By Doug Struck

Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 7, 2005; A01

 

BAGHDAD, Dec. 6 — According to Saddam Hussein, the would-be assassins who ambushed his car near an Iraqi village in 1982 were working for Iran, his trial for destroying that village afterward is just an excuse for Americans to stay in Iraq, and the Iraqi judge and prosecutors are underlings preoccupied with unimportant matters.

“Do you think Saddam Hussein has no work? I have no time,” the former dictator scoffed during the fourth day of his trial Tuesday, implying that the killing of more than 140 villagers, and the torture and imprisonment of hundreds more, was a trivial matter and that he had larger issues to worry about.

By his comments and demeanor during his trial, which is being conducted in Arabic, Hussein has made clear that he sees the proceedings through a potentate’s prism. His current predicament, he suggests, is another plot by the foes he faced as president of Iraq and his place in the defendants’ dock is a temporary setback.

“America wants to execute Saddam Hussein. It is not the first time,” he said, referring to himself regally in the third person.

The performance has heartened his followers. In Tikrit, the hub of Hussein’s home region, a large crowd of demonstrators chanted their loyalty on Tuesday. Several marchers said they were emboldened by his courtroom bravado in defiance of a possible death sentence.

The proceedings Tuesday painted a sordid picture of authorities exacting brutal punishment on the village of Dujail, 35 miles north of Baghdad, after shots were fired at Hussein’s motorcade there 23 years ago. Five witnesses told of relatives being killed and of horrific imprisonment and sadistic torture visited on the villagers after the incident.

But as he has listened, Hussein has not conceded an inch. Far from acting as a deflated tough stripped of power, he has exuded the haughtiness of a man who says — and appears to believe — that he is still the president of Iraq.

“I didn’t say ‘former.’ I said I am the president of the Republic of Iraq,” he admonished the judge on the first day of the trial, Oct. 19. “If you are an Iraqi, then you know.” The trial was then adjourned for more than a month, resuming last week.

On Tuesday, as he started a disjointed cross-examination of a witness, Hussein lectured the courtroom lawyers on procedure as though he were still the country’s leader. “Pay attention, young men,” he said.

And he appears to revel in that role. Most of the co-defendants stand to respect him when he enters. His half brother and former secret police chief, Barzan Ibrahim, kisses his head in respect.

In his lectures and outbursts, Hussein has wrapped himself in the cloak of a noble, pan-Arab leader still bearing the burdens of power.

“Even if I were thrown into the inferno . . . I would not show a sign of pain, all for your sake,” he said expansively to the judge Tuesday.

The subject of the immediate charges against him is in essence the extermination of a village. Yet Hussein acts as though he can barely remember the events and would be appalled to have sullied his hands with them.

“Is it my job to investigate Iraqis?” he asked.

He has treated court officials with contempt, sometimes tempered with forced magnanimity. The court, he charged Tuesday, is “a stooge of the occupation.”

“I’m your president. I’m your leader for more than 30 years,” he told Rizgar Mohammed Amin, the chief judge, who has the authority to sentence him to death. “I never saw you before this court. If I saw you on the street, I wouldn’t know you.”

Ibrahim has joined the strategy. On Tuesday, he addressed the chief prosecutor, Jaafar Mousawi, as “comrade.” When the black-robed Mousawi objected, Ibrahim gleefully reminded him that they were in Hussein’s Baath Party together.

“Is it shameful to be called comrade? You are my comrade. You were with me in the party.”

Rather than paying for a crime, Hussein implies that he might be hanged at the altar of the global power game that preoccupied him for years. The United States and his other longtime nemesis, Iran, might have finally gotten him, he suggests.

Hussein pointed out that the assassination attempt near Dujail was carried out by members of the Dawa party, a Shiite religious organization, as if that made it obvious that a much more powerful force was at work than village peasants.

“Iran ordered them to assassinate Saddam Hussein. That’s why they did it,” he said. And while not quite confessing to the executions that followed, Hussein on Monday sounded perplexed that anyone would bother to investigate the event.

“Isn’t it Saddam Hussein’s right as a president, or the right of any president of Hungary or other country, to follow those aggressors who shot at him?”

The bigger opponent, Hussein has said repeatedly during the trial, is the United States. He said Tuesday that the United States’ professed reasons for invading Iraq were false and that “to stay in Iraq a long time, they have the task of a trial.”

“Do the American people know what kind of crime their nation committed against humanity?” he wondered aloud.

Then he said, with regal resignation: “I will not complain. I will do that for Iraqis’ sake, and the nation, because I am full of faith.” He added, “The biggest concern of mine is my people and my nation.”

Sometimes, though, he loses his presidential composure. On Tuesday, he observed courtroom decorum for the most part, addressing the judge with a modicum of respect. But after a 10-hour session, the judge’s announcement that the trial would resume Wednesday was too much for Hussein.

Proclaiming himself “exhausted,” he declared his temporary prison quarters in Baghdad to be unacceptable. “I stayed in the same shirt, I have no underwear, there is no space,” he complained.

When the judge stuck to the schedule, Hussein vowed, “I will not be in a court without justice.” And as the chief judge left the court, Hussein yelled, “Go to hell, you and all the agents of America.”

Special correspondents Salih Saif Aldin in Tikrit and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad contributed to this report.

 

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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Doug Struck has been a journalist for 35 years. He was a national roving reporter, foreign bureau chief, war correspondent and an environmental reporter for The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun. He has reported from six continents and 50 states. He is now senior journalist in residence at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches and continues to report on environmental issues.

He earned a master's degree in Environmental Sustainability in 2015 from Harvard Extension School.

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