Prague, 1 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Saddam Hussein, the former absolute ruler of Iraq, came to an Iraqi court today with his wrists manacled and under the close guard of Iraqi prison officers.
Correspondents on the scene report that the handcuffs were removed only at the courtroom door. Then Hussein -- who now wears a beard rather than only his trademark mustache -- was brought before an Iraqi judge to hear the charges against him.
"This is great news. This is a trial for the regime which committed the most brutal crimes in the history and in the world, crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide."
The magistrate charged Hussein with orchestrating the killing of tens of thousands of his own citizens and for invading Kuwait. Many of the crimes concern Hussein's crackdowns on rebellious Iraqi Kurds and Iraqi Shi'a in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Those crackdowns filled mass graves in the north and south of the country that are still being excavated.
CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour, one of a group of Western journalists present in the courtroom, described the former absolute ruler as a "shadow of his former self" and in a weakened physical state after six months in prison. But she said Hussein was combative as some of the charges were read out.
"Saddam Hussein was alternately downcast and combative. Occasionally, in a hoarse voice -- his voice is hoarse -- he jabbed his finger at the judge, he asked whose jurisdiction this was. He kept claiming to still be the president of Iraq," Amanpour said.
He defended his regime's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, saying the emirate is a rightful part of Iraq. He also referred to the Kuwaitis as "dogs."
Hussein also refused to sign legal documents presented to him at the hearing and dismissed the proceedings as "theater." He said the real criminal the court should charge with war crimes is U.S. President George W. Bush.
Hussein's appearance in court was the first time he has been seen in public since his capture by U.S. forces on 13 December. The arraignment was conducted at a Baghdad-area presidential palace, which is now part of a sprawling U.S. military camp north of Baghdad.
Eleven of the top members of Hussein's former regime are also to be arraigned today.
The 11 include Hussein's cousin Ali Hasan al-Majid, known as "Chemical Ali" for allegedly ordering gas attacks on Iraqi Kurds in 1988. The defendants also include top aide Tariq Aziz, who was long Hussein's chief diplomat in showdowns with the United Nations over Iraq's banned weapons of mass destruction programs.
No trial dates for any of the 12 defendants have been set. All of the men were transferred to official Iraqi custody yesterday but are to remain in physical custody of U.S. forces at a secure facility whose location has not been identified by Washington.
Reaction in Iraq has been mixed since the government announced yesterday that it was taking official custody of the former leader.
Many ordinary Iraqis welcome putting Hussein on trial but would just as soon see him executed immediately. One Baghdad resident, Hamid Lafta, told Reuters yesterday, “I would prefer for him to get an Iraqi trial, because Saddam Hussein destroyed people, about five million of them, and most of them without trial. So why are you paying so much attention to him? Execute him and that way you will get rid of him. You care so much about his trial, but he destroyed the world."
But some other people view Hussein as a victim of the United States. One resident, Ali, told our correspondent in Baghdad that his family wasn't mistreated during the former regime and that Hussein should be forgiven in the interest of national reconciliation.
"Yes, we can forgive [Hussein]. The man did nothing to the Iraqis. We can give him a new start and forgive him. We don't have anything against him," Ali said.
Speaking to journalists ahead of the arraignment proceedings, Deputy Foreign Minister Hamid al-Bayati hailed the start of the case against Hussein and his aides as a crucial step forward for Iraq.
"This is great news. This is a trial for the regime which committed the most brutal crimes in the history and in the world, crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide," al-Bayati said.
Al-Bayati also said he believed the Iraqi people will be satisfied with "no less" than the death penalty for the former leader.
Hussein and most or all of his captured aides are widely believed to have been held previously at the U.S. regional air base in Qatar. Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said earlier this week that the new Iraqi government would imprison Hussein in its own jail but said later that -- at Iraq's request -- the U.S. would continue to hold him.
The U.S. daily newspaper "The Washington Post" reported today that "the 12 men will remain in U.S.-run detention facilities in Iraq because the interim government does not yet operate any high-security jails."