Boushra Khalil walked through the metal detectors and into the vast convention center, a crumbling relic of a fallen dictatorship with walls still emblazoned with murals of Scud missiles.
It took only a few minutes for one of the security guards prowling the halls to catch sight of her.
“Hey, excuse me,” his voice rang out. “Aren’t you Saddam’s lawyer?” Soon they were all around her, five young men with U.S. military-issued badges clipped to their sports shirts. Their eyes were wide; they smiled.
“Tell him you met young people here, youth that are sending their greetings to the president,” one of the young men said. “We believe he is suffering injustice,” said another. They spoke quickly and eagerly, and pressed Khalil for her autograph.
Iraqis who had been cleared to work in the drab nerve center of Iraq’s U.S.-backed government, in the heavily fortified Green Zone, might appear to be unlikely fans of the ousted president.
But perhaps no supporter is more improbable than Khalil, a Shiite Muslim lawyer who has traveled from Lebanon to defend him.
Like most Arabs, Khalil, who is Lebanese, is no stranger to the hard reality of despotism: Her Iraqi cousins were put to death for rebelling against Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime.
But ever since the wintry afternoon she switched on Al Jazeera and caught sight of the bedraggled Hussein in U.S. custody, she has devoted herself to securing his release. Her work on his defense team has invited angry slurs from fellow Shiites, but Khalil views her work as an epic assignment on behalf of the pan-Arab “nation” -- a cause Hussein espoused during his years in power. Khalil believes it eclipses religious divisions and the question of whether Hussein was a worthy leader.
“When I met [Hussein], he looked at me and smiled and said, ‘These Americans think I am fighting to save my job as president, but I am fighting to defend my homeland,’ ” said Khalil, who is unabashedly enthusiastic about the Iraqi insurgency. “He never surrendered. He did not quit. If he’d quit, then the whole Arab nation would have been handed to America on a plate of gold.”
Khalil’s story illustrates an inherent irony in Hussein’s war crimes trial, which is grinding through the first phase of closing arguments: The Americans pushed to get him into court, but it’s America that has ended up standing trial in the eyes of the Arab public.
In ways both subtle and blunt, Hussein and his lawyers have repeatedly compared Iraq’s fate under his heavy thumb to the blood-spattered security vacuum created by the U.S. invasion.
This debate -- in essence, whether the invasion improved life for Iraqis -- resonates loudly in the Arab world, where many people are concerned about how Hussein’s fall has shifted the region’s power structure. Iraq’s Sunni-dominated neighbors are fearful of the emergence of the Shiite majority in Iraq and terrified of expanded Iranian influence. (The trial has included allegations that Iran tried to assassinate Hussein.)
Hussein blossomed into a cause celebre among Arab intelligentsia and legal experts. His plight drew the energy of dozens of lawyers from the Arab world and beyond, including such improbable volunteers as the daughter of Libyan President Moammar Kadafi and a Harvard-educated Saudi lawyer who is prevented by gender law from practicing in her homeland.
And then there’s Khalil, who looked alien in the convention center with her high-heeled sandals, flared jeans and flashing chunks of jewelry that had been pressed upon her in gratitude by a Libyan jeweler who recognized her from the televised trial. After signing autographs all around, the lawyer, who wouldn’t give her age but looks to be in her 40s, smiled, shrugged and moved away from the admiring gaggle of guards.
“I saw the same feeling in Libya,” said Khalil, who had just returned from a conference in Tripoli, that country’s capital. “They tried to carry me on their shoulders there.” She reached into her purse and drew out notes to Hussein, scrawled on napkins and placemats by far-flung Arab admirers.
“To my master, to my beloved Saddam,” read a note from a Libyan named Omar. “I’d sacrifice my soul and my family to you, my beloved master.”
“Endure, endure, endure. We are all with you with everything we own,” read another note. “You are the sunshine of Arabism and its glory. There is no dignity for Arabs except by liberating Iraq from the injustice and arrogance of the non-believers. There is no justice for us unless he is the president of the Arab nation.”
