The White House is praising the Iraqi judicial system for the death sentence handed down to Saddam Hussein. In a politically charged atmosphere just two days before U.S. congressional elections, the administration is denying that it had any influence on the timing of the verdict. VOA's Stephanie Ho reports from Washington.
Speaking from near his ranch in Texas, President Bush said the guilty conviction and death sentence an Iraqi court handed to Saddam Hussein is historically significant.
"Saddam Hussein's trial is a milestone in the Iraqi people's efforts to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law," said the president. "It's a major achievement for Iraq's young democracy and its constitutional government."
The verdict was announced in Baghdad just two days before congressional elections in the United States that observers expect will result in gains for the opposition Democratic Party. Saddam's defense lawyers had said the court's decision was timed to help President Bush's Republican Party in the balloting.
Many experts see the U.S. elections as a referendum on the Iraq War.
White House spokesman Tony Snow appeared on CNN's Late Edition, and stressed that the Iraqi court decision was reached independently without U.S. interference. "The idea is preposterous that somehow we've been scheming and plotting with the Iraqis," said Snow.
Democratic Party leader Howard Dean also praised the verdict on the ABC television program This Week, but added that he thinks this decision does not make the United States any safer. "Well, I think it is a great verdict. Saddam Hussein is a war criminal, and he is getting what he deserves," said Dean. "But I do not think it has any impact on the safety of America."
In a televised speech, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said he hopes the verdict will bring happiness to the families of the victims.
In other parts of the world, reactions were mixed.
Key U.S. allies welcomed the widely expected verdict.
British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said she is glad Saddam is being held accountable for what she called the "appalling atrocities" committed by his brutal regime. "It is right that he is brought to justice before an Iraqi court," she said. "The evidence against him has been heard in full court, it has been tested in full court, and the verdict has been given, in a court of the people, against whom his crimes were committed."
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said he is not surprised the court handed down a death sentence for Saddam, a man he referred to as "an evil tyrant."
In the Arab world, some Muslims saw the sentence as divine justice, while others denounced it as a farce. In Asia, news reports quoted a Muslim cleric in Thailand as warning that Saddam's death could, in his words, "turn into hell for the United States."
A Russian lawmaker and a former Turkish diplomat were both quoted as expressing concern that the sentence will deepen sectarian divisions in Iraq.
Despite praise for the verdict, many European nations voiced their opposition to the death penalty. An Italian opposition figure is reportedly calling on the continent to push for Saddam's sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment.
Claudio Cordone, senior director of human rights group Amnesty International, also deplored the death penalty verdict. "Obviously, we are disappointed by the death sentence," he said. "As you know, Amnesty is always opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances. But also there are serious flaws with regard to the trial."
He said his group believes the trial was not fair and that the court was not impartial.
Saddam and his co-defendants have 30 days to file an appeal.