Trial Captivates Iraqi Audiences

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqis gathered around televisions to watch Saddam Hussein's trial Wednesday, with Shiite victims of his regime calling it long-overdue justice but some Sunni Arabs condemning it as unfair humiliation of their former leader.

In Kazimiyah, a northern Baghdad suburb, construction worker Salman Zaboun Shanan, 53, took the day off from work Wednesday to watch Al-Arabiya, a Dubai-based satellite channel, which showed the trial from the capital's highly fortified Green Zone with a 20-minute delay.

During Hussein's regime, seven members of Shanan's nine-member family were imprisoned because of their links to the Najaf Hawza, the Shiites' religious leadership.

"Today is a landmark," Shanan said in an interview at his home. "Saddam's trial is a response to what we suffered in his prison and what the dictators and Baathists did to us."

Shanan said he hoped Hussein was convicted and "executed and that anyone who suffered can take a piece from his flesh." Shanan; his wife, Sabiha Hassan; and two of their sons watched the trial from their small living room, which contained a picture of the late Shiite Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, who was killed by Hussein's regime in 1999.

When Hussein was shown entering the court, refusing to give his name and arguing with the presiding judge, Hassan became so angry she spat toward the television screen. "He should not be allowed to go this far," she shouted.

While many Shiites and Kurds saw the trial as a moment of triumph for Hussein's victims, some Iraqis and international observers were questioning the fairness of the court, which was set up by an interim Iraq government controlled by Shiites and Kurds.

That distrust was clear Wednesday in the reaction of engineer Sahab Awad Maaruf, a resident of Baghdad's Sunni neighborhood, Azamiyah, and the general secretary of its district council.

"All the people will be watching, although there won't be action by anyone, even those who were loyal to Hussein. They will just watch," he said.

"Saddam is the lesser of evils," Maaruf said. "He's the only legitimate leader for Iraqis."

Maaruf said the prosecution would be seen by Sunnis as a show trial by an Iraqi government trying to distract attention from the fact that it has done little good for the country.

He said Hussein's age, 68, also would make the trial seem unfair to many Iraqis. Their sympathy will make them feel patriotic and angry toward the U.S.-led forces occupying Iraq, he predicted.

"I believe that all Iraqis -- Shiites and Sunnis -- will sympathize with Saddam's weakened state," Maaruf said.

Another Azamiya resident, Adel Fadhel, 46, a former middle-ranking Baath Party official, angrily denounced the trial as failed from the start.

"I believe that Saddam is the only legitimate leader for us. We don't want those who came from Iran and Baker Street [London] to rule us," Fadhel said in an interview at his home.

"Saddam was the symbol of dignity and heroism who always protected Iraq, and we will not be happy to see him in this position," he said.

Fadhel acknowledged that Hussein had executed some people, but said the leader did it "to defend Iraqis."