The Crime That Sent Saddam to the Gallows

Compared to other crimes committed by former Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein and his regime, the 1982 Dujail massacre was barely known.

In both preparation and justification for the Iraq War, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair often referred to the better-known examples of Saddam's barbarism -- such as the wholesale slaughter of thousands of Kurds, Marsh Arabs, and Shiites after the first Gulf War, or the March 1988 chemical attack on Halabja, which resulted in the deaths of approximately 5,000 Kurds.

But the torture and murders Saddam ordered on the residents of Dujail -- a largely Shiite town 35 miles north of Baghdad -- as retaliation for an assassination attempt on his life ultimately were the ones that led to his hanging.

A Hot Summer's Day in Dujail

It began on a hot summer's day on July 8, 1982, in the early months of the Iran-Iraq war, which at that point was proceeding poorly for Saddam.

With an official cameraman in tow, Saddam and his entourage went to Dujail, where he spoke to a cheering crowd and thanked locals for sending their sons to war. According to footage, Saddam met with a family, patted the head of a small girl and turned down the offer of a glass of water. All seemed to be going well for this p.r. event.

On his way out of town, however, Saddam was ambushed. From the cover of palm trees, members of a militant Shiite group, Dawa, fired upon Saddam's entourage.

Saddam turned the convoy around. His security team began tracking down suspects. The cameraman caught some of those moments in tapes obtained by the Journeyman documentary company and aired on the United Kingdom's Channel 4.

"I'm fasting and was on my way home," pleaded one young man.

Cried another: "Please sir, I'm in the Popular Army."

"Keep them separate and interrogate them," Saddam said.

The dictator again spoke to a crowd.

"These small groups imagine they break the relationship between Saddam and the people," he said. "Neither these few shots nor the artillery bombardments will deflect us from the course we are taking."

Channel 4 described the crowd as "hysterically trying to scream their allegiance, knowing the likely fate of those thought to [be] involved in any plot."

'Al Karitha'

Saddam promised that he would "distinguish between the people of Dujail and a small number of traitors in Dujail."

But he didn't. Within months, hundreds were tortured and at least 148 Shiite men and boys were killed. Residents still refer to the bloody episode as "Al Karitha" -- the disaster.

In court a year ago, survivors of Al Karitha testified against Saddam. Hidden behind a screen, identified by names such as "Witness A" and "Witness B," their voices were even disguised so as to protect them from any acts of reprisal.

''I was forced to take off my clothes, and he raised my legs up and tied up my hands," the woman called "Witness A" said, describing how she was tortured by one of Saddam's intelligence officers when she was 16. "He continued administering electric shocks and beating me."

She strongly suggested she'd been raped.

''I begged them, but they hit with their pistols,'' she said. ''They made me put my legs up. There were five or more, and they treated me like a banquet.''

''There were mass arrests," said another witness, identified as Ahmed Hassan Mohammed. "Women and men. Even if a child was one day old, they used to tell his parents, 'Bring him with you.'"

It was the strength of the case and the documentary evidence that propelled the special tribunal to prosecute Saddam for the Dujail case first.

Evidence included 127 death certificates of Dujail residents executed by hanging in the 1980s. Prosecutors played a 1991 audiotape of a conversation between Saddam and one of his regional leadership members in which he repeated the orders to destroy farmlands in and around Dujail.

Also of note were official letters to Saddam indicating that more than 45 Shiites from Dujail had been killed in prison during the interrogation conducted by the Mukhabarat, Saddam's intelligence service, in the early 1980s.

Saddam not only admitted the Dujail massacre -- he told the court that no one else should be tried for the actions he took as president.

"I'm the one who destroyed the farmlands in Dujail, so why do you ask other defendants about it?" Saddam said to the court. "I'm the one who took that decision and referred the suspects to the revolutionary court, and no one could oblige me to do so unless I wanted to."

Some Iraqis have expressed disappointment that Saddam was executed so quickly, without the opportunity for survivors of other acts of his barbarism to face him down in court and hold him accountable. It is likely a small consolation for the survivors of Al Karitha that it was their testimony that led to Saddam's execution today.

ABC News' Zoe Magee and Haider Hamza contributed to this report.