BAGHDAD - The Iraqi and US governments on Sunday tried to portray Saddam Hussein's death sentence as a step towards a new era, but there were plenty of signs that it could be a step into the dark.

The starkest challenge facing those trying to pull Iraq back from the brink of all-out civil war is the bitter conflict between extremist factions of the majority Shiite and minority Sunni communities, and Sunday's judgment served to reinforce that divide.

"Saddam's symbolic power was enhanced with the death sentence. He is now a living martyr," said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East director of the International Crisis Group think tank.

"To some extent he still carries influence over Sunni insurgents. I think once he is dead his impact will fade quickly, but his execution will have a bigger reaction in terms of violence," he told AFP.

Demonstrations for and against the ousted leader erupted in several areas of Iraq and were replayed at length on Iraqi and regional media, underlining the deepening split in society more than three years after Saddam's fall.

"The divisions will continue. There will be more blood, more divisions and more rifts. The prime minister and the government will be responsible for that," said a spokesman for the prominent Sunni lawmaker Saleh Mutlak.

The verdict did not even enjoy unanimous acclaim within Iraq's elected post-Saddam government of national unity.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki hailed the decision as an end to Saddam's era and a step towards halting violence, but President Jalal Talabani held his counsel and Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi's party issued a scathing response.

"Iraqis have the right to wonder if the new regime has shown a better example than the old one," said the statement from the Iraqi Islamic Party.

"Are the crimes committed by the former regime not committed today?" asked the party, which is part of the ruling coalition.

"Crimes today include sectarian killing and cleansing, which were not known before. These take place every day under the sight of the government and indeed with the backing of the security forces," it alleged.

The United States' plan for restoring order in Iraq and withdrawing its 150,000 strong force hinges on building strong, professional security services, but verdict day showed up divisions within those ranks, too.

In Baghdad, police turned a blind eye when the citizens of the sprawling Sadr City neighbourhood breached a supposedly strict curfew to hold rallies to celebrate Saddam's conviction and support radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

In the Sunni town of Samarra, uniformed and armed police paraded with Saddam's portrait amid a 200-strong crowd chanting support for Saddam, holy war and the Al-Qaeda terror group.

"We hope this sentence will not lead to more divisions among the Iraqis. We hope that would not lead to repercussions and security problems," said prominent Kurdish lawmaker Mahmud Othman.

"Iraqis have suffered from big problems and we hope this sentence will not add any others," he said.

Against this backdrop, the White House's analysis of the verdict aftermath seemed optimistic at best.

"You now have absolute proof that you've got an independent judiciary in Iraq," White House spokesman Tony Snow told NBC television.

Most international watchdogs have criticised the court as biased towards Maliki's position, while Sunni protesters bitterly accused the judge of being in the pay from everyone from Tel Aviv to Tehran.

"If you want the broader context, you also have to understand that the people of Iraq themselves are devoted and dedicated to the business of building a democracy," the US spokesman added.

While that may be so, on Sunday night Shiite protesters seemed more concerned with rubbing their Sunni neighbours faces in their hero's humiliation, while many Sunnis were all but threatening full-scale war.

"The pronouncement at the court is a crime against Iraq, its future and history," said Sheikh Abdel-Rahman Munshid al-Asi a prominent leader of the Sunni Al-Obeidi tribe.

"The Iraqi government and its constituent parties should be held responsible for what will happen to Iraq as a repercussion for this unlucky day. The risks will be catastrophic," he said.

11/05/2006 16:18 GMT

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