BAGHDAD (Reuters) - An Iraqi appeals court on Tuesday upheld Saddam Hussein's death sentence for crimes against humanity and said he should hang within 30 days.
Human rights groups condemned his trial as seriously flawed and called on the government not to carry out the sentence, which comes amid raging violence between Saddam's fellow Sunni Arabs and majority Shi'ites.
The White House called the court's decision a "milestone" in replacing tyranny with rule of law.
Sunni Arab leaders reacted angrily to the ruling, saying it was politically motivated by Saddam's former enemies now in power in a U.S.-backed Shi'ite-led national unity government.
"The appeal court has approved the death sentence. They (the government) have the right to choose the date starting from tomorrow up to 30 days. After 30 days it will be an obligation to implement the sentence," the head of the Iraqi High Tribunal, Aref Abdul-Razzaq al-Shahin, told a news conference.
Saddam, 69, and two others were sentenced to death on November 5 for crimes against humanity over the killings of 148 Shi'ites from the town of Dujail after he escaped assassination in 1982.
"Every criminal should get what he deserves, whether he is Saddam or anybody else, but with a fair trial. They turned the Saddam trial into a show," said Salim al-Jibouri, an official of the Islamic Party, the largest Sunni Arab party in parliament.
Human rights group Amnesty International said the appeal court ruling came after a trial that lacked independence from political interference.
"We are against the death penalty as a matter of principle but particularly in this case because it comes after a flawed trial," an Amnesty International spokeswoman said.
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, also objected.
"Imposing the death penalty, indefensible in any case, is especially wrong after such unfair proceedings," said Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice program at Human Rights Watch.
The nine-judge appeal court also upheld death sentences against Saddam's half-brother Barzan al-Tikriti and former judge Awad al-Bander for their roles in the incident.
The court recommended toughening the sentence on former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, who had been sentenced to life in prison over Dujail, saying he should also be executed.
Saddam's chief defense counsel, Khalil al-Dulaimi, said the ruling would inflame Iraq's sectarian divide: "If they dare implement the sentence it will be a catastrophe for the region and will only deepen the sectarian infighting," he told Reuters from Amman.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said Saddam had "received due process and legal rights that he denied the Iraqi people for so long."
"Today marks an important milestone in the Iraqi people's efforts to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law," he told reporters.
Saddam is still on trial with six others for genocide against ethnic Kurds in northern Iraq in the 1980s. Shahin said the trial would continue without Saddam if he is executed. Saddam is scheduled to appear in court again on January8.
Many human rights and legal experts have argued that Saddam could not get a fair trial in a country torn by sectarian conflict that has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis.
In the latest violence, bombs killed nearly 40 people in Baghdad, including 20 in western Adhamiya district, a Sunni area. Earlier, a triple car bombing in a Shi'ite area killed 16.
The U.S. military reported the deaths of six more American soldiers, bringing the U.S. toll to at least 2,978 -- five more than the number killed in the September 11, 2001 attacks.
At least 89 U.S. soldiers have died this month, making it the deadliest this year after October's toll of 106, and increasing pressure on President George W. Bush to find a strategy to extricate 135,000 U.S. troops from the war.
Stung by Republicans' defeats in congressional elections in which voter discontent over Iraq was a major issue, Bush has said he will announce a new strategy in January after listening to his military commanders and State Department officials.
A senior defense official said the Pentagon is expected to send 3,500 troops into Kuwait to stand ready for use in Iraq.
The "call-forward" force was requested by Army General John Abizaid, head of the military command responsible for the Middle East, and must be approved by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, did not know if Gates had yet approved the deployment, but said the announcement was expected as early as Wednesday.