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"I am Saddam Hussein, president of the Republic of Iraq." So began the surreal public appearance of Saddam Hussein, his first since being dragged out of a spider hole by the "coalition forces" six months ago.
The proud, defiant Saddam who ruled Iraq with an iron hand for nearly 25 years was back with a vengeance.
Describing himself as always in the third person, he said Saddam "respected the will of the people that decided to choose Saddam Hussein as the leader of the revolution. Therefore, when I say president of the Republic of Iraq, it’s not a formality or a holding fast to a position, but rather to reiterate to the Iraqi people that I respect its will."
Reminiscent of the staged assassination followed by an immediate swearing in of Woody Allen as the new president of a mythical Latin American country in "Bananas," we were missing only Howard Cosell to narrate the charade.
According to the Los Angeles Times, "U.S. and Iraqi authorities took pains to make the court proceedings appear to be solely an Iraqi undertaking."
In spite of the Statute of the Iraqi Special Tribunal’s mandate of public hearings, no one save the two dozen or so people present in the courtroom were supposed to hear Saddam’s words. But an audiotape of the proceedings was smuggled out to the media and listeners throughout the world.
A team of U.S. military officers censored the media coverage of the proceeding. They destroyed the videotapes of Saddam in chains and deleted the legal record of the statements of the 11 senior members of Saddam’s regime who appeared at the same hearing.
One journalist present in the courtroom revealed: "We learned later that the judge didn't order us to turn off our sound. The Americans lied - it was they who wanted no sound. The judge wanted sound and pictures."
The 26-minute colloquy gave us a roadmap of how Saddam will defend himself. Showing utter contempt for the judge whom he identified as a tool of the occupiers, Saddam sneered: "So you are an Iraqi representing the coalition forces?" Indeed, the judge was appointed by Saddam’s successor, L. Paul Bremer.
Saddam added: "You know that this is all a theater by Bush the criminal, to help him win his election."
He was adamant that he had the right to invade Kuwait. Saddam declared that he "defended Iraq’s honor and revived its historical rights over those dogs," whom, he claimed, "said it will reduce Iraqi women to 10-dinar prostitutes."
The sight of Saddam standing up to his accusers played well throughout Iraq. Even many who had endured atrocities under Saddam’s regime saw him as the embodiment of their Arab land, shattered by bombs and occupied by Western infidels.
Yes, they suffered under Saddam. But Operation "Iraqi Freedom" has brought mostly misery to the people of Iraq. Tens of thousands of them have died in this illegal war. Almost 20 million of Iraq’s 26 million people have less available electricity than before the war began, according to the General Accounting Office. The Iraqi security forces are suffering from mass desertion. And the judicial system is more clogged than before the war; assassination attempts against judges are rampant.
The timing of Thursday’s court appearance corroborates Saddam’s assertion that the whole thing was theater. The ink was hardly dry on the "sovereignty" transfer papers when Saddam was rushed into a televised court appearance to create the illusion that Iraqis are running the show.
Truthfully, however, American fingerprints are all over these proceedings. Bremer was responsible for drafting The Statute of the Iraqi Special Tribunal before which Saddam appeared. This "neutral" tribunal is financed by the United States. The FBI is leading the investigation. Also on the team are the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Department of Justice. And although Iraqis have been given legal custody of Saddam, he remains in the physical custody of the Americans.
Emmanuel Ludot, one of 22 lawyers designated by Saddam’s wife to defend him, told the French newspaper Liberation: "All our effort will consist of paralyzing the operation of the Iraqi special tribunal, the legality of which we contest. This tribunal has no basis in law, since Iraq has no National Assembly today to create a special jurisdiction." He called the trial preparations "a masquerade of justice."
Ludot said: "The tribunal being put in place by the Americans is a disguised execution squad ... These judges are still under the shock of emotion and pain." Saddam, he warned, "will either be judged in fear or in vengeance."
"The first thing Saddam will say is that he is and remains the Iraqi President," according to Ludot. "Two countries, the United States and Great Britain, have invaded Iraq without a mandate and in violation of international law. Legally, that’s an aggression and everything that has happened since this invasion is tinged with irregularity."
Asked where Saddam should be tried if this court is not competent, Ludot answered: "Since the United States did not want the International Criminal Court, there is a complete legal vacuum."
But not one of Saddam’s 22 lawyers was with him in court Thursday. The tribunal’s statute provides for the right to counsel. The judge told Saddam: "I’m investigating, interrogating you." Saddam asked for his lawyer before he signed the document the judge instructed him to sign. But when Saddam refused, the judge signed it for him.
Ludot said: "Clearly, we are not welcome in Iraq. The new authorities would prefer Iraqi lawyers easy to intimidate and a quick trial." British attorney Tim Hughes said he and his colleagues were "kept in the dark" about the proceedings.
Another member of the legal defense team received threats from someone claiming to be from the Iraqi Justice Ministry. Anyone who tried to defend Saddam, the caller said, would be "chopped to pieces."
Many Iraqis sympathize with Saddam. "It’s a humiliation, not just for Iraqis but for all Arab peoples," Aamer Eliisa, a Shiite, told the Los Angeles Times. Eliisa said Saddam has become "a symbol for all Iraqis."
Saddam’s harsh words about Kuwait hit a chord with Iraqis. Akram Adil said: "He’s right. Kuwait is a part of Iraq. He was defending our national rights ... Kuwait was stealing oil from Iraq and trying to destroy our national economy."
Kuwaitis have earned a reputation for "arrogant, drunken, lecherous and vulgar behavior," according to the Los Angeles Times. And they have been implicated in the looting of the Iraqi National Museum that followed the march of the foreign forces into Baghdad last April.
Former president of Yugoslavia Slobodan Milosevic has defended himself against the same heinous charges Saddam will face. Like Milosevic, who was removed from his presidency by U.S.-led forces engaged in illegal regime change, Saddam will put America on trial.
This will be interesting in light of the support the United States furnished to Saddam in the 1980s, including the provision of chemical weapons. That support is embodied in the photograph of Donald Rumsfeld’s warm handshake with Saddam even with the knowledge that Saddam was gassing the Kurds
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