BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraqis gathered around televisions to watch Saddam Hussein's (search) trial Wednesday, with Shiite victims of his regime calling the proceedings long-overdue justice but some Sunni Arabs (search) condemning it as unfair humiliation of their former leader.
In Kazimiyah, a northern Baghdad suburb, construction worker Salman Zaboun Shanan, 53, took the day off from work to watch Al-Arabiya TV (search), a Dubai-based satellite channel, which showed the trial from the capital's highly fortified Green Zone with a 20-minute delay.
During Saddam's regime, seven members of Shanan's nine-member family were imprisoned because of their links to the Najaf Hawza, the Shiites' 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 Shiite 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 Baathists 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 Shiites 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 Shiites and Kurds and backed by the United States.
That distrust was clear Wednesday in the reaction of engineer Sahab Awad Maaruf, a resident of Baghdad's Sunni neighborhood, 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 U.S. occupation forces.
"I believe that all Iraqis — Shiites and Sunnis — will sympathize with Saddam's weakened state," Maaruf said.
Another Azamiya resident, Adel Fadhel, 46, a former middle-ranking Baath 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."
As he spoke, the Azamiyah neighborhood of Baghdad was quiet, but security was tight. Iraqi soldiers were in the street, searching people and stopping cars.
Saddam and his seven co-defendants — officials from his Baathist regime — were charged with ordering the killing in 1982 of nearly 150 people in the mainly Shiite village of Dujail north of Baghdad after a failed attempt on the former dictator's life.
In Dujail on Wednesday, Iraqi security forces set up checkpoints, searching cars entering the town for fear of insurgent attacks. A U.S. convoy also drove through the village.
The many Shiites celebrating the start of the trial included Aqeel al-Ubaidi.
He said he was only 6 months old when Saddam's security forces detained his father and five of his brothers after the failed assassination attempt in 1982. Their fate remained unknown until their six bodies turned up in a mass grave after Saddam's ouster in 2003, al-Ubaidi said.
He said his brothers had belonged to the Dawa Party, which was fighting Saddam's regime and took part in the assassination attempt.
"Since the fall of Saddam's regime, we have been waiting for this trial. It won't bring back those who died, but at least it will help put out the fire and anger inside us," al-Ubaidi said in an interview at his home while watching the trial on TV.
"Saddam deserves nothing but the death sentence because he is a criminal."
In Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, about 100 Iraqis held a pro-Saddam demonstration for their former leader and neighbor.
"It is an illegitimate trial, and it is not based on the international laws and norms. He is still our president," Washi Ali said.