Saddam Hussein went on trial Wednesday for alleged crimes against fellow Iraqis, turning immediately argumentatitve as he appeared 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 beard 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. What is based on injustice is unjust ... 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. Finally, Saddam sat.
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.
Saddam and his seven co-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 the 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.
After sitting, he greeted his co-defendants, saying "Peace be upon you," sitting next to co-defendant Awad Hamed al-Bandar, former head of Iraq's Revolutionary Court.
The other defendants include Saddam's former intelligence chief Barazan Ibrahim, former vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan and other lower-level Baathist civil servants. Most were wearing traditional Arab robes and they complained that they were not allowed to have headdresses, so court officials brought out red headdresses for them. Many Sunni Arabs consider it shameful to appear in public without the checkered scarf, tied by a cord around the forehead.
Ramadan also refused to identify himself to the judge. "I repeat what President Saddam Hussein has said," he added. The other defendants agreed to state their names.
The trial is taking place in the marble building that once served as the National Command Headquarters of his feared Baath Party. The building in Baghdad's Green Zone, the heavily fortified district where Iraq's government, parliament and the U.S. Embassy are located, was ringed with 3-meter-high (10-foot) blast walls and U.S. and Iraqi troops, with several Humvees and at least one tank deployed outside. U.S. soldiers led sniffer dogs around the grounds, looking for explosives.