BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Saddam Hussein was hanged at dawn on Saturday for crimes against humanity, a dramatic, violent end for a leader who ruled Iraq by fear for three decades before he was toppled by a U.S. invasion in 2003.
In what looked like a swift response by Sunni insurgents loyal to Saddam, a car bomb killed 34 people in a Shi'ite town -- the sort of sectarian attack that has pitched Iraq toward civil war since U.S. troops broke Saddam's iron grip.
State television aired film of Saddam, looking composed and talking with the masked hangman as he placed the noose around his neck on the gallows. It did not show the death or the body.
"It was very quick. He died right away," one of the official Iraqi witnesses told Reuters, saying the ousted president, who was bound but wore no blindfold, had said a brief prayer.
"We heard his neck snap," Sami al-Askari, a political ally of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, told Reuters after the indoor execution at a Justice Ministry facility in northern Baghdad.
As Maliki's fellow Shi'ite Muslims, oppressed under Saddam, celebrated in the streets, the prime minister called on Saddam's Sunni Baathist followers to end their insurgency. U.S. President George W. Bush hailed a "milestone" for Iraqi democracy.
"Saddam's execution puts an end to all the pathetic gambles on a return to dictatorship," said Maliki, who officials said did not attend the hanging. State television showed him signing the order for a hanging whose swiftness following the rejection of an appeal has delighted Shi'ites who suffered under Saddam.
"I urge ... followers of the ousted regime to reconsider their stance as the door is still open to anyone who has no innocent blood on his hands to help in rebuilding ... Iraq."
Police in Kufa, near the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf, said 30 people were killed and 58 wounded by the car bomb at a market packed with shoppers ahead of the week-long Eid al-Adha holiday. They said a mob killed a man they accused of planting the bomb.
Bush, who called Saddam a threat even though alleged nuclear and other weapons were never found, said: "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."
The deaths of four troops pushed the American death toll to just four short of the emotive 3,000 mark. Bush already faces mounting public dismay at the war as Iraq slides toward all-out civil war between Saddam's fellow Sunnis and majority Shi'ites.
Popular reactions were fairly muted as Iraqis woke on the holiest day of the Muslim calendar to begin a week of religious holidays for Eid al-Adha. Unlike at previous times of tension, no curfew was imposed on Baghdad after the execution.
Jubilant Shi'ites, oppressed under Saddam, danced in the streets of Najaf and cars blared their horns in procession through Baghdad's Shi'ite Sadr City slum.
The main Sunni television channel in the capital gave little coverage to the news -- though it did show old footage of Saddam meeting former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at a time when Washington helped Iraq against Islamist Iran in the 1980s.
State broadcaster Iraqiya on the other hand ran graphic footage of Saddam's agents beheading and beating their victims.
A man from Dujail who testified in Saddam's trial over the deaths of 148 Shi'ite men from the town said he was shown the body at Maliki's office and wept for his dead relatives:
"When I saw the body in the coffin I cried. I remembered my three brothers and my father whom he had killed. I approached the body and told him: 'This is the well-deserved punishment for every tyrant'," Jawad al-Zubaidi told Reuters. "Now for the first time my father and three brothers are happy."
Before his death, the former president recited the Muslim profession of faith "There is no God but God and Mohammed is his prophet", one of a dozen or so official witnesses told Reuters.
The rapid execution was a triumph for Maliki, whose grip on his fragile national unity coalition has been questioned.
After complaints of political interference in the trial, however, the speed of the execution may fuel further unease about the fairness of the U.S.-sponsored process.
"The timing of the execution and the sudden way it has been done may irritate people," Saleem al-Jibouri, a spokesman for the main Sunni party in the national unity government, said.
Many Kurds are also disappointed that Saddam will not now be convicted of genocide against them in a trial yet to finish.
Saddam's half-brother Barzan al-Tikriti and former judge Awad al-Bander are to be hanged after the week-long Eid.
Saddam's daughter Raghd, in exile in Jordan, wants her father buried in Yemen, a source close to the family said. The governor from Saddam's home town of Tikrit said his tribe was negotiating with the government to have the body interred in the village of Awja, where Saddam's sons were buried in 2003. The government wanted to bury him in Baghdad, the governor said.
(Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Dubai and Mariam Karouny and Mussab Al-Khairalla in Baghdad)