Hussein disrupts, but doesn't impress Iraqis

Former leader's antics came amid sobering testimony about torture.

Alia Khalaf flips on the television, a new flatscreen, and turns to what many Iraqis see as the greatest show on earth - the trial of Saddam Hussein.

"We find this trial very funny, actually. It is really a comedy," says Miss Khalaf, who teaches English literature at Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad, where she tries to turn young Iraqi minds on to the plays of William Shakespeare and the poetry of Robert Frost.

She sees the trial as a mix of comedy and tragedy. But, she hastens to add, Mr. Hussein is no tragic figure: He has yet to have the sort of epiphany that engenders sympathy.

"When I compare him with any figure in literature, Saddam Hussein fails to be a tragic hero," Khalaf explains, donning the professorial hat that she wears well. "Because in the tragic hero, there is the knowledge that he made terrible mistakes, and then there is a moment of recognition of them towards the end, when it is too late.

"Saddam," she pronounces, "has not had that moment of recognition."

Quite the contrary. The former Iraqi dictator seems to be on a campaign to upstage the judge, prosecutors, and witnesses by repeating allegations Thursday of having been beaten while held in US custody.

"The White House is the No. 1 liar," Hussein told the court, pointing to the Bush administration's failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Those claims may be winning points with some Iraqis, particularly Sunnis whose grievances against US- driven regime change are growing - from claims of fraud in last week's election to evidence of abuse of Sunni prisoners at the hands of both US forces and Shiites.

But a diverse cross section of Iraqis find the Hussein trial at turns amusing and amazing, and many seem to doubt the seriousness of the proceedings. Some find it surreal to see the former president making complaints and waiting for his turn to speak; others are baffled as to why he and his half-brother, Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, are being given so much leeway to disrupt proceedings.

The fact that large sections of the trial are blocked out, sometimes at the most sensitive of moments (there's a 20-minute delay rather than a live broadcast) prods suspicions that Iraq is still far from being free.

Thursday, Hussein accused witnesses of lying, saying: "It is an insult to your president of 35 years, and Iraqis do not like liars."

Five witnesses testified during the two-day session this week that started Wednesday. Saddam and seven codefendants are on trial for the deaths of more than 140 Shiites after a 1982 attempt on Saddam's life in the town of Dujail, north of Baghdad.

When the court gave the former leader an opportunity to cross-examine witnesses, he instead expanded on earlier claims he had been abused in custody.

The first witness to testify Thursday spoke from behind a curtain and had his voice disguised. He said he was 8 during the killings in Dujail. He said his grandmother, father, and uncles had been arrested and tortured, and he never saw his male relatives again, implying they had been killed.

Sitting down on the rug to watch the trial over a meal of masgouf - an Iraqi fish speciality - Khalaf and her mother appear to agree with Hussein that some witnesses are lying.

The Khalaf family, part of the al- Janaby tribe, are Shiite and they have had relatives who were killed during Hussein's reign. But they are not terribly impressed by the credibility of the testimony so far. They don't doubt that Hussein's regime routinely tortured and murdered, but they view some of the witnesses as sounding professionally prepped.

"Come on, come on," Khalaf says, listening to the testimony of one witness, who had just finished rattling off the names of nine men he saw hauled away - and who later turned up dead - after the 1982 attempt in the Dujail. "Do you think he has all of those names at the tip of his tongue? He's been well trained."

"I think he's taking this chance to embellish the story with a bit of imagination," adds Khalaf's mother, a retired schoolteacher.

"That's the problem. We always exaggerate - [people are either] all good or all bad," she says, shaking her head. "In the past, we pretended Hussein was all good. Now we're pretending he's all evil - nothing in the middle.

"They're worse now," her mother continues. "They're still torturing people. Nothing changes. [The regime] didn't allow people to have decent houses or salaries, but at least there was security, some law and order."

In addition to their new TV and a DVD player, there are changes in the Khalaf family's situation.

With the help of small raises for university staff, they have two mobile phones and the use of a desktop computer in their tiny apartment in Baghdad. But to Khalaf, the gadgetry doesn't make up for the violence and insecurity.

On many occasions, she has come to class to learn of a student who has been killed. Many of the Shiite shrines she frequents have been the target of terrorists.

For certain, much of what Iraqis find funny in the trial might be considered gallows humor.

The testimony of a witness carries on, and then the sound is cut. "See," Khalaf says. "They are taking out all the parts they don't want you to hear."

Wire material was used in this article.

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