BAGHDAD, Iraq—He ruled them with an iron fist for 24 years, brutally suppressing the slightest dissent while leading their nation into privation and ruinous wars.
Yet the sight of a defiant Saddam Hussein, declaring in court Thursday that he was still president of Iraq, elicited a mix of reactions—including sympathy—from a cross section of Iraqi society.
The eagerly anticipated appearance, the first public viewing in the seven months since American forces pulled the bedraggled former dictator from a dirt hole, also raised questions among some Iraqis about whether Saddam is getting railroaded.
All of that, though, was upon reflection. At first, as Saddam's image flickered across television screens, all Iraqis could do was watch in a riveted state.
"It's Saddam. They're showing it now," said Bassim Ahmed, as the strongman's bearded face appeared on the television in a corner of Ahmed's barbershop in a predominantly Shiite Muslim neighborhood.
Barbers stopped cutting. Customers left their chairs, slipping closer to the television. Patrons waiting on a couch also eyed the footage of Saddam sitting in court, gesturing and debating the judge.
Later, barber Mohammed Ali, 35, said he had wanted "Saddam to be judged from the beginning, since he committed all those terrible crimes against the Iraqi people."
Yet seeing the former president—the face of Iraq and a man who had championed Arab causes—in such circumstances caught him off guard. "It's difficult for the Iraqis to see their leader on trial, even if he was evil."
Other Iraqis were unforgiving.
"I hope they deliver Saddam to me personally because executing Saddam in one day is not enough," said Sadeq Karim, 36, a laborer in Sadr City, an impoverished Shiite Muslim district of Baghdad that suffered under Saddam.
Fingering a string of blue prayer beads while watching his persecutor on television in a shop selling satellite dishes, Karim said Saddam's regime had arrested him and executed two of his brothers. One brother was killed even after Karim paid the $30,000 that was to have spared the brother's life.
Saddam "jailed people, and now he is in jail. He killed innocent people, and now both his sons are dead. He made a lot of women widows, and now his two daughters are widows," said Karim
Also looking forward to justice is Iraq's Kurdish minority, since many of the charges against Saddam stem from atrocities committed against Kurdish tribes, villages and political parties. Several Kurds in Baghdad said Saddam should be executed for such crimes against humanity.
"He killed children and the elderly," said Qais Mustapha, 40, a shopkeeper. He said his family still hasn't recovered the bodies of three cousins the regime executed in 1983. "He used internationally prohibited weapons, and that's enough to consider him guilty."
The legal process that will determine Saddam's guilt or innocence has just begun. But already many Iraqis have reached a verdict on its legitimacy.
"This is only theater, very cheap theater," said Alaa Ahmed, 29, an office supervisor from the Adhamiya district, a predominantly Sunni neighborhood. "Saddam punished only those who hurt the Iraqi people. He didn't hurt innocent people."
Lt. Col. Faris Abdullah, who rose in rank from cadet during 20 years in Saddam's military, also looked askance at the court proceeding, calling the upcoming trial illegal.
"I don't defend Saddam, but the judge and the whole court were assigned by the Americans. And the whole Iraqi government is unelected," said Abdullah, now in the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. "I'm all for Saddam on trial—but not like this."
Ali, the barber, said he believed the court appearance and the trial to follow are intended to humiliate Saddam and intimidate Arab leaders. "This is the threatening message: Expect that you could be sitting in that chair someday, just like Saddam."
The trial is almost certain to be a sensation, capturing public attention and spurring vigorous debate. It will be a first for a nation that, just days after regaining sovereignty, already has begun to leave Saddam behind.
Said Ali: "Saddam is no longer part of Iraq."
(Hannah Allam and special correspondents David George and Hassan al Shamari contributed to this article from Baghdad.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-SADDAM-REACT