In person these days, if anything, Saddam Hussein looks smaller than life.
I watched him walk into a Baghdad courtroom this morning to stand trial for genocide. He wore a dark suit, no tie, and was carrying a Koran. But for many Iraqis, this moment means their prayers have finally have been answered. The new Iraqi government is finally trying the former dictator here for state-sponsored executions of at least 50,000 Kurds in 1988.
Saddam is now almost 70 years old and — other than a full head of dark hair — looks his age. He moves slowly, with almost a shuffle in his step. His shoulders are hunched and rounded. There's no outward sign, no physical magnetism, to suggest this was the man who had his foot on the throat of Iraq for more than two decades. To see him up close now, it's hard for outsiders to imagine his menace. But it's different for people who actually had to live under his thumb. And his image on television still makes many Iraqis shudder.
But when Saddam speaks, you get a glimmer of who he was, still feel his force of personality. When told to stand by the judge, he remained seated. He then refused to enter his name for the record. "You know my name," he said. "The whole world knows my name."
When it was time to enter a plea, guilty or innocent, he sparred with the judge over the court around its legitimacy. The judge finally grew tired of the argument and entered a plea of "innocent" for him. With Saddam, it's always combative. He argues. He interrupts. Saddam is still convinced only he deserves to speak.
Saddam has six co-defendants, all former top henchmen in the old regime. They sit together in the defendants' dock in the middle of a courtroom. Its exact location in Baghdad's Green Zone is a secret. Five of those co-defendants seemed fairly meek as they entered their names and pleas. The last of them, Ali Hassan al-Majid, looks even older than Saddam and shuffled into court with the help of a cane. But he, too, has lost none of his bluster. Asked by the judge to identify himself, he announced in a proud, clear voice, "fighting comrade First Major General Pilot Ali-Hassan al-Majid."
Outside of court, he's better known as "Chemical Ali," for using poison gas and chemical attacks against scores of Kurdish villagers. In fact, when asked once long before this trial whether he knew what happened to 182,000 missing people, he said angrily, "where did you guys get these numbers? They're about 100,000. And how come you guys call me 'Chemical Ali?'"
The criminal charges could not be more heinous. All the defendants are charged with some combination of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, potentially a death penalty case.
In the new Iraq, state executions are by hanging. But Saddam is also waiting for his verdict from an earlier trial, also a death penalty case. If found guilty in that case, justice will be swift; there's a chance he could be executed before this second trial is finished.
Saddam has said if he does receive a death sentence, he wants to be shot like a soldier — not hanged like a common criminal. But his days of dictating are over. If the verdict in that first case goes against him, he'll do his slow walk to the gallows, possibly by the end of this year.