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A defiant Saddam pleads not guilty; court adjourns

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Former dictator Saddam Hussein defiantly told an Iraqi court Wednesday that he was not guilty of the 1982 mass slaughter of Shiite Muslim villagers and then, clearly relishing his time on international television, questioned the court's legitimacy.

The opening day of Saddam's trial gave the new Iraqi government a platform to show its authority in the face of a defeated dictatorship, without obvious success. The process often was confused, as Saddam and the lead judge fought for control over the courtroom.

The case was adjourned until Nov. 28, after the defense lawyers said they needed more time—and more experienced lawyers—to prepare the case. In addition, the lead judge said the court needed time to convince more witnesses to testify.

If Saddam is convicted, he could face the death penalty.

Iraqi and American officials billed the proceedings as the beginning of a national reconciliation.

Yet the day was disorganized, and Saddam seemed to revel in that. It was a recovery of sorts for the man who'd lived in opulent palaces and led the nation with an iron fist before being overthrown by an American-led invasion in March 2003. U.S. troops found him hiding in a dirt hole outside his hometown in December of that year.

Saddam and his seven co-defendants were led into a pen in the middle of the courtroom around 12:15 p.m. Wednesday to face charges for the 1982 killings of 143 people in the northern city of Dujail. Saddam is accused of ordering the killings after an assassination attempt against him.

The trial, prosecutors said, is one of the more clear-cut cases against Saddam. Other possible cases, such as the mass executions of Shiites in the south after a 1991 uprising and the systematic killings of Kurds and destruction of entire villages in the north, involved thousands of victims and a thick set of written commands, complicating the task of establishing a direct link between Saddam's orders and the actions taken.

The lead judge, Rizgar Mohammed Amin, began the hearing by asking Saddam to identify himself to the court.

Saddam carried a Quran to the podium in his left hand. He began reciting verses from the Muslim holy book, saying in part: "Those who fight in God's cause will be victorious."

Amin interrupted him.

Saddam said he was the president of Iraq and that his rights as president were protected under the Iraqi constitution. He also told Amin he didn't respect the court, at one point demanding of the judge, "Who are you?"

The deposed leader never gave Amin his name, telling him instead: "You know who I am because you are an Iraqi."

Although many Western observers and Iraqi government officials have dubbed the process a crucial step in the healing of this nation, many residents throughout Baghdad seemed indifferent Wednesday. Indeed, even in Kadhemiya, a largely Shiite neighborhood where an untold number were tortured during Saddam's rule, residents went about their shopping during the trial, only briefly scanning store television sets.

Iraqis there said they were more concerned about the country's insurgency and the lack of electricity and water.

"Please just kill him," said Ali Hilal, a 30-year-old truck driver who was browsing through a gold jewelry shop. Hilal, carrying his 1-year-old daughter, glanced at Saddam on a TV screen, shook his head and went back to shopping.

"The important thing is for this government to find the terrorists who are killing us now," Hilal said.

Some Sunni Muslims enjoyed watching Saddam dominate the proceedings.

"I feel sorry for the Shiites. They have been deceived. They don't realize Saddam will be released again. Look at Saddam. He is an eagle," said Mohammed Ali, 40, a taxi driver who watched the trial in a western Baghdad coffee shop.

All the defendants in the case were charged together before the panel of judges. Saddam, wearing a dark blue suit and white shirt and holding his Quran, sat in the front row beside fellow defendant Hameed al-Bandar, the former head of the Revolutionary Court. The other five sat in two rows behind them. Among them were Saddam's half-brother and former intelligence chief, Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, and former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan.

While his fellow defendants often looked frightened, nervous and tired, Saddam remained defiant, looking confident even from within the cage. He ignored several of the lead judge's orders and scuffled with the guards who were attempting to escort him.

Four of the defendants initially were denied their traditional Arabic headdresses in the courtroom. When one of them persuaded the judge to return the clothing, Saddam yelled "Aifya!"—Iraqi slang for "Well done."

All seven pleaded not guilty.

The lead judge addressed Saddam sternly but politely, at times interrupting him when the former dictator spoke out of line.

Saddam became visibly angry once, when the judge referred to him as the former president of Iraq.

"I didn't say I am a FORMER president," Saddam retorted.

When the judge had walked into the courtroom with the defendants present, Saddam was the only person not to stand up.

Among those attending the hearing were Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, who called the trial a great day for his party, the Iraqi National Congress; National Security Adviser Muwafiq al-Rubaiee; government spokesman Laith Kubba; and Deputy National Assembly Speaker Hussein Shahristani.

Several officials spoke afterward, celebrating the trial, even its apparent faults. The proceedings, they said, were markedly different from the judicial process during Saddam's reign.

During that time of torture rooms, "we did not have the option of a judge or a lawyer," Shahristani said. "But we see them today being judged in the new Iraq ... they can interrupt the court and, although they're rude, we allow them to speak freely."

But Richard Dicker, the director of the international justice program for Human Rights Watch, said he wasn't convinced all would go according to plan.

"I think there is a danger ... of this spinning out of control," Dicker said.

In his opening statement, the prosecutor called Saddam a dictator who oppressed and tortured people throughout the country. That drew a sharp rebuke from the defense team, which interrupted the proceedings with shouts, saying the prosecutor was making a political statement that wasn't pertinent to the case.

The prosecutor relented, agreeing to talk only about the Dujail case.

During parts of the statement, which accused Saddam of ordering the murders, the former dictator interjected, "This is a lie."

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Mohammed al Awsy and Mohammed al Dulaimy in Baghdad and Hassan al Jubouri in Dujail contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Iraq

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