Saddam struggles with trial guards

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The session in the Baghdad court was stormy, with Saddam arguing with judges. When a break was called, Saddam stood, smiling, and asked to step out of the room, but when two guards tried to grab him arms to escort him out, he angrily shook them off.

They tried to grab him again, and Saddam struggled to get free, being shaken during a shoving match that lasted about a minute as they yelled at each other.

It ended with Saddam getting his way, and he was allowed to walk independently, with the two guards behind him, out of the room for the break.

When the break ended, the judge announced that the session was adjourned until 28 November.

Saddam Hussein had declared himself not guilty of alleged crimes against fellow Iraqis, turning immediately argumentative and challenging the legitimacy of the court as he appeared before a five-judge tribunal in the former headquarters of his Baath Party two years after his capture.

Saddam and seven former members of his regime face charges of murder, torture, forced expulsion and illegal imprisonment for a 1982 massacre of nearly 150 Shiites in the town of Dujail. They could face the death penalty - by hanging - if they are convicted.

When the trial began, the 68-year-old ousted Iraqi leader - looking thin with a salt-and-pepper beard in a dark grey suit and open-collared white shirt - stood and asked the presiding judge: "Who are you? I want to know who you are."

Saddam's co-defendants also pleaded not guilty to all charges.

"I do not respond to this so-called court, with all due respect to its people, and I retain my constitutional right as the president of Iraq," he said, brushing off the judge's attempts to interrupt him.

"Neither do I recognise the body that has designated and authorised you, nor the aggression because all that has been built on false basis is false."

The presiding judge, Rizgar Mohammed Amin, a Kurd, tried to get Saddam to formally identify himself but Saddam refused and finally sat. Amin read his name for him, calling him the "former president of Iraq," bringing a protest from Saddam, insisting he was still in the post.

Later, Amin read the defendants their rights and then read the charges, which are the same for all the defendants, and told them they faced possible execution if convicted.

The panel of five judges will both hear the case and render a verdict in what could be the first of several trials of Saddam for atrocities carried out during his 23-year-rule.

The defendants sat in three rows of black chairs, with Saddam in the first row, partitioned behind a low white metal barrier, in the centre of the court directly in front of the judges' bench.

Starting the session, Amin called the defendants into the room one by one. Saddam was the last to enter, escorted by two Iraqi guards in bullet-proof vests who guided him by the elbow. He glanced at journalists watching through bullet-proof glass from an adjoining room. He motioned for his escorts to slow down a little.

After sitting, he greeted his co-defendants, saying "Peace be upon you," sitting next to co-defendant Awad Hamed al-Bandar, former head of Iraq's Revolutionary Court.

The other defendants include Saddam's former intelligence chief Barazan Ibrahim, former vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan and other lower-level Baathist civil servants. Most were wearing traditional Arab robes and they complained that they were not allowed to have head-dresses, so court officials brought out red head-dresses for them. Many Sunni Arabs consider it shameful to appear in public without the chequered scarf, tied by a cord around the forehead.

Ramadan also refused to identify himself to the judge. "I repeat what President Saddam Hussein has said," he added. The other defendants stood one by one and stated their names.

The trial is taking place in the marble building that once served as the National Command Headquarters of his feared Baath Party. The building in Baghdad's Green Zone - the heavily fortified district where Iraq's government, parliament and the US Embassy are located - was ringed with 10-foot blast walls and US and Iraqi troops, with several Humvees and at least one tank deployed outside. US soldiers led sniffer dogs around the grounds, looking for explosives.

The identities of judges have been a tightly held secret to ensure their safety, though Amin's name was revealed today just before the trial began. The courtroom camera repeatedly focused on him, without showing the others.

The defendants are are facing charges they ordered the killing in 1982 of nearly 150 people in the mainly Shiite village of Dujail north of Baghdad after a failed attempt on the former dictator's life.

In today's session, the defence is expected to ask for a three-month adjournment. The court is expected to grant one, though for how long is not known.

