BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Saddam Hussein was hanged at dawn on Saturday for crimes against humanity after Iraq's prime minister rushed through an execution few believed would help stem the sectarian violence tearing the country apart.
The former president, toppled by the U.S. invasion four years ago, was shown on state television going calmly to his death on the scaffold. He was to be buried within hours near his home city of Tikrit.
"It was very quick. He died right away," an official witness told Reuters, adding that the body was left to hang for 10 minutes and he was pronounced dead at 6:10 a.m. (0310 GMT).
The bearded Saddam, still robust at 69, refused a hood and declined to have a cleric present, but said a brief prayer on the gallows once used by his own secret police.
Grainy video later showed his body in a white shroud, the neck twisted and blood on a cheek. It was later taken to Awja, his native village near Tikrit, for burial by tribal elders near his sons Uday and Qusay, killed by U.S. troops in 2003.
Three decades after Saddam established his personal rule by force, it closed a chapter in Iraq's history marked by war with Iran and a 1990 invasion of Kuwait that turned him from ally to enemy of the United States and impoverished his oil-rich nation.
However, as U.S. President George W. Bush said in a statement, sectarian violence pushing Iraq towards civil war had not ended.
Car bombs set off by suspected insurgents from Saddam's once-dominant Sunni minority killed more than 70 people in Baghdad and near the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf, in areas populated by Shi'ite Muslims oppressed for decades and now in the ascendant.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, his fragile authority among fellow Shi'ites significantly enhanced after he forced through Saddam's execution over Sunni and Kurdish hesitation, reached out to Saddam's Sunni followers.
"Saddam's execution puts an end to all the pathetic gambles on a return to dictatorship," he said in a statement as state television showed film of him signing the death warrant in red ink. "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."
There is little prospect of peace from al Qaeda's Sunni Islamists but Maliki and Bush hope that more moderate Sunnis may choose negotiation over violence. As on Nov. 5, when Saddam was sentenced over the deaths of 148 Shi'ites from the town of Dujail, reaction among the Sunni population was muted.
Unusually, the government did not even see a need for a curfew in Baghdad. Protests in Saddam's home town and in the Sunni west were small. Although resentful at a loss of influence, few Sunnis found much to mourn in Saddam's passing.
Many Kurds were disappointed that Saddam would not now also be convicted of genocide against them in a trial yet to finish.
With violence killing hundreds every week, Iraqis have other worries. Even celebrations in Shi'ite cities and the Sadr City slum in Baghdad were brief and fairly restrained.
"It's a great joy that I can't even express," said Mohammad Kadhem, a journalist in the Shi'ite city of Basra. "I can't believe what I'm seeing on television -- Saddam led to the gallows where he hanged tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis."
"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," said Bush, who has defended the 2003 invasion despite U.S. troops' failure to find alleged banned weapons.
The deaths of six soldiers pushed the U.S. death toll to just two short of the emotive 3,000 mark as December became the deadliest month for Americans in Iraq for more than two years. Bush has promised to unveil a new strategy in the New Year.
The United Nations, the Vatican and Washington's European allies all condemned the execution on moral grounds.
Many Muslims, especially Sunnis, making the haj pilgrimage to Mecca were outraged by the symbolism of hanging Saddam on the holiest day of the year at the start of Eid al-Adha -- some Shi'ites also said his death was a suitable gift from God.
"There is no God but God and Mohammad is his prophet," Saddam intoned when asked to do so, according to a witness.
"We heard his neck snap," said Sami al-Askari, an adviser to Maliki. The prime minister himself was not present.
A witness in the Dujail trial said he was shown the body at Maliki's office: "When I saw the body in the coffin, I cried. I remembered my three brothers and my father whom he had killed."
Saddam was convicted of killing, torture and other crimes against the population of Dujail after militants from Maliki's Dawa party tried to assassinate him there in 1982.
After complaints of interference by Shi'ite politicians in the trial, the speed of the execution may add to unease about the fairness of the U.S.-sponsored process.
Saddam's half-brother Barzan al-Tikriti and former judge Awad al-Bander will be hanged for the same crimes in January.
(Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Dubai and Mussab Al-Khairalla, Ibon Villelabeitia and Claudia Parsons in Baghdad)