People in a Shia Muslim enclave in Baghdad celebrate after hearing of the death sentence for Saddam Hussein. The poster shows Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, a Shia cleric killed by Saddam's government. ((Karim Kadim/Associated Press))

Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was found guilty of crimes against humanity on Sunday and sentenced to hang for the 1982 killing of 148 Shia Muslims in a town north of Baghdad.

Saddam shouted "God is Great" and "You are servants of the occupiers — you are traitors," before Judge Raouf Abdel Rahman of Iraq's High Tribunalfinishedreading the verdict and sentence.

"Life for us and death to our enemies, death to the enemies of the people. Long live this glorious nation and death to the enemies,"Saddam said as four guards took him out of the courtroom.

His chief lawyer later issued a statement, saying Saddam wantedIraqis toreject the sectarian violencethat couldincrease in the wake of the verdict.

"The president said that 'Saddam Hussein won't be defeated,'" lawyer Khalil al-Dulaimitold the Associated Press. "He said the people will remain strong and steadfast."

The court had heard that Saddamordered the 148 executionsin revenge for an assassination attempt in Dujail, 65 kilometres north of Baghdad. Saddam isa Sunni Muslim and his government was dominated by the country's Sunni minority.

Half-brother sentenced to death

Two of Saddam's senior aides, including his half-brother Barzan al-Tikriti (also known as Barzan Ibrahim)and Awad Hamad al-Bandar al-Saadun, the head of Iraq's former Revolutionary Court, were also sentenced tohang.

Aformer Iraqi vice president, Taha Yassin Ramadan, was convicted of premeditated murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Three defendants were sentenced to 15 years in prison for torture and premeditated murder. Abdullah Khadem Ruweid, his son Mezhar Abdullah Ruweid and Ali Daeh Ali were party officials in Dujail. They were believed responsible for the Dujail arrests.

Another co-defendant, Baath party official, Mohammed Assam Al-Ali, was acquitted.

Celebratory gunfire in Shia neighbourhoods

Some feared the verdicts could intensify sectarian violence after a trial that stretched over nine months.Clashes immediately broke out Sunday in northern Baghdad's heavily Sunni Azamiyah district.

"This government will be responsible for the consequences, with the deaths of hundreds, thousands or even hundreds of thousands, whose blood will be shed," Salih al-Mutlaq, a Sunni political leader, told the al-Arabiya satellite television station.

In Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, about 1,000 people defied a curfew that began on Saturday and carried pictures of the former leader through the streets.

Elsewhere in the capital, celebratory gunfire rang out.

Many Iraqischeered the verdictinthe predominantly Shiadistrict of east Baghdad,known as Sadr City. During his 24 years as president,Saddam favoured his Sunni minority for top government jobs and persecuted the Shia majority and the Kurds.

Lawyers plan appeal

Saddam's chief lawyercondemned Saddam's trial as a "farce," claiming the verdict was planned before it was handed down by thepanel of judges, who were appointed by the former Iraqi Governing Council withU.S., British and Australian support. He said the defence team would appeal within 30 days.

The death sentences automatically go to a nine-judge appeal panel, which has unlimited time to review the case. If the verdicts and sentences are upheld, the executions must be carried out within 30 days.

"Since Day One, we said the trial was politically motivated 100 per cent and that it's completely illegal," said defence lawyer Khalil al-Dulaimi. "The defence voice was not allowed to be heard at all."

Al-Dulaimi also said that the security situation in Baghdad was "very dangerous."

"Iranian intelligence and U.S. invaders are patrolling around. There's nobody else on the streets," he said. "Baghdad looks like a ghost town."

Saddam's government was toppled in April 2003 during a campaign led by U.S. forces, on the assertion that Iraq possessed hidden stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. No evidence was found to support that claim.

After an intense manhunt, Saddam was captured by American soldiers in December 2003 at a farmhouse in the town of Adwar, not far from his hometown of Tikrit.

It wasn't immediately clear what effect the verdict would have on a second trial for Saddam, which started in late August and in which he and six others facecharges of genocide and war crimes against Kurds opened in connection with a poison gas attack on the Kurdish village of Halabja in 1988.

With files from the Associated Press