BAGHDAD — An aged but combative Saddam Hussein appeared in an Iraqi court yesterday morning, facing charges of war crimes against his neighbors and genocide against his people.
“I am Saddam Hussein, the president of the Republic of Iraq,” the unrepentant former dictator told a special tribunal convened to try the top dozen members of his former regime. He said President Bush was the “real criminal.”
It was the first time that the former dictator had been seen in public since his medical examination after being found in a “spider hole” in December.
Most of the people gathered in Baghdad’s tea shops reacted with anger and dismay at the sight of the still-vital strongman, who bankrupted a country with unlimited potential and inflicted immeasurable pain and suffering.
“I have been waiting for this day for many years,” said Ahmad Hadi, 21, whose brother was imprisoned by the regime for two years on charges of conspiring to kill party members. “I am from Babylon, and the Ba’ath members were against us completely. … A man like that deserves to die. They can try him, but then they must kill him.”
Saddam, 67, wore a pinstriped suit and open-collared shirt to the arraignment that lasted less than 30 minutes, instead of the more familiar military fatigues. His beard, neatly trimmed, has grayed heavily. But his hair is still shoe-polish black, and his dark-circled eyes bored into the young judge who advised him of his rights.
Saddam and 11 top aides were formally charged in open court, the first stage in a trial that is not expected to start for several months and could last for several years.
Among the charges against the former president: killing religious figures in 1974; the 1988 gassing of Kurds in Halabja; killing members of the Kurdish Barzani clan and other political rivals; the 1990 invasion of Kuwait; and the brutal suppression of Kurdish and Shi’ite uprisings immediately after the war.
Saddam refused to sign the paper indicating that he had been charged, noting that he was without a lawyer.
One of the 20 lawyers hired by Saddam’s wife to represent him said the absence of a defense attorney breached Saddam’s rights.
Told by the judge that counsel would be provided later if he could not pay for his own, Saddam said: “Everyone says, the Americans say, I have millions of dollars stashed away in Geneva. Why shouldn’t I afford a lawyer?”
By turns, he was angry, exasperated, defiant and fidgety, constantly gesturing with his hands or taking notes on a piece of yellow paper.
Although the former president was not expected to say anything more than a few words at his initial court appearance, he grew animated when accused of invading Kuwait.
Kuwaitis are “dogs,” said Saddam, adding that Kuwaiti men had so little respect for Iraqi women that they would use the women as 10-dinar prostitutes.
The judge, who has not been publicly identified for his own safety, admonished the dictator not to use such language in court.
The remarks angered Kuwaiti officials.
“Without a doubt, after these crimes, Kuwait will demand that Saddam Hussein be executed according to the judicial system in Iraq,” Information Minister Mohammad Abulhasan told Reuters.
“Saddam’s remarks today are the biggest evidence of megalomania, when he praises the tyrannical invasion against Kuwait and the killing of civilians, while the whole world has condemned this tyrannical Iraqi invasion of a peaceful and Muslim neighboring country,” Mr. Abulhasan said.
Many Iraqis hurried home after work yesterday, the end of the workweek, to watch the televised proceedings. Others gathered in the tea shops that still serve as informal men’s clubs in every neighborhood.
There was widespread agreement that Saddam should be tried for his crimes — and executed afterward.
“The death penalty is the only punishment, of course,” said retired merchant Abu Riydh, whiling away the afternoon with a card game in the ancient tea house on Saddoun Street. “All the crimes he committed are well-known, tangible. He should be punished as he punished us.”
Others were more ambivalent, grudgingly admiring the former dictator’s defiance.
“Look at him,” marveled tax clerk Hassan Hussein, watching the arraignment in a small tea shop in central Baghdad. “He has such a strong personality, even in the [dock]. I think even the judge is afraid of him.”
Saddam was escorted to the courtroom yesterday in a blue jumpsuit and leg chains, both of which were removed before he appeared in public. The suit he wore in court, according to a pool report, was purchased by a U.S. soldier who was given his measurements.
Although he will be tried under Iraqi law, Saddam remains in U.S. custody, a compromise that allowed him to be turned over to the new government earlier this week. Handing over the star prisoner is seen as a way for Prime Minister Iyad Allawi to earn respect among the Iraqi people.
The defendant was transported from his cell to the courtroom, inside the former palace now called Camp Victory, by helicopter and then armored bus. The military escort included four Humvees and an ambulance, according to the few reporters who were allowed to provide pool coverage.
Other regime figures arraigned yesterday included former Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, the urbane Christian who frequently represented Iraq abroad; and Ali Hasan al-Majid, known as “Chemical Ali” for his role in the chemical-weapons experiments on Kurds.
These and other senior associates will be tried by a newly created special tribunal, which is heavily funded and guided by American legal advisers. There is little other foreign participation, in part because Iraq’s decision this week to reinstate the death penalty effectively bars European involvement.
Saddam defiantly dismissed the court proceedings as “theater,” a thought that was echoed by several skeptical viewers yesterday.
“This is just a show,” said Ahmed Muhsen, who works as a guard in a municipal office. He questioned why a trial would not start for many more months, even though Saddam had been in custody since December.
“This is like a show, to help Bush get re-elected,” he said. “Why not try [suspected terrorist Abu Musab] Zarqawi? He has also killed many Iraqi people.”