"The problem was to get judges who were not afraid to prosecute Saddam despite intimidation and threats," Hoshyar Zebari, the Foreign Minister, told The Independent yesterday. Although Saddam was overthrown in April 2003, many people in Baghdad remained fearful of saying his name, the minister said.
Mr Zebari, a Kurd who spent his life fighting Saddam's regime, is eager to get proceedings under way and says it was a serious mistake not to have begun months ago. He believes that Saddam remains an important motivator for Baathists fighting the new government.
"It will really be the trial of the history of his regime over 35 years," Mr Zebari said, referring particularly to the day that the bodies of 500 members of the Barzani tribe, of whom 8,000 were massacred in 1983, were brought back to Kurdistan to be buried.
"Every family can make a case against Saddam," he said. "Even the mountains, the water, the marshes of Iraq can testify against him. We have to bring to an end this dark chapter in Iraqi history."
Personally, Mr Zebari said, he would like a swift trial, but he did not think this would happen. He implied there would be a brief opening session and then the trial would be delayed for several weeks. This would allow the defence lawyers to read the evidence and for arrangements to be made to protect witnesses. "Those who are going to testify against him need security protection."
American and Iraqi officials have also said that there is likely to be a delay of several weeks before the full trial of Saddam Hussein and seven other defendants gets under way.
The charges against Saddam and the seven others in the dock today relate to the killing of 143 men from the village of Dujail, north of Baghdad, after an assassination attempt against Saddam in 1982. This incident, hitherto little publicised, was chosen because there is paper evidence linking the former leader to the murders. Although the number of dead was limited compared to other massacres, the cruel collective punishment was typical of Saddam's secret police approach throughout his 35 years in power.
Other cases being investigated include the killing of at least 185,000 Kurds in the Anfal campaign by the Iraqi army in 1987-88, and the slaughter of thousands of Shia after the crushing of the 1991 uprising. There is also the murder of Shia religious leaders on different occasions and the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Some 40 tons of documents are still being examined.
Iran said yesterday it had sent its own charges to the Iraqi court, related to the use of chemical weapons against civilians during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, in which more than 500,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands wounded.
Of the 17 members of the Dawa party who opened fire on Saddam's surprisingly lightly guarded motorcade in Dujail in 1992, eight were killed and nine fled to Iran.
Ibrahim al-Jaafari, now Iraqi Prime Minister, who was a leader of Dawa at the time, says he is puzzled why the case took so long to put together. "Any more delay will bring Iraq, the judiciary and the government into question. It's the right of every Iraqi citizen to ask why it took so long to prepare the Dujail case."
Going by a brief earlier court appearance by Saddam, the fallen leader will seek to dominate the proceedings and use them as a political podium. For this reason the court officials are still equivocating on whether or not to allow live television coverage or delay broadcasts by 20 to 30 minutes so they can be censored.
Mr Zebari said contemptuously that "people are saying that Saddam is going to try the occupation, Saddam is going to try the government, but really we are not afraid of that. I don't think that even the US or Britain are afraid of this."
The trial will take place in a former Baath party headquarters in Baghdad, which has been rebuilt with two modern courtrooms. Although the proceedings are being presented as wholly Iraqi, the US has reportedly spent $138m (£79m) on construction and is paying 50 American, British and Australian lawyers and support staff. The Special Tribunal before which Saddam will be appearing was set up by the American occupation in 2003.
Saddam's defence will be conducted by Khalil al- Dulaimi, who meets his notorious client at Camp Cropper, the US army detention close to Baghdad airport, where he is held. Mr Dulaimi will seek to have the case dismissed on the grounds that the tribunal was set up by the US and is therefore illegal.
He is also expected to seek a dismissal on the grounds that he has not read 800 pages of evidence and been allowed sufficient access to his client. He spent one and a half hours with Saddam yesterday and told reporters afterwards: "His morale is very, very, very high and he is very optimistic and confident of his innocence, although the court is ... unjust."
As for its political and military effects, although the Iraqi resistance to the change in regime, at least in its initial phase, was probably guided by former members of the Iraqi security services and the Baath party, it is not clear that this is still so. The US has sought to portray all the insurgency as being directed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his fanatical Sunni militants.
Many Sunnis will regard the trial as further evidence that they are being persecuted by the Shia-Kurdish majority, who make up 80 per cent of the Iraqi population.
Although only a minority of Sunnis, notably the Tikritis and those related to Saddam, benefited substantially from his rule, many have since come to regard it as a lost era of security and prosperity.
Mr Zebari cited recent Baath party literature as evidence. It says that the trial today should greeted by "firing deadly bullets to kill as many enemy agents as possible".
