BAGHDAD (Reuters) -
Saddam Hussein was hanged at dawn on Saturday for crimes against humanity, a dramatic, violent end for a leader who brutally ruled Iraq for three decades before he was toppled by a U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Betraying no hint of regret, a composed-looking Saddam refused a black hood over his head before masked hangmen placed the noose around his neck, a Shi'ite Muslim politician who witnesses the execution said.
"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, an ally of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, said after the indoor execution at a former military intelligence headquarters in northern Baghdad, where Saddam himself had executed his opponents.
A Shi'ite-run channel aired grainy film of the body in a white shroud, showing Saddam, who was 69, lying with his neck twisted with what appeared to be blood or a bruise on his cheek.
Askari said Saddam will likely be buried secretly in Iraq after the government rejected a family request for the body.
As Maliki's fellow Shi'ites, oppressed under Saddam, celebrated in the streets, the prime minister called on the former president's Sunni Baathists to end their insurgency.
"Saddam's execution puts an end to all the pathetic gambles on a return to dictatorship," said Maliki, seen on television signing the order with red ink for a hanging he did not attend.
But there was little sign of an end to the violence.
Police in Kufa, near the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf, said 36 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.
A triple car bombing killed 25 in a Shi'ite district of the capital -- the sort of attacks that have pitched Iraq toward sectarian war since U.S. troops broke Saddam's iron rule.
President Bush, who called Saddam a threat 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 five troops pushed the American death toll to just a few 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 muted as Iraqis woke on the holiest day of the Muslim calendar to begin a week of religious holidays for Eid al-Adha. No curfew was imposed on Baghdad.
Shi'ites danced in the streets of the city of Najaf and cars honked 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 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.
He was found guilty over the killing and torture of Shi'ites in the town of Dujail after militants tried to assassinate him there in 1982. An appeal was rejected four days ago.
A trial witness from Dujail 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, one of a dozen official witnesses said.
Many Kurds will be disappointed that Saddam will not now be convicted of genocide against them in a trial yet to finish, but 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.
Saddam became president in 1979, and the next year led his country into an eight-year war against Iran that cost hundreds of thousands of lives. In 1990 he invaded Kuwait, but U.S.-led forces drove the Iraqis out in 1991.
Saddam's half-brother Barzan al-Tikriti and former judge Awad al-Bander are to be hanged in January.