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As Iraqis watch, Hussein declares his innocence

The dictator's trial finally gets under way, complete with testy exchanges and a scuffle with guards.

By wire services
Published October 20, 2005

BAGHDAD - From the very start of the trial, from the moment Saddam Hussein refused to tell the judge his name, Hiba Raad said she knew she was watching the same man who had ruled over Iraq for decades with muscular authority.

"He's a hero, he's a tough leader," Raad, 20, a student of education at Mustansiriya University, said as she reclined on a sofa in her living room. "If he came back, I'm sure he'd provide us with security."

Across the country, Iraqis watched as Hussein quarreled with judges and scuffled with guards at the opening of his trial Wednesday, rejecting the tribunal's right to judge him and insisting he is still the president of Iraq.

Sitting inside a white pen with metal bars, Hussein appeared gaunt and frail and his salt-and-pepper beard was unkempt as he pleaded innocent to charges of murder, torture, forced expulsions and illegal detentions.

If convicted, the 68-year-old Hussein and seven of his regime's henchmen who appeared with him in the hearing could face the death penalty for their role in the 1982 killing of nearly 150 people from the mainly Shiite town of Dujail north of Baghdad after a failed attempt on Hussein's life.

"Since the fall of the regime, we have been waiting for this trial," said Aqeel al-Ubaidi, a resident of Dujail (duh-ZHAY-L). "The trial won't bring back those who died, but at least it will help put out the fire and anger inside us."

Wednesday's session was testy from the start, when the judge asked Hussein to take the stand first.

As the courtroom fell silent, Hussein got up from his chair and took the podium, holding a copy of the Koran. He refused to state his name for the record and turned the question back on the presiding judge, Rizgar Mohammed Amin, a Kurd whose identity was revealed only on the day of the trial.

"Who are you? I want to know who you are," Hussein demanded.

"I do not respond to this so-called court, with all due respect to its people, and I retain my constitutional right as the president of Iraq," he said, brushing off Amin's attempts to interrupt him. "Neither do I recognize the body that has designated and authorized you, nor the aggression because all that has been built on false basis is false."

After repeatedly refusing to give his name, Hussein finally sat. Amin read his name for him, calling him the "former president of Iraq."

"I said I'm the president of Iraq," Hussein snapped back. "I did not say deposed."

The three-hour session ended with Amin announcing an adjournment until Nov. 28.

Reaction to Hussein's trial varied in Iraq, where his loyalists, together with hard-core members of his Baath party and feared security services are an important faction of a Sunni-led insurgency wracking Iraq for the past 21/2 years.

In Baghdad, Shiite construction worker Salman Zaboun Shanan sat with his family at home in the Shiite neighborhood of Kazimiyah, having taken the day off from work to watch the trial.

When Hussein appeared on television, his wife spat in disgust.

"I hope he is executed, and that anyone who suffered can take a piece of his flesh," said Shanan, who was jailed during Hussein's rule, as was his wife and several of their sons.

Elsewhere . . .

U.S. SOLDIERS WANTED: MADRID - A judge issued an international arrest warrant for three U.S. soldiers whose tank fired on a Baghdad hotel, killing a Spanish journalist and a Ukrainian cameraman, a court official said Wednesday.

Information from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.

[Last modified October 20, 2005, 01:20:19]

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