Saddam Hussein appeared yesterday to have lost his last chance of avoiding execution when the Iraqi presidency announced that the court decision upholding the death penalty was final.
Saddam's supporters issued threats of widescale retaliation, and international legal and human rights groups called for the sentence to be rescinded.
At the same time, two letters purporting to be from Saddam were posted on the internet bearing conflicting messages. One asks Iraqis not to hate the Western forces who have occupied their country, while the other urges them to rise up against the same forces.
Earlier a spokesman for President Jalal Talabani, who personally opposes the death penalty, had stated that Saddam's execution was not likely to require presidential approval.
One of Saddam's lawyers, Najib al-Nueimi, a former Qatari justice minister, said: "The defence team has exhausted all legal channels to appeal this decision, so it is up to the president's [Saddam's] family to present an appeal for clemency to the current President."
Hiwa Osman, an adviser to President Talabani, said: "Some people believe there is no need for his approval. We still have to hear from the court as to how the procedure can be carried out."
Under the Iraqi constitution, presidential approval is needed for a death sentence to be carried out. But Raed Juhi, the spokesman for the court which tried Saddam and his co-accused, insisted that this was academic. "We shall implement the verdict by the power of the law," he said.
In one of the letters released yesterday, Saddam says: "I call on you not to hate because hate does not leave space for a person to be fair and makes you blind and closes all doors of thinking. I also call on you not to hate the people of the other countries that attacked us and separated the people from those who govern them."
But in the other the former Iraqi president declares: "I offer myself in sacrifice. If God almighty wishes, my soul will take me where he orders to be with the martyrs... O brave, pious Iraqis in heroic resistance. Oh sons of the one nation, direct your enmity towards the invaders. Don't let them divide you... Long live jihad and the mujahedin against the invaders."
Observers believe the execution may be carried out quickly. The Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has said he wants the execution to take place before the end of the year. Iraqi and US officials are said to be worried that a delay would allow the build up of opposition.
A statement by Saddam's supporters said: "The Ba'ath and the resistance are determined to retaliate, with all means and everywhere, to harm America... if it commits this crime."
Saddam and six other former Ba'ath party officials have been convicted of killing 148 people in the Shia village of Dujail in 1982. Some Shia public figures have demanded that the hanging should be televised.
On the streets of Baghdad there was apprehension about the consequences, with opposition to the execution extending to some in the Shia population, which suffered the most under Saddam. "Executing him now is dangerous. The situation is very bad. Things need to be calmer," Saadia Mohammed Majed, 60, said. "We need to wait at least three years." Another Shia, Haidar Ali Hakim, added: "The man has been responsible for a lot of deaths. But killing him now would mean more excuses for bombs."
Edward Iskander, 37, a Christian, said: "I only hope that they let him die naturally because if we execute him, his followers will unleash mayhem."
Extract from a letter written by Saddam Hussein after he was sentenced to death
"To the great nation, to the people of our country, and humanity: Many of you have known the writer of this letter to be faithful, honest, caring for others, wise, of sound judgement, just, decisive, careful with the wealth of the people and the state... and that his heart is big enough to embrace all without discrimination. You have known your brother and leader very well and he never bowed to the despots and remained a sword and a banner... I offer my soul to God as a sacrifice, and if He wants, He will send it to heaven with the martyrs,... so let us depend on Him against the unjust nations.
Extract from a letter posted on the internet yesterday in the name of Saddam Hussein and authenticated by his lawyers
"I call on you not to hate because hate does not leave space for a person to be fair and it makes you blind and closes all doors of thinking. I also call on you not to hate the people of the other countries that attacked us... [This] court... did not give us the chance to say a word, and issued its verdict without explanation and read out the sentence - dictated by the invaders - without presenting the evidence... Dear faithful people, I say goodbye to you, but I will be with the merciful God who helps those who take refuge in him and who will never disappoint any honest believer.''