BAGHDAD (Reuters)–Downcast but defiant–Iraq’s former dictator Saddam Hussein has appeared before an Iraqi judge–questioning his authority and saying the "real criminal" was US President George W. Bush.
Hussein–led to the US-guarded courtroom in handcuffs and chains–was read seven charges on Thursday that may lead to formal indictment for war crimes–crimes against humanity and genocide.
"I am Saddam Hussein–president of Iraq," he repeated–before grilling the unnamed young judge about his authority.
Video footage of the 67-year-old Hussein–his face worn and deeply lined with heavy bags under the eyes–was broadcast around the world soon after his 30-minute court appearance.
He was wearing a dark grey pinstriped jacket and a white formal shirt–and had a trimmed–mostly grey beard. It was the first public view of Hussein since he appeared wildly unkempt in photographs and videotape shot after his capture in December.
Hussein refused to recognize that he was guilty of a crime in invading Kuwait in 1990–jabbing his finger towards the judge and saying: "I’m surprised you’re charging me with that as an Iraqi when everyone knows that Kuwait is part of Iraq."
The judge told him these were legal procedures–but Saddam interrupted him: "Law–what law?" he asked.
"You are putting Saddam on trial when the Kuwaitis said they could buy Iraqi women for 10 dinars on the street. The Iraqi soldiers went to defend the honor of Iraq–so what right do these dogs have?" he said–drawing a reprimand from the judge.
"This is all a theater," Hussein said with a half-smile. "The real criminal is Bush."
The White House–said Hussein–would face the justice he denied his people and brushed aside his assertion about Bush.
Hussein arrived in a US helicopter at a military base and was then driven in an armored bus to the makeshift courtroom in one of his former palaces near Baghdad international airport.
The arraignment was the first step towards a trial which could help Iraq come to terms with 35 years of Baath party brutality–though it may not start for many months.
Apart from the 1990 invasion of Kuwait–the preliminary charges against Hussein referred to the suppression of Kurdish and Shi’ite revolts after the 1991 Gulf War–poison gas attacks and other massacres of Kurds–the killing of religious leaders in 1974 and the killing of political figures over three decades.
Hearing the charge that he ordered the gassing of thousands of Kurds in an attack at Halabja in 1988–Hussein shrugged it off–saying he had heard of the incident through the media.
Without a lawyer to represent him–Hussein refused to sign a statement acknowledging he had been charged and read his rights.
One foreign lawyer hired by his wife to represent him said the absence of a defense attorney breached Hussein’s rights.