Iraq: A defiant Saddam Hussein pleads innocent, scuffles with guards in stormy hearing

A defiant Saddam Hussein argued with judges and scuffled with guards at the opening of his long-awaited trial Wednesday, held in a courtroom set up in what was once the headquarters of his ruling Baath party.

From inside a metal pen, a thinner and weaker-looking Saddam pleaded innocent to charges of murder, torture, forced expulsions and illegal detentions _ but rejected the tribunal's right to judge him, insisting he was still Iraq's president.

If convicted, Saddam and seven of his regime's henchmen who appeared with him in Wednesday's hearing could face the death penalty for their role in the 1982 killing of nearly 150 people from the mainly Shiite town of Dujail north of Baghdad after a failed attempt on Saddam's life.

Wednesday's session, held amid tight security, was testy from the start. Saddam _ with a salt-and-pepper beard and wearing a grey suit and open-collared white shirt _ refused to state his name for the record and turning the question back on the presiding judge, Rizgar Mohammed Amin, a Kurd whose identity was revealed to the public only on the day of the trial. The session ended three hours later with Amin announcing an adjournment until Nov. 28.

The trial was broadcast around the Arab world on satellite stations _ though with a 20 minute delay and technical quality was poor, with the sound cutting out frequently and the picture going blank several times. Reporters at the courtroom struggled to follow the proceedings from behind a bulletproof glass partition.

In contrast, a prominent politician who opposed Saddam from exile for years, said the trial was welcome news. A too-busy President Bush did not watch, even as the White House hailed the trial as a key step in Iraq's transition to a functioning democracy. Neighboring Iran, which fought with Saddam's Iraq a ruinous 1980-88 war, welcomed the trial's start but said Saddam should be charged with invading Iran.

The Dujail case is the first of up to a dozen that prosecutors plan to bring to trial against Saddam and his Baath Party inner circle for atrocities during thier 23-year rule. Others likely include the Anfal campaign in the late 1980s that killed some 180,000 Iraqi Kurds, the poison gas bombing of the village of Halabja that killed 5,000 Kurds, and crackdowns on Kurdish and Shiite revolts in 1991.

The trial took place in the five-story marble building that once served as the National Command Headquarters of Saddam's feared Baath Party. The building in Baghdad's Green Zone _ the heavily fortified district where Iraq's government, parliament and the U.S. Embassy are located _ was ringed with 10-foot blast walls and U.S. and Iraqi troops, with several Humvees and at least one tank deployed outside. U.S. soldiers led bomb-detecting dogs around the grounds.

The marble-floored courtroom resembled a banquet hall with six crystal chandeliers dangling from its ceiling. A short verse of the Quran in huge golden letters adorned the wall behind the judges' bench. The eight defendants sat in three rows in a pen of white iron slats that stood at about neck high as the men sat on their black chairs, as a symbol of their status as some of the world's most-wanted criminals. Saddam was in the front row _ directly in front of the panel of five judges.

Saddam often slumped low, leaning on his elbow, or glanced behind him at the visitors gallery on a balcony, where many officials from Iraq's new Shiite and Kurdish-dominated government sat. The ousted leader smiled often, made comments to his co-defendants. He held a copy of the Quran that he brought with him into the courtrooom, and near the end of the session, he asked for a yellow pad and jotted down some notes.

The silver-haired presiding judge, Amin, in turn, kept up a steady, calm demeanor throughout the session's often combative atmosphere. He agreed to get traditional headdresses for several of the defendants, who complained about their embarassing bare-headed state.

The identities of the other judges remain hidden to protect them from retaliation, and they did not appear on camera. The panel will both hear the case and render a verdict. Amin read them their rights and the charges against them and told them they could face execution if convicted. He then asked each for his plea, starting with the top defendant. The guards, wearing blue bulletproof vests, tried to grab him again, and Saddam struggled to free himself. Saddam and the guards shoved each other and yelled for about a minute. In the end, he was allowed to walk independently out of the room, with the two guards behind him.

The chief prosecutor, Jaafar al-Mousawi, outlined the case against the men, saying Saddam was closely involved in planning retaliation after an assassination attempt against him as he drove through Dujail in July 1982. Al-Mousawi said the prosecution had videos of Saddam personnally interrogating four Dujail residents soon after his motorcade was fired on. Saddam countered that videotapes should not be admissible as evidence, insisting they can be altered and faked. The judge did not respond to his argument.

Prosecutors have said that they brought the Dujail case against Saddam first _ rather than more notorious atrocities that killed far more people _ because they had more solid, easy-to-gather evidence on Dujail, including documents and videos showing the then-leader's role.

Saddam's co-defendants include his former intelligence chief Barazan Ibrahim, former vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan, the former Revolutionary Court head Awad Hamed al-Bandar and four lower-level Baathist civil servants from the Dujail region.

Wednesday's back-and-forths evoked the war crimes trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, accused of committing atrocities during his rule in the Balkans in the 1990s. Like Saddam, Milosevic has argued with judges and denied the court's legitimacy.

The difference is that Milosevic is being tried at a U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, while Saddam is facing a tribunal of his people. The Iraqi tribunal is partly funded by the United States and organized by a government dominated by Iraqi ethnic groups he once oppressed.

The trial comes nearly two years after Saddam's capture on Dec. 13, 2003, when U.S. troops that had overrun Baghdad the previous April finally found the fugitive leader, hiding in a cellar in a rural area outside his hometown of Tikrit north of Baghdad. After the session, Saddam's lawyer, Khalil al-Dulaimi, repeated his and Saddam's contention that the court was illegal.

Reaction to Saddam's trial varied in Iraq, where his loyalists, together with hardcore members of his Baath party and feared security services are an important faction of a Sunni-led insurgency wracking Iraq for the past 2 1/2 years.

In Baghdad, Shiite construction worker Salman Zaboun Shanan sat with his family at home in the Shiite neighborhood of Kazimiyah, having taken the day off from work to watch the trial. When Saddam appeared on television, he and his wife spat in disgust. But across the Tigris River in the mainly Sunni Arab district of Azamiyah, some were embittered by the trial of Saddam, whose regime was dominated by Sunni Arabs who have now lost their power, AP reports.


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