BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) - A defiant Saddam Hussein rejected charges of war crimes and genocide against him in a court appearance Thursday, telling a judge "this is all theater, the real criminal is Bush," according to a reporter in an official media pool.
Saddam's hands were cuffed when he was brought to the court but the shackles were removed for the 30-minute arraignment at Camp Victory, a former Saddam palace on the outskirts of Baghdad.
"I am Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq," Saddam twice said, according to the CNN reporter, who described him as alternately downcast and defiant. Other times, Saddam appeared confused.
In his first public appearance since he was captured seven months ago, Saddam refused to sign a list of charges against him unless a lawyer was present, and he questioned the court's jurisdiction, according to the reporter. Saddam defended the invasion of Kuwait, saying it was "for the Iraqi people."
When he referred to the Kuwaitis as "dogs," the judge admonished him for using such language in a court of law.
The seven broad charges against Saddam are the killing of religious figures in 1974; gassing of Kurds in Halabja in 1988; killing the Kurdish Barzani clan in 1983; killing members of political parties in the last 30 years; the 1986-88 "Anfal" campaign of displacing Kurds; the suppression of the 1991 uprisings by Kurds and Shiites; and the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Specific charges will be filed later, Iraqi officials said. Those charges were expected to include war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. A formal indictment with specific charges is expected later, said Salem Chalabi, director of the Iraqi Special Tribunal. The trial is not expected until 2005.
Saddam wore a charcoal-colored, pinstriped jacket with an open-collar white shirt and black shoes. He often stroked his trimmed, gray-and-black beard and he had heavy bags under his eyes, according to televised images of his appearance. He sat calmly, gesturing with his hands while addressing the court and sometimes taking notes on a piece of yellow paper.
His appearance was in sharp contrast to televised images of him after his December capture, when he seemed heavier, his beard was longer and his hair was gray and unkempt.
Saddam was seated in front of the judge, with a wooden bar separating the two. The tape showed the judge from behind and from the side.
When asked if he could afford a lawyer, Saddam retorted: "The Americans say I have millions hidden in Switzerland. How can I not have the money to pay for one?"
Saddam was flown by helicopter from an undisclosed location and driven to a courtroom on a U.S. base, the report said. He was led from an armored bus escorted by two Iraqi prison guards and ushered through a door guarded by six more Iraqi policemen. The bus was escorted by four Humvees and an ambulance.
Strict pool arrangements severely limited media access to the hearing. The pool video, which was cleared by the U.S. military, was initially broadcast without sound.
At one point, according to a commentary by Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera, Saddam asked the judge whether he would be tried under laws from the Saddam era or "under which law?"
Saddam told the court that the U.S. and multinational troops in Iraq were not "coalition troops but invasion troops," according to Al-Jazeera.
Saddam insisted on the judge referring to him as the "president of the Republic of Iraq" because "this would be respecting the will of the people," according to Al-Jazeera.
Saddam and 11 of his top lieutenants were transferred to Iraqi custody Wednesday. They no longer are prisoners of war but are still locked up, with U.S. forces as their jailers.
"The next legal step would be that the investigations start proper with investigative judges and investigators beginning the process of gathering evidence," Chalabi said. "Down the line, there will be an indictment, if there is enough evidence - obviously, and a timetable starts with respect to a trial date."
"They were surprised that they were told they're in Iraqi custody," Chalabi told AP Radio.
President Ghazi al-Yawer told an Arab newspaper that Iraq's new government has decided to reinstate the death penalty, which was suspended during the U.S. occupation.
U.S. and Iraqi officials hope the trial will lay bare the atrocities of Saddam's regime and help push the country toward normalcy after years of tyranny, the U.S.-led invasion and the insurgency that blossomed in its aftermath.
But the trial could have the opposite effect, possibly widening the chasm among Iraq's disparate groups - Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis.
"It's going to be the trial of the century," National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie told Associated Press Television News. "Everybody is going to watch this trial, and we are going to demonstrate to the outside world that we in the new Iraq are going to be an example of what the new Iraq is all about."
Wednesday's transfer of legal custody took place in secret. Chalabi said the defendants were brought one-by-one into a room at an undisclosed location and informed of the change in their status to criminal suspects. They were told they will appear in court within 24 hours to hear charges, he said.
According to Chalabi, the 67-year-old Saddam said, "Good morning," as he entered the room, listened to the official explanation, and was told he could respond to complaints Thursday. He then was hustled away.
"Some of them looked very worried," Chalabi said of the other defendants, who include former Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, the regime's best-known spokesman in the West; Ali Hasan al-Majid, known as "Chemical Ali"; and former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan.
The initial proceedings are taking place under a blanket of secrecy because of fears that insurgents, many of them Saddam supporters, might exact revenge on participants.
Issam Ghazawi, a member of Saddam's defense team, said he received threats in a telephone call Wednesday from someone claiming to be a minister of justice, who promised that anyone trying to defend Saddam would be "chopped to pieces."
U.S. officials had hoped to delay proceedings against Saddam until the Iraqis set up a special court and trained a legal team. But Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, whose government regained sovereignty Monday, insisted publicly on taking legal custody of Saddam quickly. The Americans agreed on condition they keep him under U.S. lock and key.
Trying Saddam and top regime figures presents a major challenge to the Iraqis and their American backers.
Allawi's government is due to leave office after January elections, and a second national ballot will be held by December 2005. That raises the possibility that national policy on the prosecution of Saddam and his backers could change depending on the makeup of the government.
Most of Iraq's 25 million people were overjoyed when Saddam's regime collapsed, and many are looking forward to the day he will be punished.
"Everyone all over the world agrees that Saddam Hussein should be put on trial in front of the Iraqi people," Baghdad resident Ahmad al-Lami said.
However, the turmoil of the past 14 months has led to a longing for the stability and order of the ousted dictatorship, at least among Sunni Arab Muslims who now feel threatened by the possibility of a Shiite-dominated government.
Nostalgia for Saddam - a Sunni - is strongest in Sunni-dominated parts of the country most heavily involved in the insurgency.
"Saddam Hussein was a national hero and better than the traitors in the new government," a resident of Saddam's hometown of Tikrit told APTN, refusing to give his name.
In Fallujah, an insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad, resident Ammar Mohammed suggested the Americans should be put on trial first because they "killed thousands of Iraqis in one year of occupation."