The Arab public didn’t have much love for Hussein during the years of his notoriously brutal rule. In a region where most people are unhappily familiar with the bloody repressions of dictators, Hussein was seen as a particularly ruthless leader.
But once the United States pushed into Baghdad, Hussein was held in a slightly more sympathetic light by Arabs leery of U.S. intentions in the region. To people who often complain angrily of their own governments’ acquiescence to Washington’s wishes, Hussein was, if nothing else, an Arab leader who had fought the United States.
The image of Hussein as an anti-American icon was fortified by the famous video made by the U.S. military after his capture in December 2003. The footage showed a scraggly Hussein being checked for lice. A few months later, British newspapers published smuggled photographs of an imprisoned Hussein in his underwear.
The images were enough to convince former Qatari Justice Minister Najib Nuaimi, by his own admission no fan of Hussein during his presidency, to join the defense team.
“I said to him, ‘As you know, there’s no fair trial. There’s no independence. The prosecutors are running the show, but the Americans are behind it,’ ” Nuaimi said.
“I told him clearly, ‘You’re the last card in the hands of Bush and Blair, and they won’t waste it because they’ve lost all the other excuses to invade Iraq and occupy it. You should expect that they might put you to capital punishment.’ ”
To lead prosecutor Jaafar Mousawi, that kind of talk is an insult. He’s adamant that the court is a legitimate arm of Iraqi law, and says that U.S. influence is limited to logistical help such as security and custody of the detainees.
“Before history, I say that there is no American interference in the court,” he said.
The first phase of the trial, which has centered on his alleged role in the massacre of Shiite Muslim villagers in 1982, has been peppered with angry political quarrels between the Kurdish judge and defense lawyers or their clients. The gist is generally the same: The defense makes snide cracks about Americans running the court; Judge Raouf Rasheed Abdel Rahman snaps angrily that he is presiding over an Iraqi court.
“We thank America for the transparency,” a sneering Barzan Hassan, Hussein’s half brother, codefendant and former intelligence chief, said to the judge in a typical courtroom exchange. “This is an American court.... If it weren’t for the Americans, you would have no credibility.”
Khalil has been particularly adept at dragging U.S. policy into the courtroom. She infuriated the judge early on by showing photographs of abuse victims in the Abu Ghraib prison. The last time she was in court, the judge called her a “gangster” and ordered her dragged from the room, slapping and swearing.
“I wanted to make a comparison between the democracy of America and the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein,” she said in an interview later that week. “Compare all the things done by Saddam Hussein to defend his regime to all the measures taken by America after Sept. 11. America has done much more than what he has done.”
The trial has weighed Hussein as a historical figure, a man who can make a claim unique among Arab rulers: He squared off militarily against Iran and the United States. Throughout the proceedings, he has repeatedly stood up to make speeches, chide the judge and say that he is the president of Iraq.
To Khalil, Hussein is a figure of martyrdom. Although she acknowledges that he was “hard” on those who opposed his reign, she also compares him to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and describes him as a man willing to follow his political vision all the way into death.
Nor does she accept the conventional view that it’s unusual for a Shiite to defend a Sunni leader famous for persecuting Shiites.
“Saddam Hussein stood in the face of American occupation, so if Imam Ali were present, on which side would he stand?” she asked, invoking the cousin of the prophet Muhammad and a central figure in Shiite Islam. “America or Saddam Hussein? Definitely, Saddam Hussein. So because I am Shia, I stand with Saddam Hussein.”
She believes the verdict has already been decided, and that Hussein will be put to death. She doesn’t think it matters, though. She’s working for public opinion, and for history. And she says Hussein, too, is preoccupied with his legacy.
When prosecutors last month asked the judge to put Hussein to death, the former president broke into a grin and chuckled quietly. “Well done,” he said.
Saif Rasheed in The Times’ Baghdad Bureau contributed to this report.