The trial was broadcast with about a 30-minute delay on state-run Iraqi television and on satellite stations across Iraq and the Arab world, though it cut out occasionally and sound quality was often poor.

Many Iraqis were gathered around sets to watch. Salman Zaboun Shanan, a Shiite construction worker, sat with his family at home in Baghdad's Shiite neighbourhood of Kazimiyah, having taken the day off from work to watch the trial. When Saddam appeared on television, Shanan's wife Sabiha Hassan spit.

"I hope he is executed, and that anyone who suffered can take a piece of his flesh," said Shanan, who was imprisoned during Saddam's rule, as was Sabiha and several of their sons.

But across the Tigris River in the mainly Sunni Arab district of Azamiyah, some were embittered over the trial of Saddam, whose regime was dominated by Sunni Arabs who have now lost their power.

"Saddam is the lesser of evils," said Sahab Awad Maaruf, an engineer, comparing Saddam to the current Shiite-Kurdish led government. "He's the only legitimate leader for Iraqis."

In particular, the Shiite Muslim majority and the Kurdish minority - the two communities most oppressed by Saddam's regime - have eagerly awaited the chance to see the man who ruled Iraq with unquestioned and total power held to justice.

"I'm very happy today. We've prayed for this day for years," said controversial Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, who was an anti-Saddam opposition leader in exile for years and now is one of the fiercest proponents of the purge of Baathists from the government.

There are also fears of attacks by insurgents - who are thought to include members of Saddam's regime - to disrupt the trial.

The night before the trial - in an apparent jab at the former dictator - a bomb went off in a Baghdad square at a statue of Abu Jaafar al-Mansour, the 8th-century caliph who built Baghdad and to whom Saddam frequently compared himself. The blast toppled the bust off its marble pedestal, but no one was hurt.

The world will be watching Saddam's trial to see whether Iraq's new Shiite and Kurd-dominated ruling class can rise above politics and prejudice and give the former dictator a fair hearing. Human rights group have criticised the government for trying to influence the trial and that considerable US logistical and financial aid to the tribunal could lend credibility to charges that it will mete out "victors' justice".

The court is also operating not only under its own rules - laid out when the court was created in 2003 while Iraq was still run by American administrators - but also by a 1971 Saddam-era criminal law that some have criticised as not up to international standards.

That law says the judges can issue a guilty verdict if they are " satisfied" by the evidence - seen as lower standard of proof than " convinced beyond a reasonable doubt."

Saddam's defence lawyer Khalil al-Dulaimi yesterday said he would ask for the postponement so he could better prepare the case. He will also challenge the special tribunal's competence to try the case, arguing that Saddam remains the legitimate president and the court is illegal since it was created under US occupation.

Saddam was ousted after US-led forces swept into Iraq in March 2003 and marched in to Baghdad. He fled the capital and was on the run for nearly eight months, until American forces found in him hiding in a cellar in a rural area outside his hometown of Tikrit north of Baghdad on December 13, 2003.

He has been held since in a US detention facility at Baghdad International Airport.

Prosecutors are preparing other cases to bring to trial against Saddam and his officials - including for the Anfal Operation, a military crackdown on the Kurds in the late 1980s that killed some 180,000 people; the suppression of Kurdish and Shiite revolts in 1991; and the deaths of 5,000 Kurds in a 1988 poison gas attack on the village of Halabja.

If a death sentence is issued in the Dujail case, it is unclear whether it would be carried out regardless of whether Saddam is involved in other trials. He can appeal a Dujail verdict, but if a conviction and sentence are upheld, the sentence must be carried out within 30 days. A stay could be granted to allow other trials to proceed.

Chalabi today said he expected Saddam to be tried on several separate cases. He said he did not think the process would take years.

However, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite who actively opposed Saddam's rule during years in exile, showed his eagerness to the trials finish quickly and see any sentence carried out.

"We are not trying to land on the moon here," he said on Monday. "It's enough (to try Saddam) on Dujail and Anfal."