Hussein's tactic: delay and defy
Iraqis were captivated by Wednesday's broadcast of their former ruler standing trial.
BAGHDAD — Saddam Hussein was defiant from almost the first moment Wednesday at the beginning of his trial on charges that he orchestrated a Shiite massacre.
The former dictator insisted he was still Iraq's rightful leader, attacked the legitimacy of the court that is trying him, and vigorously shook off the hands of his guards as he was led out of the courtroom.
The first day of Mr. Hussein's first trial made it appear that Iraq's former leader will, with some modifications, take the same approach to his trial as that of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic: seek delay, attack those that are trying him, and continuously insist that he's an innocent man at the mercy of stronger foreign powers.
But in Baghdad and much of the rest of the country, attention was focused far less on Hussein's strategy than on the dramatic spectacle of this man - who is accused of ordering thousands murdered - being hauled before a judge.
Traffic came to a standstill in Baghdad and other cities as Iraqis gathered around televisions for a rare glimpse of a man most hate and many once feared. Cars in Baghdad's infamously long gas lines were abandoned as their owners ducked into coffee shops to watch.
"We want to see him dead, to turn this page, to close this black book," says Anwar Mohammed at a Baghdad barber shop. "It may bring more violence, but this is the peak. After this, it will decline."
"He slept with us. We had nightmares about him," says Mr. Mohammed. "Saddam was a symbol of the Baath Party, and punishing him means punishing the whole system. Any trial at that time, they judged and sentenced you in five minutes. Now there is democracy."
Justice will certainly not be swift in this case, which has Hussein and seven members of his Baath Party on trial for the 1982 murder of more than 140 Shiite villagers from Dujail, north of Baghdad. After Wednesday's hearing, which mostly focused on procedural issues, explaining the defendants' rights, and allowing them to enter pleas, court was adjourned until Nov. 28.
Presiding Judge Rizgur Ameen Hana al-Saedi, an ethnic Kurd whose identity was hidden until Wednesday for security reasons, didn't explain the reason for the delay, but defense attorneys had been pushing for a three-month delay. Wednesday's decision appeared to be a compromise.
For a man some have accused of complicity in the murders of hundreds of thousands, the Dujail case is a small place to start. The murders there followed a 1982 attempt on his life, and in addition to the deaths, Hussein is alleged to have ordered the town's date palms destroyed and its soil poisoned.
Iraqi prosecutors say they're starting here because it's the most straightforward case they could make against the deposed ruler. After what they hope will be a conviction, they'll move on to bigger crimes - for which command and control for the former president may be harder to prove.
Hussein, for his part, attacked the whole premise behind the court. "I do not respond to this so-called court ... and I retain my constitutional rights as the president,'' he said when asked to give his name, ignoring the judge's efforts to get him to answer the question. " Nor do I recognize the body that has [authorized] you, nor the aggression behind it."
While there are some comparisons to the Milosevic trial, who was tried by the International Criminal Court at the Hague, the major difference is that this is not an exercise in international justice. The whole process, legally, is an Iraqi one, which has some worried that stringent standards won't be followed.
Also, unlike Milosevic, if Hussein is convicted for the massacre in Dujail, he could face the death penalty.
"We have grave concerns that the court will not provide the fair trial guarantees required by international law," said Richard Dicker, director of Human Rights Watch's international justice program, in a press release.
Among those on trial with Hussein are Barzan Ibrahim al-Hasan, the former head of his feared intelligence service, and Taha Yasin Ramadan, a former deputy prime minister.
As he was escorted from the court at the end of the day, Hussein shook off the hands of his guards and angrily confronted them. He was eventually allowed to leave the court under his own steam.
"He deserves death but if not, we don't care, [we want] just any justice," says Abu Dania, a barber, who used a false name for security reasons, as a television mounted above the mirrors of the shop blared the proceedings in Arabic. "All that has happened here is because of Saddam Hussein. Now there is a new democratic government and we think the success of this trial is necessary."
Though most Iraqis want convictions, and there was fascination with Hussein's plight on the streets Wednesday, few say the trial actually has much relevance to the country's war and the day-to-day struggles it brings on.
For many, like Abu Rami, who watched the trial in his money-exchange shop in Baghdad, the trial has little to do with the problems he faces in his daily life.
"I don't believe this trial will change anything. People are concerned about living. Electricity, security, traffic jams - people don't care about the former president and it will not change the way we are living and not change the future of Iraqis," says Abu Rami, who also declined to give his full name.
Showing the proceedings on TV was key to their credibility, but that failed to earn the trust of some Iraqis already suspicious of American intentions and the current government dominated by parties that spent decades trying to depose Hussein.
"I wonder if those judges are up to international standards?" asks Abu Rami. "The ones who are really judging him are the Americans and the old opposition groups so it will not be fair for [Hussein]."