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For Iraqis on Both Sides, TV Brings the Trial Home

October 20, 2005|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Joined by the bonds of pain, two siblings sat before a television set Wednesday in search of justice for their relatives and punishment for Saddam Hussein.

"Look at this," Saadia Saidi, whose family of 13 has dwindled to two over the years because of executions and exile, said to her brother, Mohammed. "He was a dictator. He had everything. Now he's in a cage."

In Dujayl, the Shiite Muslim town at the center of the former Iraqi president's first trial, Jawad Kadhim spat on the television screen as he watched Hussein enter the courtroom. "He has the face of a dog," Kadhim said mockingly, as he watched the trial with friends and relatives.

In a Sunni Muslim district of the northern city of Mosul, a former Iraqi army officer also scoffed at the screen, but in support of the former president. "They want to show him in this humiliating and disgraceful light," Abdul-Rahman Ali, 37, said. "But I want to say that I am totally ready to replace Saddam and sit instead of him on that defendant's chair."

As the first session of the trial of Hussein and seven of his former deputies on charges of crimes against humanity was beamed out through dozens of Arabic television channels, it took on a life of its own.

Streets across the country emptied, and protesters headed to the homes and businesses of friends or relatives with electric generators to watch the proceedings. They surfed the kaleidoscopic array of channels for the best reception and commentary, jumping from Al Arabiya, based in the United Arab Emirates, to government-controlled Al Iraqiya to privately funded Al Sharqiya to Qatar-based Al Jazeera to U.S.-funded Al Hurra.

In some cases, they then took to the streets to demonstrate.

For those treated harshly during Hussein's long tenure, the television images fed fantasies of vengeance as well as hopes for justice. In Shiite cities such as Samawah, site of at least 28 mass graves containing remains of those believed to be victims of the former government, residents see the trial as the first step toward redressing decades of suffering.

"I've been looking forward to seeing the trial of the criminal," said Abdul Karim Naim, who said his pregnant sister's corpse was left on a street for a week after a failed 1991 uprising against Hussein. "I feel that my sister's soul will not go wasted if I could see Saddam dead."

For many Sunni Arabs and die-hard nationalists, the television broadcast reopened wounds festering since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. "We sense the bitterness of the people as they watch this trial," said Abdul-Hadi Jamil, a provincial politician in Tikrit, Hussein's hometown.

"This is a play produced by the occupiers," said Silfiq Azzawi, 56, another resident of Tikrit, where pro-Hussein demonstrators fired weapons into the air and chanted, "No for the trial of Saddam, but yes for the trial of the thieves!" referring to the former leader's enemies.

Demonstrations also were staged in Dujayl, the Shiite farming village where Hussein's government is accused of killing scores of residents, the subject of the first trial. Protesters there chanted, "Go and die!" to Hussein and the Sunni-dominated Baath Party he led.

At their childhood home in Baghdad's Jadiriya district, Saadia and Mohammed Saidi, 38, sat themselves in front of the television in a humble living room adorned with Koranic verses and plastic flowers. Mohammed, a store owner, took the day off to watch the trial.

Iraqis strained to hear the garbled audio transmission, which at times was indecipherable. As the defendants began filling the courtroom, Iraqis filled the silences with their own commentary.

"This is the day your deeds come back to haunt you," Ali Haidari, 37, of Dujayl said as he watched the proceedings.

Hussein's flashes of defiance electrified his supporters and inspired loathing in the mostly Shiite port city of Basra, the focal point of three devastating wars in the last 25 years.

"I am sad and happy at the same time," said Jassim Hassawi, 51, who lost four fingers when tortured after his 1991 arrest. "Sad because Saddam is arguing with the judge and saying whatever he likes instead of being humiliated and silenced. Happy because I see Saddam and his followers with my own eyes in a cage."

At one point in the trial, co-defendant Awad Hamed Bandar, former head of Hussein's Revolutionary Court, refused to speak unless he could wear a traditional Arab headdress in the courtroom.

The move drew a snide rebuke from Saadia Saidi, a Shiite, who said, "You never had any problem removing the turbans of clerics," referring to the abuses the regime allegedly inflicted on Shiite clerics during the 1980s and 1990s.

Many Iraqis were mesmerized by the sight of their former president under guard inside a metal pen yet impressed by his confident and aggressive manner with the judge.

"Saddam Hussein is terrifying," Saidi said as she watched the trial get underway. "He scares us."

As Hussein continued to thunder against the judge and the proceedings, a pile of chinaware resting in a cabinet beneath the television rattled and collapsed. Saidi jumped. "Look," she said. "Even the teacups are afraid of Saddam."

*

Times special correspondents Asmaa Waguih in Dujayl, Hassan Halawa in Samawah and others in Tikrit, Mosul and Basra contributed to this report.

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