened to leave," Faroon told Reuters. "They knew that if I left, the execution could not go ahead."
As U.S. President George W. Bush prepares a new strategy for a war in which the 3,000th soldier died at the weekend, Interior Ministry data showed at least 1,930 civilians died in political violence in December, almost certainly an underestimate.
Saddam's grave in his native village, Awja, drew thousands more mourners on Tuesday, as it has each day since he was buried there in the dead of night early on Sunday.
Thousands of people marched in nearby Tikrit and in the northern city of Mosul, carrying portraits of Saddam and banners proclaiming him a martyr. In Samarra, Sunni mourners prayed at a shrine venerated principally by Shi'ites that was destroyed by a bomb in February, unleashing the present sectarian bloodbath.
Sunni neighbourhoods in Baghdad and other towns have seen similar demonstrations since Saturday.
The rapid execution has boosted Maliki's fragile authority among his fractious Shi'ite allies, but has angered many Sunnis.
"The timing of the execution and the footage shown hurt the feelings of those who have the desire to join the political process," said Saleem al-Jibouri, a moderate voice from the Accordance Front, the largest Sunni Arab parliamentary bloc.
As the Iraqi government mounted an investigation into how officials smuggled in mobile phone cameras, Faroon challenged the accounts of the justice minister and an adviser to the prime minister who said the illicit film was shot by a guard.
"Two officials were holding mobile phone cameras," said Faroon, who was a deputy prosecutor in the case for which Saddam was hanged and is the chief prosecutor in a second trial that will continue against his aides for genocide against the Kurds.
"One of them I know. He's a high-ranking government official," Faroon said, declining to name the man. "The other I also know by sight, though not his name. He is also senior."
Describing how U.S. troops searched the official delegation to attend the hanging, he said: "I don't know how they got their mobiles in because the Americans took all our phones, even mine which has no camera."
Khudayer al-Khuzai, the acting justice minister, said guards violated orders not to bring mobile phones or cameras. He vowed an investigation with "highest standards of discipline."
Washington says the Mehdi Army militia, loyal to Sadr, is the biggest threat to Iraq and has urged Maliki to crack down on its illegal activities. But Maliki relies on the support of Sadr's political movement -- an uneasy relationship illustrated by the presence of Sadr supporters at Saddam's execution.
(Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald)
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