In trial that is set to start today, Saddam's attorney will focus on the legitimacy of court set up under U.S. occupation.
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Nearly two years after his capture, Saddam Hussein is finally facing trial for alleged crimes against fellow Iraqis. In some ways, Iraq also will be on trial, with the world watching to see whether its new ruling class can rise above politics and prejudice and give the former dictator a fair hearing.
Saddam's attorney said Tuesday he would ask for a three-month adjournment at his client's trial for a 1982 massacre, and challenge the court's competence to hear the case. The trial was to begin today.
Khalil al-Dulaimi's comments appeared to suggest that his defense strategy will focus not on the details of the massacre but rather on the broader question of the legitimacy and competence of a court set up under U.S. occupation in 2003. Iraq formally became a sovereign nation again in June 2004, but the United States continues to wield vast influence.
Saddam and seven senior members of his regime are facing charges that they ordered the killing in 1982 of nearly 150 people in the mainly Shiite village of Dujail north of Baghdad after a failed attempt on the former dictator's life.
The ousted Iraqi leader and his co-defendants were expected to hear the charges against them in today's session. The session was to be held under tight security in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, home to Iraq's government, parliament and the U.S. and British Embassies.
If convicted, the men face the death penalty -- by hanging.
Prosecutors are preparing other cases to bring to trial against Saddam and his officials -- including for the Anfal Operation, a military crackdown on the Kurds in the late 1980s that killed some 180,000 people; the suppression of Kurdish and Shiite revolts in 1991; and the deaths of 5,000 Kurds in a 1988 poison gas attack on the village of Halabja.
If a death sentence is issued in the Dujail case, it is unclear whether it would be carried out regardless of whether Saddam is involved in other trials. He can appeal a Dujail verdict, but if a conviction and sentence are upheld, the sentence must be carried out within 30 days. A stay could be granted to allow other trials to proceed.
However, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite who actively opposed Saddam's rule during years in exile, showed his eagerness to see any sentence carried out.
"We are not trying to land on the moon here," he said Monday. "It's enough (to try Saddam) on Dujail and Anfal. The tribunal is just and open, he has a defense lawyer and the verdict will match the crime."
He insisted the Dujail trial should not be drawn out. "What do we say to the people of Dujail who saw Saddam's aircraft burn their orchards and kill people?" he said. "This is unacceptable and I don't want to intervene in judicial proceedings, but why do we say now that more time is needed?"
Al-Jaafari, whose Dawa Party claimed responsibility for the assassination attempt in Dujail, leads a Shiite-Kurdish coalition government that came to office six months ago.
Many Iraqis, especially members of the Shiite majority and Kurdish minority -- the two communities most oppressed by Saddam's 23-year regime -- have also been eagerly awaiting the chance to see the man who ruled with unquestioned and total power in the defendants' dock answering for his actions.
However, some Shiites were sympathetic toward Saddam on the eve of his trial.
"How can Saddam get a fair trial when there's no government in Iraq? How can they try him?" asked Ismail Makki, a poor Shiite Muslim from the southern Iraqi city of Basra, as he hawked fruits and vegetables in a bustling downtown marketplace in Amman, in neighboring Jordan.
"There's no water, electricity, or security," he yelled. "If he stayed in power, it would be better for us."
At the same marketplace, Iraqi chemist Taher al-Sahab also defended Saddam.
"He is not guilty," said the Shiite from Karbala, one of his sect's holiest cities in Iraq. "He won't get a fair trial in Iraq."
Asked about Saddam's alleged massacre of thousands of his countrymen, al-Sahab said tartly: "Now, more Shiites are being killed in suicide bombings."
Others, however, were happy about what they view as a chance for retribution.
Mohammed Najm, whose brother disappeared after he was taken away by Saddam's police a decade ago, said he wants to see Saddam dead.
"Saddam needs no trial. He needs a guillotine," said Najm, a Shiite from Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, home to an estimated 2.5 million Shiites.
If Saddam's lawyer has his way, then Wednesday's hearing would, as expected, be taken up by procedural matters followed by a long break.
Al-Dulaimi told The Associated Press on Tuesday he wanted the three-month adjournment to prepare Saddam's defense and arrange for Arab and Western lawyers to join him.
He said he met with Saddam for 90 minutes Tuesday at a location other than the usual place of detention for the ousted Iraqi leader. He would not say where.
"His morale is very, very, very high and he is very optimistic and confident of his innocence, although the court is ... unjust," he said of Saddam, who has been kept at a U.S.-run facility at Baghdad International Airport since his capture by American troops in December 2003.
"We will dispute the legitimacy of the court as we've been doing every day. We will claim it is unconstitutional and not competent to try the legitimate president of Iraq," al-Dulaimi said.
The court was expected to agree to his request for a postponement, though it was not clear how long that would be.
There were also concerns by human rights groups that Saddam's trial may be influenced by politicians like al-Jaafari and that U.S. financial and logistical support for the tribunal trying Saddam could lend credibility to charges that it will mete out "victors' justice."
"A pressing issue is whether the trial process can be elevated sufficiently above politics to guarantee fairness and impartiality," said a report issued Tuesday by London's Royal Institute of International Affairs, or Chatham House.
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based rights group, has also complained that U.S. support for the tribunal undermines its impartiality.
"It may also make it easier for those who deny the extent of human rights violations under the former regime to dismiss the (tribunal) as an exercise of 'victors' justice,"' it said in a report last week.
There have been calls that Saddam should be tried before an international court, but al-Jaafari on Monday rejected that, saying "Iraq's judiciary is just and transparent."
In Washington, U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey, a senior adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, called the trial "an Iraqi process."
"Saddam Hussein is going to have to answer for his crimes, and it is a good thing that the Iraqis are taking that responsibility on themselves, and we'll just have to wait and see what comes out of this," he said Tuesday.