BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraqis gathered around televisions to watch Saddam Hussein (search) in court Thursday, uneasy about the effects of the images on their country and in some cases angered by the control they believed he seemed to wield over the proceedings.
Some described the scene not as justice but "American propaganda."
As the former dictator appeared in court Thursday to hear charges ranging from genocide to crimes against humanity, some of the 25 million people who spent the better part of their lives under his authority voiced mixed emotions.
"This is not the time," said Mohammed Mahdi as he and several co-workers watched a small television set in a hotel lobby tuned to an Arabic language satellite station.
"The country has too many other problems now that should be fixed first," Mahdi said. "What we're seeing now is nothing more than propaganda. This is for Bush's sake, for the sake of the American elections. This doesn't have anything to do with justice for Iraqis."
Some refused to comment, apparently fearful even now of making statements about the former regime.
"We won't say anything," said one woman who runs a handicrafts shop. "Even if the pictures were of him being executed, we wouldn't talk." Beside her, an elderly man nodded in agreement.
At another Baghdad hotel, a group of about 16 men glared at a television.
"Look at him. This isn't the face of a prisoner. He's running the courtroom," said one man who refused to be identified. Around him, other men nodded in agreement, with one of them adding: "That's why he was president for so long."
Eleven of Saddam's top cadre are scheduled to be arraigned after him. All could face the death penalty, which interim President Ghazi al-Yawer (search) said was reinstated after its suspension by former coalition administrator L. Paul Bremer (search).
"With all the mass graves we have seen in Iraq, I think Saddam deserves capital punishment," said Sawsam Jamal, a Kurdish woman from Kirkuk, a region where the deposed leader reportedly authorized the gassing of thousands of people and the murder of thousands more.
"Saddam should be wiped out as soon as possible so that the Iraqi people can awaken from this nightmare."
On Wednesday, Iraq's new interim government assumed legal custody of Saddam. The move marked a change in the status of Saddam and the 11 others from prisoners of war to criminal defendants.
The proceedings are the first steps in a legal process of holding Saddam and his associates accountable for their bloody regime, which began when he became president in 1979 and ended with the U.S.-led war last year.
The trials, not expected to start before 2005, could take months or even years. They could widen the chasm between Iraq's disparate groups -- Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis -- as the country struggles to recover from a generation of tyranny and conflict.
On the streets of Iraq, that potential ethnic chasm was still little more than a crack, with viewpoints differing among those who stood to gain from Saddam's regime and those who say they suffered excruciatingly under it.
In the central Iraqi city of Ramadi, a Sunni Muslim area where support for Saddam has been strong, Odai Faleh voiced doubts that the former president was guilty of much beyond punishing those who deserved it.
"At least Saddam provided us with security. We have seen nothing good from the Americans," he said, commenting on the deteriorating security situation.
Under Saddam's regime, security was one element virtually guaranteed -- if only out of fear of the regime's security apparatus.
"We had a better life during Saddam era," said Faleh, who works at the Ramadi Education Directorate. "We want a fair trial where Saddam can speak and defend himself against the fabricated charges filed against him. Saddam used to punish only the bad people who used to destabilize the country."
Ramadi and other cities in the so-called Sunni Triangle have been the scene of frequent clashes between insurgents and U.S. forces.
In southern Basra, where Shiites were oppressed under Saddam's rule, engineer Asaad Aziz said watching the former president on television only reinforced his hatred for the man.
"He should be placed in metal cage and taken on tour of all the Iraqi cities so that the millions who have been starved, robbed, beaten, deprived and tortured by his regime can see the man responsible for their suffering," Aziz said.
In Azimiya, once a stronghold of support for Saddam's Baath Party, one man had disdain for the foreign lawyers who volunteered to defend Saddam.
"What are you going to defend?" said the man, who was not identified in an interview with Al-Iraqiya (search) television station.
Saddam's wife and daughters appointed a team of 20 foreign defense lawyers, which include Jordanian Mohammed Rashdan, Washington lawyer Curtis Doebbler and French attorney Emmanuel Ludot. Some other members come from Britain, Tunisia and Libya.
Further north, in Kirkuk, officials with two pro-American but rival Kurdish groups agreed that Saddam deserves punishment but debated just how severe that punishment should be.
"We, as Kurds, have many charges against Saddam and his aides who committed a murder of crimes against the Kurdish people," said Jalal Jawher, an official with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. "We demand a fair trial and we think that the proper punishment ... is a life sentence. We do not believe in capital punishment."