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Iraq takes legal custody of Saddam

BAGHDAD, Iraq—For the first time in more than six months, the world will see Saddam Hussein as he stands in court Thursday to hear the charges being pressed against him by the people of Iraq.

The former dictator had been held as a prisoner of war in a U.S. prison since December, when soldiers found him hiding in a dirt hole near his hometown of Tikrit. When he was last seen, an American soldier was picking through Saddam's scraggly beard and hair for lice. That footage was followed shortly thereafter by pictures of Saddam after a shave, with his signature bushy mustache.

The details of Thursday's events have been kept vague, but it's thought that sometime after noon Saddam and 11 other defendants, surrounded by a large group of American soldiers and security guards, will be hustled into an ad hoc courtroom in a clock tower building near downtown Baghdad.

The building is in the U.S.-controlled Green Zone, a complex of offices sealed off from the rest of the capital by concrete walls, concertina wire and American soldiers with machine guns.

There's also been speculation that Saddam's court appearance might be within a Baghdad military base because of security concerns. Those concerns were highlighted Wednesday morning by a mortar attack on a base in Baghdad that wounded 11 American soldiers.

Once in front of an Iraqi judge, Saddam and the other prominent detainees will, one at a time, be told what charges they face, be told of their rights under the Iraqi legal system and will be allowed to speak to the court, if they want.

"Basically, it's an arraignment," said a British military spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "If they want to do a long tirade of `I hate the Americans and the Brits,' they can."

Despite the formal return of sovereignty to Iraq—and the transfer of Saddam to Iraqi legal custody Wednesday—access to his court appearance is being tightly controlled by the U.S.-led military coalition in Baghdad, which appears to be dictating the time and place of the event.

Photos and video recordings of his appearance will be released only after being vetted by the American military, which plans for security reasons to obscure the faces of security personnel and court reporters.

Saddam was informed Wednesday of his rights as a criminal detainee of Iraq, which include legal representation by an attorney of his choosing and the right to remain silent.

He's still under the physical custody of the U.S. military, and is being held at an American base. A U.S. official, who asked not to be identified, said Wednesday that there'd been discussions about allowing Iraqi personnel to check Saddam's condition daily or perhaps to become part of the guard rotation.

Saddam will be joined in court by several key figures from his regime, including Ali Hasan al Majid, known by the nickname of "Chemical Ali" for his participation in chemical weapons attacks in northern Iraq that killed thousands of people.

The charges the men face haven't been made public. They'll be prosecuted in front of a five-judge war crimes tribunal designed to hear allegations of genocide and crimes against humanity.

There's a long list of possible crimes that Saddam could be charged with, among them ordering a chemical weapons strike on a Kurdish village; the wholesale murder of Shiite Muslims in the south, who were piled into mass graves; the systematic torture and rape of political dissidents; and invading Kuwait.

An American legal official in Baghdad, who also asked not to be named, said prosecutors probably would have to choose a handful of crimes and establish a direct link of responsibility to Saddam. To do otherwise, the official said, would risk getting mired in the three decades of abuse and torture that Saddam and his network of friends, family and henchmen carried out.

"If you're looking to prove each and every crime, that could be very difficult," he said.

The official trumpeted the Saddam arraignment as a historic moment of justice.

"As a lawyer it's beautiful to see the people who were so abused insisting upon the rule of law applying to those who abused them," he said.

On the streets of Baghdad, many Iraqis said it was hard to believe that the former strongman was being brought to justice.

Mohamed Jassim, a high school teacher, said he was convinced that the United States and Saddam had entered into some sort of conspiracy.

"There is a deal with the Americans to keep Saddam out of the court because he would reveal all the secrets about the deals between him and the Americans," he said, repeating a sentiment held by a number of Iraqis. "It is all a game; everything is a game."

Amar al Musawi, a student at Baghdad University's college of fine arts, sounded almost wistful about Saddam's fall: "Everyone was afraid of him, and now in the end he's nothing."

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040630 Saddam trial

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