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Defiant Saddam Hussein Rejects War Crimes Charges - 2004-07-01

Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein defiantly rejected war crimes charges during a court appearance Thursday in Baghdad, calling the tribunal a theatrical presentation. Saddam refused to sign a list of charges against him, and insisted that he was still the president of Iraq.

A convoy of U.S. military vehicles escorted Saddam Hussein from an undisclosed location in Baghdad to a courtroom built on the grounds of one of his former palaces, near the Baghdad international airport.

Saddam was brought to court in chains, but was not handcuffed inside the courtroom. Witnesses in the room included several members of the interim government, the executive director of the Iraqi Special Tribunal, Salem Chalabi, and high-ranking U.S. military officials.

A New York Times newspaper reporter, John Burns, was one of the few Western journalists allowed to attend Thursday's proceedings. He says Saddam twice identified himself to the presiding Iraqi judge as president of Iraq, and appeared agitated and uncomfortable during his 30-minute court appearance.

"His mood varied from extreme uncertainty to nervousness, when he arrived to exasperation, contempt, defiance, anger," Mr. Burns said. "His hand gestures were unrelenting."

In his first public appearance since U.S. forces captured the former dictator six-and-a-half months ago, Saddam appeared to have lost weight. He wore a beard, along with his trademark mustache, a dark suit and a white shirt.

Another journalist who attended Thursday's arraignment, CNN television news producer Ayman Mohyeldin, says Saddam appeared to grow more confident and defiant as the proceedings went on.

"At one point, Saddam said the whole process was theatrical, that this was being carried out by 'Bush the criminal' to win the election," he said.

Mr. Mohyeldin says Saddam became most agitated when the judge brought up the charge of invading Kuwait and starting the first Gulf War in 1991. Saddam insisted that the invasion was to protect the Iraqi people from the Kuwaitis, whom he referred to as "dogs." The judge admonished Saddam for using such language.

The invasion of Kuwait is one of seven charges brought against the 67-year-old former dictator. Other charges include the gassing of Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1988, the killing of members of political parties in the last 30 years, and the suppression of the 1991 uprisings by Kurds and Shiites.

Iraqi officials say a formal indictment with specific charges will be handed down at a later date. A deputy foreign minister in the interim government, Hamid al-Bayati, says Iraqis are demanding that the death penalty, suspended by Iraq's former American administrator Paul Bremer, be instituted in time for Saddam's trial, to be held sometime next year.

"They will be satisfied with a death sentence," he said. "No less than that."

On Wednesday, the United States transferred Saddam Hussein and 11 of his top lieutenants into Iraqi custody. They are no longer prisoners of war, but are still being guarded by U.S. forces, until Iraq is able to guard and secure them.