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Iraqis want fair trial for Saddam by Iraqis, poll shows

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Most Iraqis consider former president Saddam Hussein a criminal for gassing his own people and attacking neighboring countries, yet they still believe he deserves a fair trial before Iraqi judges, according to poll results released Thursday in Baghdad.

More than half the respondents said Saddam's execution was the preferred outcome of any court proceeding.

The survey of 1,000 Iraqis in eight cities across the country, conducted by an independent Iraqi research group, was the first scientific study of how residents feel about Saddam's capture by U.S. forces Dec. 13. Though nearly 60 percent of Iraqis said they were "delighted" at the arrest, the event ranked third—behind security and fuel—as their most important concern.

"People are more concerned with their own problems," said Nabil Salim, a professor at Baghdad University and adviser to the polling agency. "They are much more concerned about electricity and fuel than about Saddam's capture, despite everything he represented."

The survey process itself was a case study of the violence and fear that continue to plague the country. Citing personal safety concerns, interviewers did not poll residents of Saddam's hometown, Tikrit. Poll organizers said at least two interviewers were beaten for asking questions in Ramadi and Mosul, northern cities that retain strong support for the deposed dictator. And 50 people refused to answer any questions at all from fear that Saddam would return and punish them.

"Some of them still think Saddam is a national hero and they thought he doesn't deserve (his arrest)," said Sadoun Al-Dulame, director of the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies, the polling agency.

In a result that mirrors official U.S predictions, more than 75 percent of Iraqis said they believe Saddam's arrest will reduce or halt the guerrilla attacks that have so far killed more than 200 coalition troops since President Bush declared the end of major combat in May.

The poll also outlines the type of justice that Iraqis want for Saddam. Sixty percent want to see him tried before an Iraqi judge, while 25 percent prefer an international tribunal. Slightly more than half favor Saddam's execution, while 25 percent prefer a prison term for him. Poll organizers said they were surprised that nearly 20 percent of those surveyed advocated clemency for the dictator, or to "let bygones be bygones," as the question on the poll put it.

"Yes, people think Saddam is definitely a criminal, but at the same time, 84 percent of them believe he should have a fair trial," Dulame said. "This is a vital point for the future of Iraq because Iraqis are looking for the sovereignty of the law."

Some of Saddam's most notorious stunts of the past two decades drew mixed views. Under the old regime, Iraqis were banned from publicly questioning the president's stewardship, but the poll shows that residents overwhelmingly opposed Saddam's eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s and his invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Most, however, did not support reparations for victims of those conflicts.

Saddam's only foreign-policy move backed by a majority of his countrypeople was his firing of missiles at Israel during the 1991 Gulf War, which 82 percent of respondents called a "good action." After Saddam's arrest last week, Israeli officials announced that they had planned to assassinate Saddam in 1992 in revenge, but scrapped the idea after a failed practice run.

Despite popular conspiracy theories, nearly 90 percent of Iraqis believe it truly is Saddam who is behind bars. A majority also believes U.S.-released details of the arrest—that the former ruler, dirty and disoriented, surrendered from an underground hiding place near Tikrit. Only small percentages said they think Saddam was drugged and the capture was staged.

Most surveyed were men, all were older than 18 and came from a wide range of socioeconomic levels, Dulame said. The survey had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.