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By HAMZA HENDAWI
Associated Press Writer
BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- A defiant Saddam Hussein pleaded innocent to charges of murder and torture as his long-awaited trial began Wednesday with the one-time dictator arguing about the legitimacy of the court and scuffling with guards.
The first session of the trial lasted about three hours, and the judge ordered an adjournment until Nov. 28.
Saddam and his seven co-defendants could face the death penalty if convicted for the 1982 massacre of nearly 150 Shiites in the town of Dujail. They are being tried in the former headquarters of Saddam's Baath Party.
After presiding judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin, a Kurd, read the defendants their rights and the charges against them -- which also include forced expulsions and illegal imprisonment -- he asked each for their plea. He started with the 68-year-old ousted dictator, saying "Mr. Saddam, go ahead. Are you guilty or innocent?"
Saddam -- holding a copy of the Quran he brought with him into the session and held throughout -- replied quietly, "I said what I said. I am not guilty," referring to his arguments earlier in the session.
Amin read out the plea, "Innocent."
The confrontation then became physical. When a break was called, Saddam stood, smiling, and asked to step out of the room. When two guards tried to grab his arms to escort him out, he angrily shook them off.
They tried to grab him again, and Saddam struggled to free himself. Saddam and the guards shoved each other and yelled for about a minute.
It ended with Saddam getting his way, and he was allowed to walk independently, with the two guards behind him, out of the room for the break.
Many Iraqis and others across the Middle East were glued to their television sets to watch the first-ever criminal trial of an Arab leader.
The proceedings were aired with about a 20-minute delay on state-run Iraqi television and on satellite stations across Iraq and the Arab world. But technical quality was poor, with the sound cutting out frequently and the picture going blank several times.
The panel of five judges will both hear the case and render a verdict in what could be the first of several trials of Saddam for atrocities during his 23-year-rule.
The identities of the judges have been a tightly held secret to ensure their safety, though Amin's name was revealed just before the trial began. The courtroom camera repeatedly focused on him, without showing the others.
Earlier, at the opening of the trial, the ousted Iraqi leader -- looking thin with a salt-and-pepper beard in a dark gray suit and open-collared white shirt -- stood and asked the presiding judge: "Who are you? I want to know who you are."
"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 the judge'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."
He wrote notes on a yellow pad throughout the hearing.
Amin, a Kurd, tried to get Saddam to formally identify himself but Saddam refused and finally sat. Amin read his name for him, calling him the "former president of Iraq," bringing a protest from Saddam, who insisted he was still in the post.
Later, Amin read the defendants their rights and then read the charges, which are the same for all, and told them they face possible execution if convicted. The chief prosecutor, Jaafar al-Mousawi, then began outlining the case against the men.
Near the end of the session, Saddam's lawyer, Khalil al-Dulaimi, asked for the names of the witnesses who will testify for the prosecution -- names that have been kept strictly secret to prevent reprisals against them. Amid said al-Dulaimi could ask the prosecutors for the names but did not say if he would order them handed over.
Al-Dulaimi then asked for an adjournment of between 45 and 90 days. The judge set Nov. 28 for the trial to resume.
The defendants sat in three rows of black chairs, with Saddam in the first row, partitioned behind what resembled a white metal cage, in the center of the court directly in front of the judges' bench.
Starting the session, Amin called the defendants into the room one by one. Saddam was the last to enter, escorted by two Iraqi guards in bulletproof vests guiding him by the elbow. He glanced at journalists watching through bulletproof glass from an adjoining room. He motioned for his escorts to slow down a little.
After sitting, he greeted his co-defendants, saying, "Peace be upon you," sitting next to co-defendant Awad Hamed al-Bandar, former head of Iraq's Revolutionary Court.
The other defendants include Saddam's former intelligence chief Barazan Ibrahim, former vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan and other lower-level Baathist civil servants. Most were wearing traditional Arab robes and complained they were not allowed to have headdresses, so court officials brought out red headdresses for them. Many Sunni Arabs consider it shameful to appear in public without the checkered scarf, tied by a cord around the forehead.
