Hussein's defiant day in court

Rejecting war-crimes charges, Hussein still claims presidency.

Thursday Iraqis got their first glimpse of Saddam Hussein since his December capture, when the disheveled strong man was shown being prodded with a tongue depressor by an American doctor.

This time the images of the deposed Arab dictator broadcast worldwide showed an accused war criminal, a thinner, sometimes defiant man in a charcoal suitcoat. Still, this was a new portrait for Iraqis. Here was a mere man, at times confused, being told by an Iraqi judge to curb his tongue - a far cry from the commanding and omnipresent visage seen for 24 years in Soviet-style murals and propaganda videos. Gone was the forceful and paternalistic leader once portrayed as browbeating his ministers or wading through ecstatic crowds of well-wishers.

For many Iraqis, who stopped everything to gather around TV sets, this was also a moment to savor and digest the changes that have swept the nation in the past 15 months.

"Saddam is still living this fantasy that he's in control,'' said Ahmed Selman, watching Hussein's hearing in his Baghdad electronics shop. Mr. Selman suggested that the day should be made a national holiday. "The game is over, though it will be a complete failure if this doesn't end with his execution. If that happens, we'll think this is another American trick."

At 3 p.m. local time, Hussein was brought before an Iraqi court convened at Camp Victory, a US military base that was once a lavish Hussein family estate. A long list of charges was read: Murder of religious figures and political opponents, the use of nerve gas on civilians in 1988, and the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Eleven of his closest associates came before the court to have similar charges read against them later in the day.

"I am Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq,'' said the former dictator, who looked calm in the video and went on to challenge the legitimacy of the proceedings. "This is all theater. The real criminal is Bush."

Reporters at the court said that he appeared hesitant and confused when the session began, but that he gained in confidence and composure as it went on. In the video, he pointed and gestured freely when making his points, occasionally stroking his beard in thought, before lecturing the much younger judge on points of law about his rights.

He went on to say that he still sees himself as the legitimate president of Iraq, saying that the US had no right to depose him. The judge replied that under the Geneva Conventions, occupying powers in fact do have that right.

Hussein refused to sign a document showing that he understood the charges against him. Hussein said he was refusing because he didn't have a lawyer present.

Though he didn't shout or behave in a threatening manner, he repeatedly fenced with the judge. In response to allegations that crimes of war were committed in his 1990 invasion of Kuwait, he lashed out" "How could you defend those dogs,'' he said. "They were trying to turn Iraqi women into prostitutes."

The judge warned him that he was in the court of law and asked him to control his language. In the 1990s, Hussein contended that his invasion of Kuwait was prompted by Kuwaiti encroachment on Iraqi oil fields.

When told he was being charged for using nerve gas on Kurds in the northern village of Halabja - an attack that killed 5,000 civilians - he seemed to claim that it wasn't done on his orders. "I heard about that'' through the media, he said.

Hussein's shackles were removed before his appearance, disappointing many Iraqis who'd said they'd hoped he'd be shown in chains. "I don't understand why they're making such a big deal out of this,'' says Wahab Ahmed, working in a leather-goods store. "If it was up to me, I'd just shoot him in the head and be done with it. He doesn't need such a big platform."

Underscoring dangerous conditions in Iraq and the explosiveness of his eventual trial - not expected to begin until early next year - media access was severely limited. A small press pool was formed to cover his arraignment.

Though a video was later distributed of his hearing, most of the audio track was initially deleted and the images carefully screened by US military sensors to protect the identities of some of those present. Small portions of the audio were cleared by sensors as the day wore on, including Hussein's complaints that no lawyers were present.

Though Iraq is now officially sovereign, the conditions of Hussein's hearing indicate how much influence the US retains here. The law governing the special tribunal for crimes against humanity was written with extensive US government assistance, and US soldiers continue to hold him at a base outside Baghdad. He was transferred to the court in a US helicopter, and video of his hearing was censored by US military officials.

Though US officials have been at pains to call this an Iraqi process, many here remain skeptical. The limited audio from the trial, and the lack of a lawyer present at his first key hearing, are sure to feed conspiracy theories inside Iraq, where they are already rife.

"This is just an American conspiracy,'' says Marwan Osama, a rare example on Baghdad's streets of a die-hard Hussein supporter. "The Americans are talking about Halabja, but they didn't say a word back in 1988. They say they have the right to judge him now. But we know this won't be fair."

Back in Selman's electronics shop, two friends watching the coverage expressed doubt about whether what they were seeing was real.

"That's not Saddam - the teeth and hair are all wrong," said one. "I heard that he's living on an island outside the country under US protection," said the other.

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