Nation divided over former leader as Iraqis tune in to trial

IRAQIS gathered around televisions to watch Saddam Hussein's trial yesterday, with Shi'ite victims of his regime calling the proceedings long-overdue justice, but some Sunni Arabs condemning it as unfair humiliation of the former leader.

In Kazimiyah, a northern Baghdad suburb, construction worker Salman Zaboun Shanan, aged 53, took the day from work to watch Al-Arabiya TV, a Dubai-based satellite channel, which showed the trial from the capital's highly fortified Green Zone.

During Saddam's regime, seven members of Shanan's nine-member family were imprisoned because of their links to the Najaf Hawza, the Shi'ites' religious leadership.

"Today is a landmark," said Shanan, who watched with his wife and two sons in a living room that contained a picture of a Shi'ite religious leader killed by Saddam's regime in 1999.

"Saddam's trial is a response to what we suffered in his prison and what the dictators and Ba'athists did to us."

Shanan said he hopes Saddam is convicted and "executed and that anyone who suffered can take a piece from his flesh".

While many Shi'ites and Kurds saw the trial as a moment of triumph for Saddam's victims, some Iraqis questioned the fairness of the court, which was set up by an interim Iraq government controlled by Shi'ites and Kurds and backed by the United States. That distrust was clear yesterday in the reaction of engineer Sahab Awad Maaruf, a resident of Baghdad's Sunni neighbourhood, Azamiyah, and the general secretary of its district council.

"Saddam is the lesser of evils," Maaruf said, comparing the former dictator to Iraq's current government. "He's the only legitimate leader for Iraqis."Maaruf said the prosecution will be seen by Sunnis as a show trial by an Iraqi government trying to distract attention from the fact that it has done little good for the country. He said the trial would stir anger against US occupation forces.

"I believe that all Iraqis - Shi'ites and Sunnis - will sympathise with Saddam's weakened state," he said.

Another Azamiya resident, Adel Fadhel, aged 46, a former middle-ranking Ba'ath Party official, angrily denounced the trial.

"I believe that Saddam is the only legitimate leader for us. We don't want those who came from Iran and Baker Street (London) to rule us," Fadhel told a reporter at his home. "Saddam was the symbol of dignity and heroism who always protected Iraq, and we will not be happy to see him in this position."

Fadhel acknowledged that Saddam had executed some people but said the leader did it "to defend Iraqis".

In Halabja, live TV brought Saddam Hussein back to survivors in the small Kurdish town almost wiped out by a 1988 chemical attack as they watched their former dictator go on trial. Many would have preferred to watch him hang.

"As long as Saddam is alive, our suffering will never end," said Pakhshan Mohamed Hama Mared, who lost three children in the attack and her husband a year later in the Iran-Iraq war.

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