BAGHDAD — Judge Rauf Abdel-Rahman took over a court veering toward farce last January.
His predecessor had allowed deposed Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein and codefendants to deliver long political speeches and verbal attacks on the validity of the trial. The Iraqi public was growing restless at the spectacle of the feared dictator pushing the chief judge around.
But with a strong whip-hand and stern demeanor, the 64-year-old Kurd has cleaned up most of the histrionics that disrupted the opening phases of the trial of Mr. Hussein and seven codefendants. They're charged with crimes against humanity for allegedly ordering the torture and murder of 148 villagers in the town of Dujail after a failed assassination attempt against Hussein on July 8, 1982.
In court Wednesday, Hussein politely asked "Your Excellency" Mr. Rahman if he could be dismissed when he apparently needed a bathroom break. That respect is a far cry from Rahman's first day on the job, when Saddam's half-brother and codefendant Barzan al-Tikriti decided to test the new judge.
Leaping to his feet he called the court a "daughter of a whore." After refusing to "sit down and keep quiet," as Rahman demanded, two bailiffs hauled the shouting Mr. Tikriti from the room. After a separate confrontation with the judge, Hussein was also ejected. But there have been few outbursts of that intensity from either man since.
In a trial where all witnesses have testified from behind curtains to protect their identities, Rahman has emerged as something of the star of the show. During testimony, the camera often zeroes in on his reactions, and millions of Iraqis have now seen him go toe-to-toe with Hussein and win.
When exasperated with rambling testimony, the interruptions of defendants, or prosecution or defense questions he deems irrelevant, he deploys an actor's array of shrugs, eye-rolls, and sarcastic rebukes to bring them into line.
"The defense strategy is to get him to lose his cool and maybe find a way to push him out and get him replaced,'' says Wael Abdul Latif, a former judge and now a member of parliament for the party of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. "He's finding a way to stay in control without losing patience. I think he's doing a great job."
With his bald pate and hawkish nose, Rahman comes off as something like a Kurdish version of former New York City mayor Ed Koch crossed with your most acerbic teacher from high school.
On Wednesday, Rahman was in typical form. Defense witnesses were heard in the cases of Mohammed al-Azzawi and Abdullah al-Roweed, two Baath Party functionaries accused of rounding up fellow villagers for execution.
"Witness No. 4," a family friend of Mr. Roweed, spent his half-hour on the stand shouting in a shrill voice. At the end of the testimony, a relieved-looking Rahman thanked him for his time, but couldn't resist adding, "Your voice was hurting our ears."
Another defense witness insisted that Mr. Azzawi couldn't be guilty because he's illiterate. The judge interjected: "You're a witness. You're not here to read your poetry."
Even the prosecution was warned against straying. When chief prosecutor Jafar al-Musawi began questioning a defense witness, the wife of Azzawi, about the identity of the Hussein's initial attackers, Rahman quickly cut him off. "What does this have to do with the defendant? Move on."
Finally, Azzawi lost his temper Wednesday, leapt to his feet, pointed around the room, and shouted at the judge that he was innocent. It looked as if the circus may be coming to town once again.
But a command to sit from Rahman was instantly obeyed, prompting a wry and apologetic comment from Hussein that the "Dujailis are known for their hot blood." He and Rahman shared a rare smile.
Tarek Harb, an Iraqi defense lawyer, says Rahman is a big improvement over his predecessor, but he has two complaints. "First, he's a Kurd, so he sometimes misses some of the nuances in Arabic,'' he says. "Second, while I think he's doing a good job, I'd like to see him be even tougher, really clamp down on some of these irrelevant digressions."
Rahman, who formally charged Hussein with crimes against humanity including mass murder and torture earlier this week, often shows his impatience to bring this trial to its sentencing phase, in which Hussein could well be condemned to hang.
Rahman is a native of Halabja, the Kurdish town where Hussein's regime famously killed thousands in a poison gas attack in 1988, and lost distant relatives there. After Hussein's current trial is over, another judge will preside over the Halabja case, in which prosecutors intend to try to convict Hussein for genocide.
Born in 1941, Rahman attended Baghdad University, getting a law degree in 1963 and worked briefly as a lawyer in the capital before returning to the north, where he based his practice in Sulaymaniyah. In 1996, five years after the US-patrolled "no fly" zone gave the Kurd's de facto independence from Hussein's regime, he was named head of Kurdistan's court of appeals. He has two sons and a daughter.
• Awad al-Taee in Baghdad contributed to this report.
This week, Saddam Hussein's lawyers began their defense. Mr. Hussein and seven codefendants face hanging if convicted of crimes against humanity - killing, torturing detainees, and arresting Dujail, Iraq, residents in 1982. The trial began Oct. 19, 2005.
Here are some key prosecution points in the trial, in which lawyers argued that Hussein's crackdown went beyond punishing the perpetrators of the attempt on his life to target the entire population of Dujail.
• Nov. 28, 2005: A former Iraqi intelligence officer who investigated the assassination attempt testified that hundreds were detained after the ambush, estimated to have been carried out by seven to 12 assailants.
• Dec. 5: Ahmed Hassan Mohammed offers first testimony of torture at the hands of the Iraqi security services.
• April 5, 2006: Hussein testified that he had ordered the deaths of 148 civilians after an assassination attempt against him. "I was convinced the evidence that was presented was sufficient," he said. Documents introduced suggest that 28 of those executed were under age 18.
• April 19: Judge says that handwriting and document experts conclude that Hussein signed death warrants on 148 Iraqi villagers.
• April 24: Prosecutors played a taped phone conversation allegedly between Hussein and codefendant Taha Yassin Ramadan, a former vice president, who reported the destruction of farmland and palm groves in the village. Prosecutors did not identify the source of the tape.
Sources: BBC, Reuters, AP