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Hussein Trial Inspires Fixation, Fury in Iraq

Times Staff Writer

It’s eight o’clock Wednesday night and an Iraqi woman named Umm Ahmad is on the line, calling in to a television talk show to give the nation a piece of her mind about Saddam Hussein’s grandstanding in court.

“He is still massacring Iraqis,” says the Baghdad resident, alluding to the ex-dictator’s loyalists fighting in the insurgency. “You cannot give him the right to talk like he does.”

In the southern city of Basra, Isam Shimir is equally furious about the case. So far, he says, prosecutors have utterly failed to show that the government’s response to a 1982 attempt on Hussein’s life in Dujayl -- including the killings of 146 residents of that village -- was wrong.

“He was subject to an assassination attempt and the suspects got caught,” says the 30-year-old Sunni Muslim Arab. “What should he have done? Forgiven them?”

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Iraqis often dismiss Hussein as a figure from their past, arguing that he no longer plays a role in their lives. But their fascination with courtroom proceedings this week shows that the former president continues to cast a long shadow over the country.

As the trial began each day, streets emptied. Iraqis huddled in shops and living rooms to watch the former strongman face his alleged victims. The proceedings were aired nonstop on local TV stations and pan-Arab satellite channels, breaking only for commercials and prayer time.

Most viewers seemed to sense that they were watching history unfold. “Saddam will be the first leader of the Middle East judged,” says Oman Sheikhly, a 28-year-old Sunni Arab building contractor who lives in Baghdad. “The other leaders will take notice.”

But if the trial was meant to help Iraqis come to terms with their past or unify them as they head toward the Dec. 15 National Assembly election, it seems to be doing the opposite -- sharpening differences in a country already divided along ethnic, sectarian and regional lines.

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Those who supported Hussein think he has been getting a bum deal. Those who despise him believe he is being pampered, even as they think he is getting his comeuppance.

“This shows the end of the tyrant,” says Ali Hassan Jabr, 27, of Baghdad’s largely Shiite Muslim neighborhood of Sadr City, who says he lost six of his relatives at the hands of the deposed government’s security apparatus.

Many Iraqis wonder why prosecutors decided to first bring the case of Dujayl. Hussein and his seven co-defendants are accused of exacting a years-long campaign of mass arrests, torture and executions on residents of the Shiite village after the assassination attempt against the president, a Sunni.

“Now the trial is concentrating on the crimes against Shiites only,” said Humam Shama, 59, a secular Shiite economist who runs a Baghdad educational institute. “Why are they starting this trial at this time when there is a difficult sectarian period?”

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When Hussein’s image appears on television, the dim cafeteria of the lawyers association in Baghdad turns into a volatile checkerboard of emotions and opinions. The attorneys stop sipping their bottled sodas, Turkish coffees and sweetened teas and look up, some staring in rage, others with glee.

The atmosphere becomes alert and tense. Occasionally, shouting matches erupt in what is normally a bastion of collegiality and decorum.

“The reactions are very profound,” says Saab Mahmoud Abed, a 33-year-old lawyer among those sitting in the smoky room. “Of course we are deeply affected when we see him on television in front of a judge. This man ruled us for 35 years.”

Many Iraqis view the trial strictly through the prism of their allegiances.

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It was not the harrowing testimony of witness after witness describing torture, but “the president’s bravery on the stand despite his tough circumstances” that most impressed Yaseen Ayoubi, a 52-year-old former brigadier general in Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit.

Hassan Eidan, a 32-year-old owner of a cellphone shop in Baqubah, says it was not just Hussein who was humiliated by sitting in the defendants dock, it was “Iraqis and all the Arabs.”

“The goal of the trial is to disparage the previous regime and Saddam,” he says, adding that the most poignant moment of the court proceedings so far has been the sight of the former president writing on his hand because he didn’t have paper.

A few Iraqis, especially those in the upper echelons of power, say they are content with the trial, even arguing that reopening the wounds of the past might be the first cathartic step toward building a healthy Iraq.

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“One of our problems in the Middle East is that a new government always comes in and kills everybody so there is no past,” Hero Talabani, wife of President Jalal Talabani, said in an interview in the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniya.

But across Iraq on Wednesday, many ordinary people voiced dissatisfaction with the trial. “The thing that most affected me was when the defendants disrespected the witnesses,” said Adnan Dhalimi, a 38-year-old Shiite civil engineer in Najaf. “It was painful to watch. Saddam was making fun of the court. Saddam and his assistants don’t need a long trial. The Iraqi people know what they’ve done.”

Many viewers were confused by the legal back-and-forth in the courtroom, angered by Hussein’s outbursts and contemptuous of what they called lead Judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin’s lack of backbone. Many found it ridiculous that Hussein was granted rights that were not afforded prisoners during his rule.

“In this trial, Saddam Hussein is wearing a suit and he’s looking elegant,” a caller named Muntazer from Baghdad said on the live call-in show, which is broadcast daily on state-owned Al Iraqiya television. “He should have been wearing prisoner’s clothes.”

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The show’s host, Riyadh Sarayie, replied: “The accused is innocent until proven guilty.... And the clothes are his right.”

“Ask yourself,” Muntazer continued, “is he innocent or a criminal?”

“The judge is the one who decides that,” Sarayie said.

“I was in prison,” Muntazer said, raising his voice. “I was in Abu Ghraib. The cells at that time had around 4,000 people all pressed together. We were sleeping while standing.”

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Many Iraqis say they wish Hussein had been quickly and secretly put to death by the Americans when he was captured in December 2003, to spare the country the trial’s wrenching emotional impact.

But Salman Khaled, a 22-year-old Kurd and student at Sulaymaniya’s music institute, said he hoped for a long trial, not to ensure that Hussein got a fair hearing or that his victims got a day in court, but as revenge.

“We want to prolong the trial,” he said, “so Saddam suffers for years.”

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Times staff writer Ashraf Khalil in Sulaymaniya and special correspondents in Baghdad, Baqubah, Basra, Najaf and Tikrit contributed to this report.


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