WASHINGTON – The White House is denying that the U.S. government pressured the interim Iraqi government to start the trial of Saddam Hussein (search) before the November elections in the United States.
Aides to President Bush are likewise rejecting reporters' calls for him to comment on Saddam's contention in court Thursday that is it actually Bush who is, in Saddam's words, "the real criminal."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters Thursday that the president was participating in morning briefings when the court proceedings in Baghdad were first broadcast in America. Later on, Bush did take a few minutes to watch a replay of them on a television outside the Oval Office.
In declining to respond to Saddam's courtroom outburst, McClellan said that the former Iraqi dictator is going to say a lot of things during his upcoming trial, implying Bush will not respond to any of them.
Instead, McClellan heralded the beginning of what he called "case No. 1 — the people of Iraq versus Saddam Hussein," and suggested it will help Iraqis move forward.
"Saddam Hussein's regime was responsible for grave atrocities against the Iraqi people. And this step today begins a process by which the Iraqi people can help bring closure to the dark chapter of their history," McClellan said.
A State Department spokesman on Thursday said the U.S. government contributed $75 million to support the work of the Iraqi Special Tribunal (search) that will try Saddam. The Justice Department is the lead U.S. agency helping the Iraqis collect evidence against him.
But officials in Washington stress that the people actually calling the shots in the entire process are Iraqis.
Pentagon officials also pointed out that the videotape of Saddam's appearance was screened at the orders — and by the rules — of the Iraqi Special Tribunal, not the U.S. military.
According to the pool producer in the courtroom — there are strict limitations on who can physically be in the room — a little over 2 minutes of material was cut from the Saddam courtroom tape. The cuts were apparently ordered by a group for security purposes.
The censors cut shots that showed the faces of the court reporter and/or the security personnel, the pool producer said.
There were U.S. military liaison officers assisting in the courtroom, and those officers were asked to pass on the rules to the American photographers. However, all of the guidelines and all of the decisions on what should be put out were made by Salem Chalabi (search) or other members of the tribunal. Chalabi is in charge of the tribunal.
Fox News' Bret Baier, Ian McCaleb and James Rosen contributed to this report.