TIKRIT, Dec 31: Saddam Hussein was buried privately and in the dead of night on Sunday, one day after swinging from the gallows.

At a covert ceremony in a village hall, tribal elders, clansmen and provincial leaders gathered in the bitter cold after hours spent slicing through red tape in Baghdad to fly their hero home on a US aircraft.

“In the presence of (Salaheddin) Governor Hamad al-Shakti, clan chief Ali al-Nada and scores of the people of Awja, we buried the body at around 3.30 in the morning,” Saddam's cousin Hamid Suleiman al-Majid said.

After the burial, hundreds of grim-faced mourners from the nearby town of Tikrit sidestepped a vehicle ban to walk the four kilometres to pay their respects at the fresh grave, which was draped in an Iraqi flag. The graves of Saddam’s sons Uday and Qusay are three kilometres away.

Hanging their heads, raising their hands in prayer and wiping away tears, men gathered in traditional dress and leather jackets around the fresh cement sealing the hole in the marble floor of a village hall.

Saddam was lowered into the ground less than 24 hours after his execution for crimes against humanity. His cousin said the Americans and US-backed Iraqi government had banned a traditional presidential-style wake.

“The American forces and the Iraqi government ordered the body to be buried quickly without holding a wake,” he said.

The deputy Salaheddin governor, one of three officials to escort Saddam's body back, told local television how officials had persuaded the government to release the body in accordance with the family's wishes.

Abdullah Hussein Jabara said Saddam's face was bruised but there were no traces of aggression on the body -- which had been shrouded and filmed by Iraqi television in footage beamed around the world as proof of death.

Some Iraqi Sunnis had seized on the bruises to claim that Saddam had been tortured, but his cousin and officials said they were caused by the hanging.

A religious scholar cleric then washed the corpse, Jabara said, put it in a coffin and prayed over it near the Iraqi prime minister's office inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, seat of the Baghdad government and the US embassy.

Jabara said the delegation had needed to secure American permission, from as high up as President George Bush, for a US aircraft to fly Saddam home on a 180-kilometre journey which would be too dangerous by road.

“We went to contact the Americans to secure a plane and that took more time than expected because it needed the approval of the US State Department and even Bush personally, we were told,” he said.

Saddam's body was then flown out of Baghdad at 1am (3am in Pakistan) and was met at an air base 90 minutes later by a police car that escorted the small cortege to Awja, finally arriving at 3.15am (5.15am in Pakistan) to waiting clansmen.

A government official in Baghdad also said a US helicopter flew Saddam's body to Tikrit. There was no official comment from either the American embassy or military.

“After a cleric made sure the body was washed and coffined, we prayed on the body and buried it at around 4 (6am in Pakistan) today,” Jabara said. While emotions ran high, there was no `behaviour that did not fit the occasion’.

Musa Faraj, a relative, said the hall in which Saddam was interred has often been used for condolence meetings in a region north of Baghdad. “The hall where Saddam is buried shall be renamed as the Hall of Martyr Saddam Hussein,” said Munaf Ali Al-Nida, the son of Saddam's tribal chief.—AFP

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