Tue, Jul 06, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Trial divides Iraqis: Do they hate Saddam or occupiers more?

By Peter Beaumont  /  THE OBSERVER , BAGHDAD

Four friends, a cross-section of Iraqi society spanning two generations, sat down in a Baghdad cafe on Friday night to talk about Saddam's court appearance. A fifth man was present, taking notes: our translator. When Iraqis speak to Iraqis -- and not to Western journalists -- they say different things.

These are men, with one exception, who despise former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, and yet they equally hate the process that is bringing him to trial.

Agricultural engineer Yousef Ali, 40, speaks first.

"I would like to see Saddam get a fair trial with a lawyer," he says. Indeed, Saddam has so far not had legal representation or even, apparently, access to lawyers.

"I would like to feel that something has changed from the former regime," he says.

Jamal Hamed, also 40, speaks next.

"I consider it to be totally illegitimate. It is a false tribunal and illegal," he says.

He is a Saddam supporter, but also a deserter from the army who was jailed for eight months.

"Whatever he did against the Kuwaitis, he did for a good reason," Hamed says.

TV repairman Mohammed Hamza is in his mid-20s.

"I felt sorry for him. I cannot explain why. But I felt it was wrong. I felt he should be tried under an elected government and not like this. It felt like a media spectacle -- like propaganda. They only showed the parts where he was arrogant or angry," Hamza says.

Saddam's court appearance, planned to convince doubtful Iraqis that the power transfer was real, seems to have backfired just as last week's other momentous event -- the secretive handover of power -- only convinced them that they are right to be suspicious of anything involving the US.

Later a Shia friend, whose well-off family had lost all they had under Saddam, surprises me with his response. He says his brother, who loathed Saddam, had called from the United Arab Emirates to unleash his "fury at the humiliation of Saddam."

Last week Iraqis at home and abroad confronted their future and their past. Many felt cheated. First, as the US' coalition made another backroom deal of transferring limited powers to the interim government of Iyad Allawi. And later, when it handed over the former dictator to the legal, yet not physical, custody of Iraq under equally tight control.

These were moments in the story of the troubled new Iraq that, for all the violence and instability and disagreement, for all the risk, should have forged new memories and expectations.

Instead, these moments unfolded in secrecy and separation from the Iraqi people, jarringly managed by US officials for US consumption.

It was a separation that became evident last week. The reaction in Baghdad was muted as President George W. Bush grasped the hand of British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the NATO summit in Turkey and scrawled "Let freedom reign!"

The failure to meet Iraqi expectations was summed up by Fakhri Karim, publisher of Baghdad's Al-Mada newspaper.

"Symbolically, the ceremony was not commensurate with (the) enormous price that the Iraqis paid during 25 years of a rule by a single party and a single ruler, of a regime of mass graves and a year, three months and 20 days of occupation and chaos that set the stage for looting, thefts, booby-trapped cars, abductions and murders of Iraqi citizens; days that reverberated of decades gone by and futile aspirations, while the Iraqis never gave up hope for a better time."

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