Saddam Hussein could be hanged within days after the rejection of his appeal by Iraq's highest court yesterday.
The former Iraqi dictator was sentenced to death in November over the killing of 148 Shia Muslims from the town of Dujail in 1982. He is facing another trial accused of genocide against the Kurds - but that may now never be completed.
The death sentence from the first trial must be implemented within 30 days, the chief judge, Aref Shahin, said yesterday, hinting that it could come even sooner: "From tomorrow, any day could be the day of implementation."
Iraq's prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, a member of the Shia majority persecuted under Saddam's Sunni-minority rule, has already said he wants the execution to take place before the end of the year.
One option would be to do it without prior announcement in an attempt to forestall possible protests - though some Shia elements have called for the hanging to be televised. Saddam, 69, is in the custody of US forces, so Washington could also have a say in the timing.
The British government opposes the death penalty. "It's a matter for the Iraqi tribunal but we've always made our position clear," a Foreign Office spokesman said yesterday.
Saddam's chief defence counsel, Khalil al-Dulaimi, told Reuters from Amman: "If they dare implement the sentence it will be a catastrophe for the region and will only deepen the sectarian infighting."
The appeals court decision must be ratified by President Jalal Talabani and Iraq's two vice-presidents. Mr Talabani opposes the death penalty but has in the past deputed a vice-president to sign an execution order on his behalf - a substitute that was legally accepted.
Raed Juhi, a spokesman for the court that convicted Saddam, said the judicial system would ensure he was executed even if Mr Talabani and the two vice-presidents did not ratify the decision. "We"ll implement the verdict by the power of the law," he said without elaborating.
In yesterday's ruling the court also rejected appeals by Saddam's half-brother, Barzan al-Tikriti, and a former judge, Awad al-Bander, both of whom were sentenced to death over the Dujail killings.
It rejected the life sentence on the former vice-president Taha Yassin Ramadan, recommending execution instead.
In a detailed report last month, the New York-based Human Rights Watch condemned the verdict in Saddam's case as unsound, saying the court had been guilty of so many shortcomings that a fair trial was impossible. Amnesty International said the trial was flawed.