But as the old regime savagely persecuted the Islamic militants who are now fighting the government and the US occupation. They will presumably not be distressed to see Saddam on trial.
Today is certainly a significant day in Iraqi history. Saddam dominated life for more than a third of a century. His picture, variously dressed in a business suit, Kurdish tunic, Arab robes and military uniform, once decorated every street.
He was never a stupid man, but he came to see himself as a demi-God whose wishes or ideas even his most senior lieutenants found it dangerous to criticise. He identified with historic leaders from Hammurabi to Saladin and pictured himself in heroic mode.
Although never a professional soldier, his vision of himself was as a conqueror. He inherited a country that had great oil wealthy, an effective administration and an increasingly well-educated population and ruined it by launching two disastrous wars, the first against Iran in 1980 and the second against Kuwait in 1990.
Sunnis may still see him as part of their community and most Kurds and Shias will want to see him executed, but all will watch today's trial with fascination.Human rights organisations in the West, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have criticised the structure of the proceedings, saying it could produce a "victors' justice".
They have highlighted such issues as the burden of proof, political influence over the court and the use of the death penalty. "We have grave concerns that the court will not provide the fair trial guarantees required by international law," said Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch.
Mr Jaafari yesterday dismissed such concerns, saying: "This government takes pride in adhering to the rule of law and the separation of powers. As the head of the executive branch [I can say] we have not interfered in any way with the progress of the trial."
Former dictator on trial for his life
Once the darling of the West, Saddam Hussein held effective power since 1968 and absolute power in Iraq from 1979, when he became President and embarked on the first bloodletting that punctuated his 35-year rule by purging the ruling Baathist party. A year later Iran was attacked at the start of an eight-year war in which Saddam enjoyed the support of the US and Britain against the revolutionary Islamic leaders in Tehran. In 1988, when Iraqi forces used used chemical weapons against the Kurdish town of Halabja, killing some 5,000 civilians, Western governments averted their gaze. But Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 triggered both UN economic sanctions and the first Gulf war, which rolled back the occupation. Then followed a decade of in effect UN trusteeship of Saddam's country, while weapons inspectors scoured Iraq. But the containment policy began to leak and Saddam consolidated his power under the sanctions regime. The Bush administration vowed to rid the world of a dictator accused of concealing banned weapons programmes. After 11 September 2001, the military plans were put in place. Saddam fled as tanks rolled into Baghdad in April 2003 and was captured eight months later, taken from a hole near his home town of Tikrit.
The marble-lined court, below, decorated by chandeliers, is in a building where Saddam used to store gifts. It had not been decided yesterday whether the proceedings will be televised live or with a delay. It was also not known whether the five judges would be named or pictured. Some witnesses are to give evidence from behind a curtain to protect their anonymity, while observers and journalists will be behind bulletproof glass. Saddam and his co-defendants are being tried before an all-Iraqi special tribunal, set up in 2003 by the US-led authorities and now overseen by the elected government. It consists of trial chambers with five judges in each. The judges will hear the case without a jury. The prosecutor and Saddam's defence lawyer may propose questions for the judges to ask. US and British legal experts are on hand as advisers.
The first case to be brought against Saddam, 68, concerns the 1982 massacre of 143 Shias in the village of Dujail. Saddam is accused of crimes against humanity for the killings, which took place after an assassination attempt by a Shia party trying to revenge the murder of a party founder. The prosecution hopes that Saddam's direct responsibility can be shown more easily in Dujail than in bigger crimes, such as the Halabja attacks or the 1991 suppression of Kurdish and Shia uprisings, which could form the basis of later trials. Saddam is on trial with seven other co-defendants, including his half brother.
The 800-page indictment against Saddam, drawn up by the chief investigative judge, Raad Jouhi, has not been made public. The case against Saddam will be presented by the chief prosecutor of the tribunal, who heads a team of 20 prosecutors. The accused can be convicted on the "satisfaction" of the judges. Guilt does not have to be shown "beyond reasonable doubt".
Saddam is not expected to enter a plea today, and his lawyer will ask for a three-month delay. He is being defended by a small team of lawyers led by Khalil Dulaimi, an Iraqi picked by Saddam's eldest daughter, Raghad, who now lives in Jordan. But Mr Dulaimi has little experience of such cases. The British barrister Anthony Scrivener QC has been approached to lead the defence, but will not be in Baghdad for the trial opening. The defence is expected to challenge the legitimacy of the court. As President, Saddam was immune from prosecution under the constitution.
Saddam faces death by hanging or life imprisonment over the Dujail case, but can appeal against the sentence, which must be agreed by three of the five judges. He could be executed while the other cases are still pending.