Tue, Jul 06, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Saddam and his prosecutors find positions reversed

ON THE OTHER FOOT Saddam Hussein no longer commands his terror machine but instead is in the hands of his victims, who are trying to fight the lust for revenge

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BAGHDAD

When Saddam Hussein entered court last week to face charges of crimes against humanity, his first concern, after shedding his chains and settling into the dock, seemed to lie with a small group of people who were there to witness his day of reckoning.

For the first minute or more, something to his right, toward the rear of the room, distracted him, so much so that the judge seemed to have only half his attention. Was it the presence of foreign reporters? Or the two senior officials of the new Iraqi government who were sitting at the front of the cramped stall serving as a visitors' gallery?

Only later, from a burly Iraqi prison guard who clasped Saddam's right arm on his way in and out of the court, did Dr. Mouwafak al-Rubaie, Iraq's new national security adviser, discover that Saddam was trying to get a fix on him, one of the two officials who sat watching Saddam from the lower tier of the stall.

"He asked the guard as he left, `The man with the beard, was that Mouwafak al-Rubaie?'" Rubaie recalled on Sunday. "And the guard told him `Yes,' and he said, `I thought so."'

Here, at last, was the turning of the tables: The hunter turned hunted, the accuser accused.

Hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq felt the scourge of Saddam's brutality. A few of them now sit in the seats of power that once belonged to Saddam and the other 11 now under formal investigation on charges that, in most cases, amount to mass murder.

The prime minister in the new interim government that assumed office after the United States restored Iraq's formal sovereignty last week, Iyad Allawi, is a British-trained neurosurgeon who survived an ax attack in London that British authorities attributed to Saddam's agents. Adel Abdul Mahdi, the finance minister, has said he was tortured by Saddam's secret police, as has Hamid al-Bayati, the deputy foreign minister.

Al-Rubaie, a neurologist now on extended leave from a medical post in London, has said that he was seized from an operating theatre while still an intern in Baghdad in 1979, taken to a dungeon, tied up, and hung and rotated from a ceiling for hours.

There are others with similar stories in virtually every government department, including some of the men working as lawyers and judges for the Iraqi Special Tribunal, which is to try cases arising from the repression under Saddam. But only one of these men, al-Rubaie, had the satisfaction - his word, after the court hearings for the 12 men on Thursday - of being present in the courtroom, barely 10 paces from Saddam, to see their persecutor brought to account.

"I'm on top of the world, not because I want revenge, but because it's so important that we are applying justice," al-Rubaie, 54, said as he left the court on Thursday evening, after the last of the 12 accused had been driven off in chains to an American helicopter on the first leg of their journey back to a secret detention center outside Baghdad.

"By bringing these men into a court, we've begun a huge psychological healing process," al-Rubaie said. "This is a new Iraq."

On Sunday, back in his office in the Green Zone, al-Rubaie reflected on the experience of sitting, empowered now, across from some of the men who once persecuted him.

After three stints in Saddam's jails, he fled for England, helped to found an Iraqi exile group, and gained British citizenship. More than 20 years later, he still suffers from the back pains and kidney ailments that he traces to being hung from the ceiling, beaten and given electric shocks.

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