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With his fellow defendants seated nearby, Saddam Hussein addressed the court under tight security in Baghdad’s Green Zone yesterday.
With his fellow defendants seated nearby, Saddam Hussein addressed the court under tight security in Baghdad’s Green Zone yesterday. (Ben Curtis/ Pool)

Flashes of old Hussein set off ripples

Some experience surge of nostalgia

BAGHDAD -- Saddam Hussein displayed glowering rage, easy confidence, and Islamic fervor in court yesterday, helping explain why the deposed dictator's cult of personality has started to make a comeback, even as he stands trial for mass murder.

Iraq's majority, the two-thirds of the population who are Kurds or Shi'ite Arabs, still loathe Hussein. Shi'ites marched on downtown Baghdad on Saturday morning calling for his immediate execution, and the country's most powerful politician, Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq leader Abdelaziz al-Hakim, criticized the court as ''weak" for taking so long to get to the substance of the first of 12 cases against Hussein for crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide.

But pro-Hussein demonstrators from his Sunni minority rallied in the streets of his hometown yesterday. And in Baghdad, people once wary of the dictator's brutality have joined a modest wave of Hussein nostalgia.

With the television cameras rolling, Hussein yesterday fashioned himself as an Islamic warrior and Iraqi patriot, dismissing the Iraqi High Tribunal that is trying him as a ''small boat rocking in the waves" of the American occupation and challenging the presiding judge with a Koran verse.

For the first time in Hussein's trial on charges of crimes against humanity, the court heard evidence from a witness linking Hussein to the arrests and subsequent killings in Dujail in July 1982. Prosecutors showed a video clip of a young mustachioed Hussein ordering lieutenants to take suspects away and interrogate them. After a session lasting less than three hours, the trial adjourned until Monday to allow the defense team to find replacements for two lawyers who have been slain in recent months.

When the television cameras in the courtroom were off, Hussein was still the hands-on micromanager who as president of Iraq eviscerated his government and military bureaucracies to keep sole control.

Discussing defense strategy with his chief lawyer, Hussein said he had stayed up all night to write legal memos to the chief judge -- which the judge said he had never received -- and launched a feisty broadside against the court.

But he also unleashed a charm offensive, laughing and joking with the same guards he had scuffled with 40 days ago on the opening day of the trial, and he quoted the Koran liberally.

''Did you think that you would enter Heaven without Allah testing those of you who fought hard in his cause and remained steadfast?" Hussein said in his first words to the judge, reciting a Koran passage from memory.

Later, in a more lighthearted moment after the session concluded and the judges left the courtroom, Hussein tried to give his lawyer a poem contrasting the honesty of Iraqis with the lying ways of foreigners, saying the ''mountains, wildernesses, and plains will be our witness," but a guard confiscated the paper.

That mix of imperiousness and theatrical flair has revived the dictator's image, which plummeted even among sympathizers when he was led out of an underground hole by American troops in December 2003, haggard, dirty, and meek.

The courtroom has provided Hussein with an internationally televised venue to rail against America and Iraq's interim government, and the chief judge has generally allowed Hussein to make political speeches.

Yesterday, he complained of rough handling by ''foreign guards" who he said bound his hands and made him walk up four flights of stairs to the courtroom. When the judge told Hussein he would speak to police, the former president lashed out.

''You are the chief judge. I don't want you to tell them. I want you to order them. They are in our country. You have the sovereignty. You are Iraqi, and they are foreigners and occupiers. They are invaders."

Such language endears Hussein to the constituency that actively or passively backs the insurgency in Iraq's Sunni Arab heartland -- places such as Hussein's birthplace, Awja, where yesterday protesters chanted ''Yes, yes to Saddam" in a demonstration broadcast on Iraqi television.

In recent days, Baghdad residents in the Sunni insurgent stronghold neighborhood of Aadhamiya spoke openly of their affection for Hussein -- which has grown, many of them said, over the last year as the elected, Shi'ite-dominated government has failed to curb crime, terrorism, and the insurgency.

''It is true that he would harm whoever messed him," said Hashim Ismail, a 50-year-old retired police sergeant who considers Hussein a devoted nationalist who could save Iraq from sectarian strife. ''It's the same now. The government kills whoever utters a single word against them."

The first phase of the trial involves the events in 1982 in Dujail, in which Hussein and seven other defendants, including his half brother Barzan Ibrahim and his former vice president, Taha Yassin Ramadan, are charged with killing more than 140 residents of the village as a collective punishment for a failed assassination attempt against Hussein.

The chief judge read the testimony of Wadah Ismael al-Sheikh, a former intelligence officer who investigated the Dujail incident. Sheikh, 54, died on Oct. 27, shortly after giving his videotaped testimony to a panel of judges. There were no defense lawyers present as Sheikh slumped forward in a wheelchair, with tubes coming out of his hospital gown, and discussed Barzan Ibrahim's orders to storm the town.

The evidence yesterday pointed to the great difficulty the prosecutors will face in linking Hussein personally to the crimes. Even in the Dujail case, one of the smaller and most straightforward of the crimes against humanity with which Hussein is charged, there are few witnesses who can testify directly about presidential orders.

Ali Dabagh, a Shi'ite member of the Transitional National Assembly, was one of the few politicians who skipped a budget debate to attend the trial in the bunker-like former world headquarters of the Ba'ath Party.

''The judge is giving too much leeway to Saddam. He should respect the Iraqis and the victims' feelings," Dabagh said. ''[Hussein] doesn't want to discuss the details, the mass graves, the crimes. They just want to bring attention that this is an occupied country and occupation court."

Among his fans, however, Hussein is still the rais, or president. He commands the most enduring support among Sunni Arabs who thrived the most under the old regime and who have seen their influence wane.

The Aadhamiya neighborhood was one of the last spots in Baghdad that Hussein openly visited before his regime fell in April 2003, where a throng cheered him even as American troops approached Baghdad. There, Hussein's popularity appears to have grown.

Sana'a Mohammed, a housewife in her 30s, only discovered her fondness for Hussein after 2003. One of her brothers died in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and she said she resented the leader for dragging Iraq into a seemingly endless series of wars.

She has changed her mind; she thinks Sunni Arabs like her now face persecution and violent retribution at the hands of Shi'ites. ''The other day they were playing nationalist songs on the radio and I started to cry," Mohammed said.

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