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Saddam Hussein Trial Begins

Saddam Hussein went on trial Wednesday for alleged crimes against fellow Iraqis, appearing in a tightly secured courtroom in the former headquarters of his Baath Party two years after his capture. He faces charges in a 1982 massacre of nearly 150 Shiites that could carry the death penalty if he is convicted.

When the trial began, the 68-year-old ousted Iraqi leader — looking thin with a salt-an-pepper bear in a dark grey suit and open collared white shirt — stood and asked the presiding judge: "Who are you? I want to know who you are."

"I preserve my constitutional rights as the president of Iraq," Saddam said. "I do not recognize the body that has authorized you and I don't recognize this aggression ... I do not respond to this so-called court, with all due respect."

The presiding judge, Rizgar Mohammed Amin, a Kurd, tried to get Saddam to formally identify himself but Saddam refused.

The panel of five judges will both hear the case and render a verdict in what could be the first of several trials of Saddam for atrocities carried out during his 23-year-rule.

The defendants were seated in two rows of black chairs, partitioned behind a low white metal barrier, in the center of the court directly in front of the judges bench.

Starting the session, Amin called Saddam and his seven co-defendants into the room one by one. Saddam was the last to enter, escorted by two Iraqi guards in bulletproof vests who guided him by the elbow. He glanced at journalists watching through bulletproof glass from an adjoining room. He motioned for his escorts to slow down a little.

Saddam's lawyer has said he plans to ask the court Wednesday for a three-month adjournment, and will also challenge the court's competence to hear the case.

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.

Nearly two years after his capture, Saddam 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 him a fair hearing.

"The most important aspect of the trial is that it is perceived to be fair and not merely 'victor's justice' but rather have internationally accepted procedures," said CBS News foreign affairs analyst Pamela Falk. "The prosecution will have to avoid the pitfall of allowing the trial to be a vehicle for Saddam Hussein to speak publicly and create a voice in Iraqi politics."

CBS News correspondent Lara Logan reports that Saddam's outlawed Baath Party has promised he will be able to hear mortars blowing up Americans in Baghdad, as a message of support to mark the start of his trial.

On the eve of the trial, at a makeshift memorial where the faces of the massacre victims hang from the walls, some Iraqis told CBS News that they have already made up their minds about the verdict.

"I would not control myself," one man said. "I would tear him apart."

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.

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."

Al-Jaafari, whose Dawa Party was blamed by Saddam's regime for the 1982 attempt on Saddam's life 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.

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, are 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.

Saddam's defense lawyer, Al-Dulaimi, says he wants a 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.

The court is expected to agree to his request for a postponement, though it is not clear how long that would be.

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.