Iraqis’ complex and contradictory relationship with the dictator who dominated them for decades got even more tangled Saturday, as the country digested reports that the Pentagon has determined that Saddam Hussein is a prisoner of war.
Cab driver Jassam Said expressed hope that the decision by U.S. Defense Department attorneys that Hussein is protected under the Geneva Convention means he may be tried in the United States rather than Iraq.
“He deserves to be treated in a good way,” said the 28-year-old Baghdad resident. “If he were tried in Iraq, it would not be fair.”
“Saddam is a criminal,” said Nabeel Mehdi, 40, whose uncles were executed by Hussein’s government. “One who is entitled to be a war prisoner is one who has participated in a clean war. Someone who kills his people and creates mass graves -- this is not a war prisoner but a war criminal.”
As a prisoner of war, Hussein can have Red Cross visits, need not answer questions from American interrogators and can wear a military uniform and insignia. Some experts say the designation might complicate the Bush administration’s plans for a new Iraqi government to put Hussein on trial.
That possibility had members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council voicing concern Saturday, with several saying that the Iraqi people should be the ones to try their former dictator.
“He is a criminal and he was accused of serious crimes against the Iraqi people,” said Dara Noureddine, a former judge and member of the 24-person council. “He must be tried in Iraq.
“It would mean a lot for Iraqis to try him,” Noureddine added. “It would be a psychological relief for the Iraqis.”
American officials here argued Saturday that the prisoner-of-war designation would have little effect because Hussein could always be reclassified.
“This designation leaves his final status undetermined,” said Dan Senor, a spokesman for the U.S. administration in Iraq. “His ultimate disposition could be determined by new evidence that comes forward.”
Under the Geneva Convention, prisoners of war are entitled to be tried for war crimes by military tribunals established by the occupying power.
For Iraqis, whose lives and deaths were controlled by Hussein’s smallest whims, the Friday night announcement was a momentous event.
Some were so anguished they could not read or sleep, while others saw it as evidence that Hussein, despite his defeat on the battlefield and his humiliating capture last month, was still the all-powerful leader they grew up knowing. The one common reaction was to suspect that the announcement from Washington was a sign that the Americans were up to no good.
“The Americans want to avoid him being tried openly -- he would disclose crimes committed by Americans,” said Muheeb Hamid, a 22-year-old law student.
Several of Hamid’s classmates pointed out that the United States had backed Hussein in his war against Iran during a time when he was also slaughtering Kurdish and Shiite Iraqis in the 1980s. The relationship soured when Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.
Iraq is haunted by Saddam Hussein. Driving around its capital is to be struck by the massive effort to erase his image from public life. His statues stand decapitated; his face is scratched out of murals. Postage stamps released Saturday were the first in many years without his face.
Hussein’s strength and invulnerability were drummed into Iraqis from a young age by secret police and state-run media. Some Iraqis are said to have feared even throwing out newspapers, for fear that someone would report them to authorities for tossing in the trash a document with Hussein’s image.
The sudden collapse of the dictator’s regime last year was a national shock, and his capture by American troops from a hole in the ground outside an Iraqi village was even more disturbing. American forces showed the bedraggled Hussein being examined by doctors in what they said was an effort to demonstrate to Iraqis that their dictator had truly been brought to justice.
Some Iraqis found the images needlessly embarrassing, and some human rights groups have questioned whether the display violated Geneva Convention regulations on prisoner privacy.
“Saddam Hussein should be executed for what he did to us, but still I feel sorry for the way he was humiliated by U.S. troops,” said Ali Adnani, a major in the Baghdad police.
Rumors float around Baghdad that Americans did not actually capture Hussein, but one of the dictator’s many body doubles. Supporters say they suspect that pictures of the haggard Hussein in American custody are fakes.
So many Iraqis saw the Pentagon’s announcement Friday as evidence that Hussein had cut a deal with the U.S. that Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt had to issue a denial at the occupation force’s regularly scheduled news conference Saturday night.
Governing Council member Noureddine said he believed Hussein’s humiliating capture would eventually destroy his mystique. The dictator, who had urged his troops to fight to death against the invaders, surrendered without resistance when he was found by U.S. troops.
“Those who believed Saddam was a hero, they have seen him as a coward,” Noureddine said. “Things will be quieter.”
That shift has yet to happen. Since Hussein was captured, insurgent attacks on occupation forces and Iraqis who aid them have continued.
On Saturday, American officials confirmed that a helicopter that crashed last week near Fallouja was probably shot down by insurgents.
In the southern city of Amarah, at least five demonstrators were shot dead by Iraqi police and British troops Saturday after they fired on authorities, British officials said. The protest was over the rampant unemployment in the region, they said.
Elsewhere in southern Iraq, Danish troops found about three dozen liquid-filled mortar shells in a desert area. A chemical and biological weapons team was inspecting the ordnance, although U.S. officials in Baghdad said the weapons appeared to be from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.
In Baghdad, Hussein still has his boosters on the street.
“He was the best compared to who is ruling us now,” said Nahla Abdul Karim, a 48-year-old former official in the Agriculture Ministry who hoped that the Pentagon’s decision foreshadowed better treatment for the former Iraqi president.
Still, there are people like Abu Adnan Avamiya, a 41-year-old owner of a calligraphy shop in Baghdad’s Adamiyah neighborhood, a Hussein stronghold. Since the collapse of the regime, he said, he has realized that Hussein is no war hero.
“We were blinded by the state-run media,” he said Saturday. “Whether he is a war criminal or just an ordinary prisoner, he is finished for us.”
Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman and Raheem Salman in The Times’ Baghdad Bureau contributed to this report.