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Friday, July 02, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Saddam still inspires awe, fear

By Mohamad Bazzi
Newsday

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BAGHDAD, Iraq — The latest Saddam Hussein joke making the rounds in Baghdad goes like this: Leaders of the new Iraqi government want to try the deposed dictator and execute him as quickly as possible.

Why? Because they're worried that Iraqis might elect him next year.

The joke is one example of the conflicted feelings many Iraqis have about Saddam, who brutally ruled Iraq for 32 years. During the 15 months of U.S. occupation, when security and basic services broke down in a way they never had under Saddam's rule, some Iraqis began pining for the old regime.

While Saddam is still despised by the vast majority of Iraq's 24 million people, he continues to inspire awe, and perhaps even a hint of fear. As he appeared in court yesterday to be charged with crimes against humanity, some Iraqis could not help but be impressed with his defiance.

"Watch how Saddam argues with the judge, like he's the one in charge and not the judge," said Walid Ezzedine, 56, shaking his head as he drank tea in a Baghdad cafe and watched the court proceedings on television.

"This is the man who knows how to rule Iraq. People are still afraid of him," added Karim Abdullah, 43, tugging on a water pipe. "I hated Saddam because he was a criminal and a murderer. But he kept Iraq from falling apart, and the Americans could not do that."

Neither man would ever want to see Saddam return to power. But they were surprised by Saddam's calm demeanor in court and his insistence on being accorded the respect due a statesman.

"Maybe he still thinks that he's running the country," Ezzedine said with an uneasy laugh.

Saddam's refusal to sign the charges against him and his arguments with the Iraqi judge revived an old conspiracy theory among Iraqis: that the former president had been drugged by U.S. forces during his capture in December. Iraqis point to the contrast between Saddam's appearance yesterday and in the video released soon after his arrest. That video showed a bearded, seemingly disoriented Saddam being examined by a U.S. doctor checking for head lice.

"Of course, the Americans drugged him when they caught him," said Wael Hamza, 36, as he listened to Saddam lecturing the judge on Iraqi law. "Why else would he have been so quiet and passive in that video?"

Iraqis say they're looking forward to a public trial, where the world can hear details of his regime's crimes.
 
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"He should be tried in a fair and open court," said Haithem Ahmed, 32. "He killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis without any trial. He should be treated differently, so that people know what he did."

Saddam's 26-minute appearance before an unnamed Iraqi judge was videotaped and rebroadcast repeatedly on Arabic satellite television. Al-Jazeera, based in Qatar, managed to obtain an audiotape of the proceedings despite a court ban on carrying voices or pictures of courtroom personnel.

As Ahmed spoke, Saddam was defending his invasion of Kuwait. Moments later, the electricity went out in the cafe, and the television went dark.

A few patrons cursed the occupation's failure to provide electricity, while others went back to their games of dominoes and backgammon.

"At least Saddam gave us electricity," Abdullah murmured.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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