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Iraq: Start Of Hussein's Trial Reignites Debate Over Former Leader's Fate

Hussein in court on 19 October (AFP) The trial of Saddam Hussein was adjourned yesterday just a few hours after it began, in order to give defense lawyers 40 more days to prepare their case. But viewers worldwide saw enough of the proceedings on television to form initial opinions about how fair a trial the former Iraqi president is likely to receive. RFE/RL correspondents Charles Recknagel and Sultan Sarwar look at some of the reaction in Iraq and the Middle East.

Prague, 20 October 2005 (RFE/RL) – Saddam Hussein's trial made little progress on its first day, beyond showing his defiance before the court.

But the half-day of proceedings, portions of which were broadcast, were enough to reignite passionate debate in Iraq over the former leader's fate.

"Thank God, we all feel happiness about this fair trial. He deserves the maximum punishment," one resident of the northern city of Irbil told Radio Free Iraq today.

Hussein and seven co-defendants, all top officials from the former Ba'ath regime, are on trial in connection with the executions of 143 men and boys from the village of Al-Dujayl following a failed assassination attempt against Hussein in 1982.

But other Iraqis feel Hussein will not get a fair trial. One Baghdad taxi driver told Radio Free Iraq that he believes the proceedings are politically motivated.

"Saddam's trial is a [playing] card," he said. "Occupation forces will use it to get their plans installed. Why did they come to Iraq? Why did they enter Iraq? To oust [Hussein] because he is dictator? Let them execute him and leave the country."

In Iraq, the greatest hatred for Hussein is often voiced by members of the Kurdish and Shi'ite communities. Hussein's forces launched brutal crackdowns on the Kurds in the 1980s and against the Shi'a in 1991. Thousands of people were killed.

But Hussein's rule, which was based in the Sunni Arab community, brought relative prosperity to its loyalists. Today, many in Sunni central Iraq -- where insurgents are most active -- view the U.S.-occupation and current Shi'a-dominated government as greater threats to their well-being than was Hussein.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, interest in Saddam Hussein's trial runs high.

Nabil Abdel Fattah, deputy director of the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said the Egyptian public has mixed feelings.

"If we talk about the Islamic trend like [the Muslim Brotherhood], they think that the trial lacks guarantees for independence [of the judges] and for [the rights of the] defense. They view the trial as part of the occupation operation which led to collapse of the ex-Ba'ath regime in Iraq. But the liberal trend thinks that the trial is a very important point because this is the first time that a regime as a whole and its leaders and an ex-dictator are going on trial -- the first time in the history of the region," Fattah said.

Many world leaders have said they consider a fair trial for Hussein to be essential if Iraq is to come to terms with the divisions produced by his decades of harsh rule.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan yesterday called on Iraq's judicial system to meet international standards for justice during Hussein's trial.

Annan also told reporters that "questions would be raised" if the trial does not meet such standards.

During yesterday's trial, Hussein and the other defendants pleaded not guilty to all charges. Hussein also insisted that he is still president of Iraq and refused to recognize the court's authority to try him.

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