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Dueling demonstrations after Saddam verdict; prosecutor says appeals court to rule by mid-January

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ A round-the-clock curfew imposed in the capital ahead of Saddam Hussein's conviction eased Monday, with residents once more allowed to walk the streets and sidewalks. Around the country, jubilant Shiites celebrated the verdict, as Sunnis held defiant counter-demonstrations.

Iraq's appeals court was expected to rule on the verdict and sentence by mid-January, the chief prosecutor said Monday. Should the court uphold the death penalty, the Associated Press has learned that Iraq's three-man presidential council agreed previously not to block Saddam's hanging, which must be carried out within 30 days.

The surge in violence expected immediately after the Sunday verdict on Saddam's trial for crimes against humanity did not materialize. An Interior Ministry spokesman credited the round-the-clock curfew in Baghdad, which has a mixed Shiite-Sunni population, and two restive Sunni provinces. Checkpoints were closed along Iraq's border with Jordan and Syria, a standard precaution taken during domestic emergencies.

Authorities were gradually lifting the restrictions, with pedestrians allowed back on the streets of Baghdad late Monday afternoon. Vehicle traffic in Baghdad would be permitted beginning at 6 a.m. Tuesday, according to police Lt. Mohammed Khayoun and an aide to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

In mainly Shiite Hillah, 60 miles south of Baghdad, around 500 people marched carrying placards and shouting slogans denouncing the former dictator, who is accused of killing tens of thousands of Shiites following a 1991 uprising.

``Yes, yes for the verdict, which we have long been waiting for!'' chanted the crowd, largely made up of students and government workers.

At least three people were wounded after gunfire broke out at a Shiite rally in the southwestern Baghdad neighborhood of Amil, a mixed Shiite-Sunni area, police Lt. Maithem Abdel-Razaq said.

Ethnic Kurds, who like Iraq's majority Shiites suffered brutal persecution under Saddam, abandoned plans for a celebration rally in the northern city of Mosul over security concerns, said Ghayath al-Sorchi, an official with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which is led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

Al-Sorchi said PUK activists instead distributed gifts to families who lost relatives in crackdowns under Saddam. Saddam is scheduled to appear in court again on Tuesday, when proceedings resume against him and six co-defendants in a separate trial over a crackdown against Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s _ the so-called Anfal case.

Underscoring the widening divide between Shiite and Sunni, about 250 pro-Saddam demonstrators took to the streets in the Sunni city of Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. They were dispersed by Iraqi soldiers for breaking the curfew. Another 400 pro-Saddam protesters marched through Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad.

The curfew was temporarily lifted in Tikrit to give allow residents to shop and run errands. Angry crowds had gathered in the city on Sunday, holding aloft Saddam portraits, firing guns and chanting slogans vowing to avenge his execution.

Saddam was sentenced by the Iraqi High Tribunal for ordering the execution of nearly 150 Shiites from the city of Dujail following a 1982 attempt on his life.

If the appeals court upholds the sentences, all three members of the Presidential Council _ President Jalal Talabani and Vice Presidents Tariq al-Hashimi and Adil Abdul-Mahdi _ must sign death warrants before executions can be carried out.

But Talabani said Monday that while he had once signed an international petition against the death penalty, his signature was not needed to carry out the death sentence. Talabani, a Kurd, has permanently deputized Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite Muslim, to sign on his behalf. Abdul-Mahdi has said he would sign Saddam's death warrant, meaning two of three signatures were assured.

Al-Hashimi, the other vice president and a Sunni Muslim, gave his word that he also would sign a Saddam death penalty sentence as part of the deal under which he got the job on April 22, according to witnesses at the meeting, which was attended by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.

Saddam was found hiding with an unfired pistol in a hole in the ground near his home village north of Baghdad in December 2003, eight months after he fled the capital ahead of advancing American troops.

Barzan Ibrahim, Saddam's half brother and intelligence chief during the Dujail killings, was sentenced to join him on the gallows, as was Awad Hamed al-Bandar, head of Iraq's Revolutionary Court, which issued the death sentences against the Dujail residents.

Former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan was convicted of premeditated murder and sentenced to life in prison, while three other defendants were given up to 15 years in prison for torture and premeditated murder. A local Baath Party official was acquitted for lack of evidence.

President Bush called the verdict ``a milestone in the Iraqi people's efforts to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law.''

But symbolic of the split between the United States and many of its traditional allies over the Iraq war, many European nations voiced opposition to the death sentences in the case, including Britain _ America's closest ally.

Prime Minister Tony Blair said Monday he opposed the death penalty ``whether it's Saddam or anyone else.'' But he said the trial ``gives us a chance to see again what the past in Iraq was, the brutality, the tyranny, the hundreds of thousands of people he killed, the wars.''
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