BAGHDAD, Iraq — Saddam Hussein scoffed at charges of war crimes and mass killings Thursday, making a defiant first public appearance since being hunted down seven months ago. The deposed dictator fixed the judge with a penetrating stare and declared: “This is all a theater by Bush, the criminal.”
Dressed in a charcoal-colored suit jacket, Saddam — whose day in court was shown on TV in the Arab world and beyond — looked thinner and better groomed than on Dec. 13, the day U.S. troops pulled him from a hole near Tikrit.
Unaccompanied by a lawyer, he was presented with seven preliminary charges that included gassing thousands of Kurds in 1988, the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the suppression of 1991 revolts by Kurds and Shiites, the murders of religious and political leaders and the mass displacement of Kurds in the 1980s.
Saddam was handcuffed when brought from a secret location to Camp Victory, one of his former palaces on Baghdad’s western outskirts. After he arrived in an armored bus, the shackles were removed for the 26-minute hearing.
“I am Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq,” he said unprompted, sitting in a chair facing the judge across a wooden railing. When asked his name, he repeated it in full: “Saddam Hussein al-Majid, president of Iraq.”
At times, Saddam, rather than the judge, seemed in command of the hearing, firmly signaling that he be allowed to speak. He occasionally lectured the young magistrate, making his points with emphatic hand gestures.
He insisted he be referred to as “president of the Republic of Iraq” and asked who the judge was and under what authority he was holding the hearing.
The judge, who officials have refused to identify for security reasons, said he represented the Iraqi people and acted under coalition authority.
“So you are an Iraqi representing the coalition forces?” Saddam asked.
“No,” the judge replied. “I am an Iraqi representing the Iraqi judicial system.”
Speaking in strong tones, as if he was still commander in chief, the 67-year-old Saddam offered a bit of advice.
“The judicial system in Iraq always represents the will of the people,” he said. “You should not work according to the law of the occupying forces; these are invading forces.”
As the former dictator spoke, he stroked a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard and a dark mustache, sometimes brushing his fingers across his bushy black eyebrows. At one point, he took a pen out of his coat and made notes on a piece of yellow paper.
He tried to interrupt several times, only to be cut off by the judge.
He brushed off the charges, suggesting he had immunity as Iraq’s president. And he refused to sign a statement listing the accusations.
“Please allow me not to sign until the lawyers are present. ... Anyhow, when you take a procedure to bring me here again, present me with all these papers with the presence of lawyers. Why would you behave in a manner that we might call hasty later on?” he said.
Saddam, whose mood swung during the hearing from nervousness and exasperation to contempt and defiance, even anger, appeared most agitated when Kuwait was mentioned.
“The armed forces went to Kuwait. Is it possible to raise accusations against an official figure and this figure be treated apart from the official guarantees stipulated by the constitution and the law? Where is this law upon which you are conducting investigations?
“How could Saddam be tried over Kuwait, that said it will reduce Iraqi women to 10-dinar prostitutes?” Saddam asked, referring to himself in the third person. “He defended Iraq’s honor and revived its historical rights over those dogs.” The dinar is Iraq’s unit of currency. Moreover, calling someone a dog is a severe insult in the Muslim world, where the animals are considered unclean. At that point, the judge admonished Saddam and said he would not tolerate such language.
“I take full responsibility for my words,” Saddam retorted.
Afterward, 11 other defendants appeared one by one to hear the charges against them. Most appeared to be tired, broken men, shadows of their former roles as masters of Iraq.
Best-known among the 11 are former Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, long Saddam’s spokesman in the West; Ali Hasan al-Majid, known as “Chemical Ali;” and former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan.
Aziz denied personal involvement in any of the regime’s crimes, saying, “I never killed anybody by any direct act.”
Saddam’s appearance, however, overshadowed the rest of the day’s proceedings and gave Iraqis their first look at him since a humiliating video showing the rumpled, tired ex-dictator submitting to a medical exam by his American captors.
Crowds of Iraqis gathered around television sets in cafes, hotel lobbies and in their homes to watch the man who dominated their lives for a generation.
In the United States, President Bush watched a televised replay of the hearing, said White House spokesman Scott McClellan, who brushed off reporters’ questions about Saddam’s remarks on Bush.
“I’m sure Saddam Hussein will continue to say all sorts of things,” McClellan said. “What’s important is that Saddam Hussein and his regime leaders are going to face justice from the Iraqi people before an Iraqi court.”
In parts of Iraq that were oppressed under Saddam, there was a sense of satisfaction at the arraignment.
“He should be placed in a metal cage and taken on tour of all the Iraqi cities so that the millions who have been starved, robbed, beaten, deprived and tortured by his regime can see the man responsible for their suffering,” said Asaad Aziz, an engineer in the mostly Shiite city of Basra.
U.S. and Iraqi officials hope Saddam’s trial — which will not take place until 2005 at least — will lay bare the atrocities of Saddam’s regime and help the country recover from years of tyranny, the U.S.-led invasion and the insurgency that blossomed in its aftermath.
However, the turmoil of the past 14 months has led to some longing for the stability and order of the ousted dictatorship.
“At least Saddam provided us with security. We have seen nothing good from the Americans,” said Odai Faleh, a worker in Ramadi, a mainly Sunni city.
For his hearing, Saddam was flown by helicopter from an undisclosed location and driven to a courtroom on a U.S. base. He was led from an armored bus escorted by two Iraqi guards and ushered through a door guarded by six more Iraqi police. The bus was accompanied by four Humvees and an ambulance.
Saddam arrived in a blue jumpsuit — the prison uniform given to regime detainees Wednesday, when their legal custody was handed over to Iraqi authorities by the U.S. military. The former president changed into off-the-rack civilian clothes provided by authorities in an adjacent room.
Asked if he could afford a lawyer, Saddam replied with a laugh: “The Americans say I have millions hidden in Switzerland. How can I not have the money to pay for one?”
At the end of the hearing, Saddam got up to leave. One of the uniformed Iraqi guards rushed to help him up. “Take it easy — I’m an old man,” Saddam told him.