A defiant Saddam Hussein rejected accusations of war crimes and genocide in court Thursday, telling a judge in his first public appearance since his capture seven months ago that the real "criminal" was President Bush.
Saddam's hands were cuffed when he was brought to the court but the shackles were removed for the 30-minute arraignment at Camp Victory, a former Saddam palace on the outskirts of Baghdad.
"I am Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq," Saddam said unprompted, sitting down in a chair facing the judge on the other side of a wooden railing. When asked his name, he responded: "Saddam Hussein al-Majid, president of Iraq."
“Put down 'former' in brackets,” the judge said to a clerk who was taking dictation on the proceedings, referring to Saddam’s declared occupation as head of state.
The appearance, broadcast on Arab satellite television stations, gave Iraqis their first glimpse of the former dictator since his capture by the U.S. military seven months ago. They saw a Saddam whose mood ranged from nervousness and exasperation to contempt and defiance. At times he lectured the judge — who declined to give his name but said he was appointed to the bench under Saddam — with flashes of anger punctuating his comments.
Unaccompanied by a lawyer, Saddam refused to sign a list of charges against him unless he had legal counsel, and he questioned the court's jurisdiction.
Saddam declines to sign documents
"Please allow me not to sign until the lawyers are present. ... Anyhow, when you take a procedure to bring me here again, present me with all these papers with the presence of lawyers. Why would you behave in a manner that we might call hasty later on?" he said.
He also accused the White House of orchestrating the hearing.
"You know that this is all a theater by Bush, the criminal, to help him with his campaign," he said.
The 67-year-old Saddam appeared most agitated when the subject came to the invasion of Kuwait — one of the broad charges against him.
"The armed forces went to Kuwait," Saddam said. "Is it possible to raise accusations against an official figure and this figure be treated apart from the official guarantees stipulated by the constitution and the law? Where is this law upon which you are conducting investigations?"
"How could Saddam be tried over Kuwait that said it will reduce Iraqi women to 10-dinar prostitutes?" he continued, referring to himself in the third person. "He defended Iraq's honor and revived its historical rights over those dogs."
The judge admonished him and said he would not tolerate such language in the courtroom.
At another point, upon hearing the charge that he ordered the killing of thousands of Kurds in a poison gas attack at Halabja in 1988, Saddam said he had nothing to do with it and had only learned of the incident through the media.
According to a translation of his remarks by the Arab television network Al-Jazeera, Saddam also said that the U.S. and multinational troops currently in Iraq were not "coalition troops but invasion troops."
‘The Americans say I have millions hidden’
When asked if he could afford a lawyer, Saddam retorted: “The Americans say I have millions hidden in Switzerland. How can I not have the money to pay for one?”
At the conclusion of the hearing, two guards approached Saddam to lead him away. "Take it easy," he told them. "I'm an old man."
Afterward, the other 11 members of Saddam's regime, including former Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz and Ali Hassan al-Majid, Saddam's cousin known as "Chemical Ali" for allegedly ordering a 1988 poison gas attack on Iraqi Kurds, appeared one by one to hear the charges. Most appeared tired, broken men, shadows of their former roles as masters of the Iraqi nation.
The seven broad charges against Saddam are the killing of religious figures in 1974; gassing of Kurds in Halabja; killing the Kurdish Barzani clan in 1983; killing members of political parties in the last 30 years; the 1986-88 "Anfal" campaign of displacing Kurds; the suppression of the 1991 uprisings by Kurds and Shiites; and the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Specific charges will be filed later, Iraqi officials said.
Those charges are expected to include war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. A formal indictment with specific charges is expected later, said Salem Chalabi, director of the Iraqi Special Tribunal. The trial is not expected until 2005.
White House declines to respond
In Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that he was not interested in responding to Saddam's accusation that Bush is a criminal.
"He's going to say all sorts of things," he said. "... What's important is that Saddam Hussein and his regime leaders face justice from the Iraqi people in an Iraqi court. What's important is that this help Iraqi people bring closure to a dark past.
In Amman, Jordan, meanwhile, lawyers who say they represent Saddam echoed his charge that the proceedings were a sham.
"This is tyranny and absolute cruelty," said Ziad al-Khasawneh, who said he was hired by Saddam's wife, Sajidah. "How can this be called a fair trial if President Saddam Hussein, may God bless him, was denied his basic right to a lawyer?"
Saddam was flown by helicopter from an undisclosed location and driven to the courtroom on the U.S. base at his former palace. He was led from an armored bus escorted by two Iraqi guards and ushered through a door guarded by six more Iraqi police. The bus was escorted by four Humvees and an ambulance.
Officials said Saddam arrived in a blue jumpsuit, but was given a charcoal gray pinstripe suit to wear that came off the rack from a Baghdad store — attire that would not be humiliating but also not flashy.
Sound of chains precedes courtroom entry
Saddam was heard before he was seen, his chains clanking as he walked down the corridor.
When he first sat down, he was visibly nervous — his eyes roving left to right. He was particularly interested in the Iraqis in the room, especially Chalabi and National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie, who were to his right.
He used his hands constantly, poking the air, dragging a thumb across his eyebrow, brushing a fly from his cheek.
He was seated in front of the judge, with a wooden bar separating the two. The tape showed the judge from behind and from the side.
Strict pool arrangements severely limited media access to the hearing. The pool video, which was cleared by the U.S. military, was initially broadcast without sound, but parts later were released with sound.
The only journalist working for an Iraqi publication, Sadiq Rahman of the newspaper Azzaman, was ordered out of the courtroom by the judge 10 minutes before the hearing began. One Iraqi working for the pan-Arab Shaq al-Awsat newspaper was allowed to attend.
"Unfortunately, they are already being unfair to Iraqi journalists," Rahman said afterward, noting that U.S. television reporters were allowed inside in addition to the pool.
Transfer to Iraqi custody
Saddam and 11 of his top lieutenants were transferred to Iraqi custody Wednesday. They no longer are prisoners of war but are still locked up, with U.S. forces as their jailers.
"The next legal step would be that the investigations start proper with investigative judges and investigators beginning the process of gathering evidence," Chalabi said. "Down the line, there will be an indictment, if there is enough evidence — obviously, and a timetable starts with respect to a trial date."
President Ghazi al-Yawer told an Arab newspaper that Iraq's new government has decided to reinstate the death penalty, which was suspended during the U.S. occupation.
U.S. and Iraqi officials hope the trial will lay bare the atrocities of Saddam's regime and help push the country toward normalcy after years of tyranny, the U.S.-led invasion and the insurgency that blossomed in its aftermath.
But the trial could have the opposite effect, possibly widening the chasm among Iraq's disparate groups — Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis.
‘The trial of the century’
"It's going to be the trial of the century," National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie told Associated Press Television News.
"Everybody is going to watch this trial, and we are going to demonstrate to the outside world that we in the new Iraq are going to be an example of what the new Iraq is all about."
Trying Saddam and top regime figures presents a major challenge to the Iraqis and their American backers.
Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's government is due to leave office after January elections, and a second national ballot will be held by December 2005. That raises the possibility that national policy on the prosecution of Saddam and his backers could change depending on the makeup of the government.
Most of Iraq's 25 million people were overjoyed when Saddam's regime collapsed, and many are looking forward to the day he will be punished.
"Everyone all over the world agrees that Saddam Hussein should be put on trial in front of the Iraqi people," Baghdad resident Ahmad al-Lami said.
However, the turmoil of the past 14 months has led to a longing for the stability and order of the ousted dictatorship, at least among Sunni Arab Muslims who now feel threatened by the possibility of a Shiite-dominated government.