Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi dictator, was put to death at dawn on Saturday, Baghdad time, just days after an Iraqi appeals court refused to commute his execution.

Before he was taken to the gallows in Baghdad, the former Iraqi president was reportedly handed a “red card” signalling his imminent death - a reminder of the red cards dealt to those he had condemned to death during his time in power.

Iraqi state television said Mr Hussein’s execution was captured in still photographs and on video.

Muaffak al-Rubbaie, the Iraqi national security adviser who witnessed the event, told CNN that Mr Hussein, who declined to wear a hood for his execution, appeared “really, really broken” as he awaited his death and appeared to show no remorse.

Mr Rubbaie added he was “proud” of the way the Iraqi government conducted the execution, saying it conformed with international, Iraqi, and Islamic standards. He said Mr Hussein had been treated with respect before and after the event.

President George W. Bush welcomed his death, saying it came after a “fair trial - the kind of justice he denied the victims of his brutal regime”.

“Saddam Hussein’s execution comes at the end of a difficult year for the Iraqi people and for our troops,” Mr Bush said in a statement. “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, and be an ally in the war on terror.”

US officials on Friday said they had been unaware of when Mr Hussein would be executed. But a White House spokeswoman later said Stephen Hadley, the White House national security adviser, had informed Mr Bush at 7.15pm Washington time that Mr Hussein was expected to be executed within hours. Mr Hadley received the news from Zalmai Khalilizad, the US ambassador to Iraq, who had been informed of the pending execution by Mr Maliki.

Margaret Beckett, the UK’s foreign secretary, said in a statement she welcomed “the fact that Saddam Hussein has been tried by an Iraqi court for at least some of the appalling crimes he committed against the Iraqi people”.

“He has now been held to account,” Mrs Beckett said. “The British government does not support the use of the death penalty, in Iraq or anywhere else. We advocate an end to the death penalty worldwide, regardless of the individual or the crime. We have made our position very clear to the Iraqi authorities, but we respect their decision as that of a sovereign nation.”

Mr Hussein, who was captured by US forces in December 2003, was sentenced to death last month for ordering the massacre of Iraqi Shia civilians more than two decades ago.

While the execution of the former Iraqi strongman was long expected, it will be an emotional jolt to many Iraqis to hear that the man who dominated their nation’s public life with an iron fist for nearly three decades has finally been put to death.

“It is a moment of remembrance for the victims of Saddam Hussein,” Feisal al-Istrabadi, deputy Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations, told CNN. “This is a man who history will record as responsible for the deaths of two million Iraqis.”

Mr Hussein’s two sons, Uday and Qusay, were killed by US forces in 2003.

US officials on Friday were careful to avoid any appearance that they had played any role in the decision to proceed with his hanging. But the US military was placed on heightened alert ahead of the execution in case his death resulted in more attacks on US troops, or a spike in the sectarian violence that has engulfed Baghdad.

Sunni Arabs may view his hanging as yet another aspect of Iraq’s long national humiliation, even though many did not condone his regime’s excesses. Some Iraqis fear that his execution will set back the chances of a political settlement between Iraq’s Shia-led government and the country’s Sunnis that could undercut support for the country’s insurgency.

But the execution may bolster the government’s standing among militant Shia groups, many of whom suspected that the former dictator might be able to strike a last-minute deal with the Americans to escape the gallows.

President George W. Bush justified the 2003 invasion of Iraq on the basis that Mr Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. After US forces failed to find those weapons, the Bush administration argued that the invasion had still been justified because it had removed the dictator from power.

The execution comes as the Bush administration prepares to unveil a new policy to help stop the violence that has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Iraqis and almost 3,000 US troops.

Iraqis had braced themselves for the execution of their former ruler on Friday following mounting speculation that Mr Hussein would be sent to the gallows before the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which began on Saturday morning.

Nouri al-Maliki, Iraqi prime minister, on Friday said nothing could overturn the death sentence.

“Our respect for human rights requires us to execute him, and there will be no review or delay in carrying out the sentence,” he said.

Mr Hussein, 69, was sentenced to death by an Iraqi special tribunal on November 5 for his role in a campaign of reprisals ordered against the Shia village of Dujail, where he suffered a 1982 assassination attempt. The campaign led to scores being executed and many others subjected to torture and long-term detention.

His trial was marked by allegations of political interference and procedural errors, and some international organisations had called on the government not to go through with Mr Hussein’s execution.

In Washington late on Friday night, a federal judge rejected a last-ditch petition by lawyers for Mr Hussein to block the US military from handing the former president over to Iraqi officials.

Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy said Mr Hussein had been “a brutal tyrant and murderous dictator”. “Now it is time for the people of Iraq to work to reconcile their differences and to heal the wounds of the past. Only that process will end the violence that has prevented Iraq from moving forward,” he said.

Pete Hoekstra, the outgoing Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee, said: “I do not support the death penalty, but Saddam Hussein’s fate was determined by an Iraqi judicial system that was created by the free Iraqi people. His sentence was delivered swiftly and the pain was minimised - the same cannot be said for his many hundreds of thousands of victims.”

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