BAGHDAD, Iraq—Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein will enter a bulletproof cage in the center of an Iraqi courtroom Wednesday for the start of his trial on murder charges.
Unlike the trial in The Hague, Netherlands, of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam will be tried by a court of his countrymen, not an international tribunal.
Saddam—along with seven co-defendants—will be placed in a cage in the middle of the courtroom. To their right will be the defense counsel's table; to the left, the prosecution. In front of the cage will be the bench, a panel of five judges.
It will be a televised national—and international—spectacle, before a public that's thrilled to see the fallen dictator called to account for his alleged crimes, but mournful to be reminded of the toll his rule took.
It also promises to be a cathartic moment for American viewers. The United States has fought two wars against Saddam, losing nearly 2,000 soldiers so far in the current conflict and nearly 300 in the Persian Gulf War.
For Iraqis, the trial will be a demarcation line between the old regime and the new and assuage lingering fears that the dictator might rule again. U.S. and Iraqi officials hope that the trial will weaken the insurgency, made up in part of former members of Saddam's Baath Party who remain loyal to him.
Many also hope that the trial will give Iraqis a sense of justice and closure.
Unlike in U.S. courts, all defendants associated with a crime will be tried together. Saddam and his co-defendants are charged with the 1982 killings of 143 people in Dujail. Saddam is accused of ordering the killings shortly after an assassination attempt against him in the small northern Iraqi city.
If convicted, he could be executed, even before he faces any other charges.
In Dujail, a city that's small enough for nearly everyone to be touched by the deaths of 143 people, life is still largely defined by the assassination attempt. The mayor went to jail for his alleged role in the plot, where he was tortured, he said. Residents said Monday that they were sad about what had happened to them—and the fact that their attempt failed.
Shortly after the attempt, Saddam allegedly ordered the killings of men who'd been seen in the area when the shots were fired or who'd been implicated in the attempt.
Faris Jassim al-Ameen said he was part of the assassination attempt. He said the mission failed because the assailants had only small handguns and rifles.
"It was just a lack of planning," al-Ameen said.
Mohammed Hassan Mahmoud, the mayor, said the town wanted to kill Saddam not to create a new government but to avenge the 1980 killing of a revered local sheik.
"I am still suffering from the traces of torture on my body and I am still not feeling well. My shoulder was dislocated and my hand was broken. I have rheumatism in my joints because of the torture," Mahmoud said. "The court will give us the hope that we have been waiting for a long time for. We don't want the court to exact revenge. We want the court to apply justice."
The case is one of more than a dozen that the Iraqi Special Tribunal plans to bring against the former dictator. Officials said they hadn't decided which would be next.
The chief prosecutor—who for security reasons didn't want his name released until the trial started—said the Dujail case against the former dictator hinged largely on documents Saddam wrote and signed that ordered the killings. The documents were salvaged from palaces and government buildings shortly after Saddam was overthrown in 2003. He said he'd also rely on about 30 witnesses, most of whom will be shielded in the courtroom during their testimony.
The chief prosecutor, who works in an office in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, said he was spending the last days before the trial preparing his opening statement and planned to spend the night rehearing it. So far, it's 40 pages, he said.
The trial will begin with the court identifying the defendants and reading them the charges. The prosecution then will give the opening statement.
Western officials and the prosecutor have suggested that the start of the trial could be anticlimactic, saying it probably will recess quickly. Saddam's lawyer, Khalil al-Dulaimi, has said he got documents against his client only last month, not in enough time to prepare.
Al-Dulaimi, who still refers to his client as "President Saddam," has called the trial a largely political charade crafted by the new Shiite Muslim-dominated government to cement its place in the new Iraq.
While Saddam is widely hated in Baghdad, some residents yearn for a time when they didn't have to worry about the random shootings and relentless car bombings they've faced since the U.S. invasion.
A Shiite-sponsored TV channel is airing a lengthy ad that shows footage of Kurdish children who died when Saddam allegedly used chemical weapons against them, along with images of men being tortured. It's a clear reminder to viewers that while things aren't ideal now, they were difficult for Shiites and Kurds under Saddam, as well.
"The problem is that Saddam is feeling very comfortable, living in a safe place, eating good food and getting good sleep," said Hamadi Khalif, 55, a former Ministry of Housing employee. "We are not. All we want is to see Saddam executed."
The trial will be the first one to be televised in Iraq since the last time Saddam faced a judge, in 1959, for the attempted assassination of then-Prime Minister Abdul Karim Qassim. Saddam—who escaped and fled to Syria and then Egypt—was sentenced to death in absentia.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Hassan al Jubouri in Tikrit and Mohammed al Awsy contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Saddam Hussein
ARCHIVE ILLUSTRATIONS on KRT Direct (from KRT Illustration Bank, 202-383-6064): Saddam Hussein