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Saddam's defiance strikes chords with Iraq

By
P. MITCHELL PROTHERO

BAGHDAD, July 1 (UPI) -- The palace was built on his orders on the outskirts of southwest Baghdad, and, presumably, the last time he visited it, Saddam Hussein was not in shackles or about to be held accountable for his reign.

But on Thursday, he arrived at the complex -- the location of which remains technically secret -- in a U.S. helicopter and chained at the wrists and waist to face charges leveled by an Iraqi prosecutor before an Iraqi judge on a litany of charges that he killed tens of thousands of Iraqis and invaded the sovereign state of Kuwait.

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Although a series of specific charges are expected to be filed before his trial begins -- which could take months to prepare for -- the broad outline made Thursday included the murder of religious figures and political appointees, displacement and genocide of the Kurdish people, and the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

But in stark contract the muddy bearded figure found hiding in a "spider" hole last December by American troops, Saddam took a tone of defiance against the proceedings, even refusing to sign paperwork that he understood the charges and demanding that the judge refer to him as the president of Iraq, "because it reflects the will of the Iraqi people."

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Access to the event was severely limited for security reasons and media was limited to a pool event that supplied information and quotes to the rest of the media after the hearing was competed. Saddam and 11 other top officials were arraigned at the makeshift courtroom, located a few miles from the prison they are held at near Baghdad's main airport.

And when the charges were outlined, Saddam became defiant on the discussion of his invasion of Kuwait.

"As the president of Iraq and the head of the armed forces, which went in, in an official manner," he said, according to an early translation of one portion of the exchange.

"Is this a right of an official of the Republic of Iraq?" he asked. "This is a matter of the presidency."

According to a pool report, he defended the invasion of Kuwait because "Kuwaitis were turning Iraqi women into whores for 10 dollars, should Iraqi take that? I did that for the Iraqi people. How can you defend these dogs?"

When reprimanded for his language by the judge who called it a legal proceeding, Saddam replied, "This is all a theater, the real criminal is Bush."

When told he was accused of having used chemical weapons against a Kurdish city in 1988, Saddam casually mentioned that although he had been president of Iraq, he had heard about those incidents in "the media."

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Upon refusing to sign the documents that laid out the broad outline of charges against him, Saddam also declared that "I object to the entire proceeding."

According to pool reporters in the room, Saddam's demeanor and appearance was generally impressive compared to the figure seen in his December capture. His beard was neatly trimmed and his charcoal-colored suit dapper, but without a necktie.

The reports indicated that he was defiant and engaged in debating various points in the proceedings and showed absolutely no remorse. Iraqi officials also said that Saddam was shocked to discover yesterday that he would be held and tried by Iraqis, who he still seems to consider his supporters.

The effect that the first appearance of Saddam since December in the view of the Iraqi public was mixed and very dependent on the overall view of Saddam and on the subsequent American-led invasion and occupation.

Iraqi government officials, who retook control of their country just Monday, seemed thrilled to have started this as one of the first major pieces of business.

"This trial is great news," Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Hamid al-Bayati said to reporters. "It's a trial of the regime that committed the most terrible crimes in the world.

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But the interim Iraqi government -- which cannot make major policy changes until elections planned for next year -- faces a huge problem. U.S.-appointed administrator L. Paul Bremer, who left his post Monday, outlawed the death penalty in Iraq, an outcome that is almost mandatory in the eyes of many Iraqis.

"I think the Iraqi people will be satisfied with the death penalty and no less than that," Bayati admitted.

In several Baghdad teashops and other gathering spots of the local society, reaction was confused and mixed. But even Saddam's critics seemed to take some national pride in seeing the man that ruled them for so long looking strong and defiant.

"To see him pathetic when he was caught was a shame on all Iraqis, because we had been so powerfully ruled by a man that seemed to be such a coward," one man said, who would not give his name. "Now this is the Saddam that we knew -- and even if you hated him -- you feel proud to see him act like a man."

Others said they would hold their opinion until they heard the evidence against him.

"I need to see what they have as evidence," Abbas, a security guard for the al Dora electric power facility. "I don't know how to see what will happen."

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But many Iraqis find the situation strange and several expressed concern that the trial should not be held in Iraq.

"Saddam tried to have (Prime Minister Iyad) Allawi killed with an axe," said an Iraqi who gave his name as Osama. "How can we trust them to give him a fair trial? He should be tried outside Iraq by people who he hasn't tried to kill."

Even before the hearing details were announced, the various news outlets were doing retrospective pieces on Saddam's life and much of the reaction to that was nostalgic as people commented on how young he looked in one photo, or how much he loved children as footage showed him swimming along side a group of tykes. Having spent 20-plus years watching Saddam on television every night -- as satellite television was banned -- crowds turned nostalgic for the previous era.

Others immediately seized the grand Iraqi tradition of conspiracy theories ascribed to even the smallest detail. In the lobby of a hotel nearby the UPI bureau, a large group of men gathered around a television. As the first images were broadcast without sound, the immediate reaction was that it must be a hoax. The after quotes from the proceedings began to be read by Arabic language news services, the paranoia turned to pride as it was apparent that Saddam was arguing with his captors. Then after only a small portion of audio was released, the mood changed back to conspiracy.

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"Saddam will never really be tried for he knows all the secrets of Bush and America," one said. "He will tell the world about them and they can't let that happen."

For his part, Saddam, who appeared without an attorney, seemed to have a sense of humor when asked if he could afford an attorney.

"The Americans say I have millions hidden in Switzerland. How can I not have the money to pay for one?" he said to the judge.

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