Iraqis got their first glimpse of Saddam Hussein since his December capture, when the disheveled strong man was shown being prodded with a tongue depressor by an American doctor.
This time the images of the deposed Arab dictator broadcast worldwide showed an accused war criminal, a thinner, sometimes defiant man in a charcoal suitcoat. Still, this was a new portrait for Iraqis. Here was a mere man, at times confused, being told by an Iraqi judge to curb his tongue – a far cry from the commanding and omnipresent visage seen for 24 years in Soviet-style murals and propaganda videos. Gone was the forceful and paternalistic leader once portrayed as browbeating his ministers or wading through ecstatic crowds of well-wishers.
For many Iraqis, who stopped everything to gather around TV sets, this was also a moment to savor and digest the changes that have swept the nation in the past 15 months.
At 3 p.m. local time, Hussein was brought before an Iraqi court convened at Camp Victory, a US military base that was once a lavish Hussein family estate. A long list of charges was read: Murder of religious figures and political opponents, the use of nerve gas on civilians in 1988, and the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Eleven of his closest associates came before the court to have similar charges read against them later in the day.
“I am Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq,” said the former dictator, who looked calm in the video and went on to challenge the legitimacy of the proceedings. “This is all theater. The real criminal is Bush.”
Reporters at the court said that he appeared hesitant and confused when the session began, but that he gained in confidence and composure as it went on. In the video, he pointed and gestured freely when making his points, occasionally stroking his beard in thought, before lecturing the much younger judge on points of law about his rights.
Though a video was later distributed of his hearing, most of the audio track was initially deleted and the images carefully screened by US military sensors to protect the identities of some of those present. Small portions of the audio were cleared by sensors as the day wore on, including Hussein’s complaints that no lawyers were present.