Ramadan also refused to identify himself to the judge.
"I repeat what President Saddam Hussein has said," he added.
The other defendants stood one by one and stated their names.
The trial is taking place in the marble building that once served as the National Command Headquarters of Saddam's feared Baath Party. The building in Baghdad's Green Zone -- the heavily fortified district where Iraq's government, parliament and the U.S. Embassy are located -- was ringed with 10-foot blast walls and U.S. and Iraqi troops, with several Humvees and at least one tank deployed outside. U.S. soldiers led bomb-detecting dogs around the grounds.
Many Iraqis gathered around TV sets to watch the proceedings.
"Since the fall of the regime, we have been waiting for this trial," said Aqeel al-Ubaidi, a Dujail resident. "The trial won't bring back those who died, but at least it will help put out the fire and anger inside us."
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 Saddam appeared on television, he and his wife spit.
"I hope he is executed, and that anyone who suffered can take a piece of his flesh," said Shanan, who was imprisoned during Saddam's rule, as was his wife, Sabiha Hassan, and several of their sons.
But across the Tigris River in the mainly Sunni Arab district of Azamiyah, some were embittered by the trial of Saddam, whose regime was dominated by Sunni Arabs who have now lost their power.
"Saddam is the lesser of evils," said engineer Sahab Awad Maaruf, comparing Saddam to the current Shiite-Kurdish led government. "He's the only legitimate leader for Iraqis."
In particular, the Shiite Muslim majority and the Kurdish minority -- the two communities most oppressed by Saddam's regime -- have eagerly awaited the chance to see the man who ruled Iraq with unquestioned and total power held to justice.
"I'm very happy today. We've prayed for this day for years," said Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, an anti-Saddam opposition leader in exile for years and now one of the fiercest proponents of the purge of Baathists from the new government.
The night before the trial -- in an apparent jab at the former dictator -- a bomb went off in a Baghdad square at a statue of Abu Jaafar al-Mansour, the 8th-century caliph who built Baghdad and to whom Saddam frequently compared himself. The blast toppled the bust off its marble pedestal, but no one was hurt.
The world will be watching Saddam's trial to see whether Iraq's new Shiite and Kurdish leaders can rise above politics and prejudice and give the former dictator a fair hearing. Human rights group have criticized the government for trying to influence the trial, adding that considerable U.S. logistical and financial aid to the tribunal could lend credibility to charges it will mete out "victors' justice."
The court also is operating under its own rules -- laid out when the court was created in 2003 while Iraq was still run by American administrators -- and a 1971 Saddam-era criminal law that some have criticized as not up to international standards.
That law says the judges can issue a guilty verdict if they are "satisfied" by the evidence -- seen as lower standard of proof than "convinced beyond a reasonable doubt."
Saddam was ousted after U.S.-led forces swept into Iraq in March 2003 and marched in to Baghdad. He fled the capital and was on the run for nearly eight months until American forces found in him hiding in a cellar in a rural area outside his hometown of Tikrit north of Baghdad on Dec. 13, 2003.
He has been held since in a U.S. detention facility at Baghdad International Airport.
Prosecutors are preparing other cases to bring to trial against Saddam and his officials -- including for the Anfal Operation, a military crackdown on the Kurds in the late 1980s that killed some 180,000 people; the suppression of Kurdish and Shiite revolts in 1991; and the deaths of 5,000 Kurds in a 1988 poison gas attack on the village of Halabja.
If a death sentence is issued in the Dujail case, it is unclear whether it would be carried out regardless of whether Saddam is involved in other trials. He can appeal a Dujail verdict, but if a conviction and sentence are upheld, the sentence must be carried out within 30 days. A stay could be granted to allow other trials to proceed.
Associated Press reporters Mariam Fam, Omar Sinan, Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Sameer N. Yacoub and Thomas Wagner contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)