THE first of a series of trials for former dictator Saddam Hussein got off to a rocky start in Baghdad, but Saddam's defiance - including his refusal to even confirm his name - is in keeping with his character.
Saddam opened the trial by refusing to give his name to the judge, whom he claimed did not have authority over him, having been appointed by a government Saddam did not recognize and which had been installed by the United States. At a break in the three-hour proceeding, he scuffled with guards who tried to put their hands on him to lead him away.
He and seven co-defendants appeared before a special five-judge panel established in 2003 by the then-Iraq interim government just before his capture. The panel sits in a courtroom in the Baghdad Green Zone, the heavily fortified area controlled by U.S. military and Iraqi forces.
The deposed president pleaded not guilty to the charges, which stem from the 1982 killing in the Shiite village of Dujail of 143 men allegedly involved in an assassination attempt against Saddam. He and the co-defendants are accused of crimes against humanity and, if found guilty, will face execution.
Observers considered the opening a bad start for the new Iraqi authorities, if the idea is to bring Saddam to justice for crimes committed against the Iraqi people. It was also a bad moment for the chief judge, Rizkar Mohammed Amin, a Kurd, whose name Saddam sought. During the proceedings, the former dictator's riveting eyes and the television cameras were fixed on the judge's face, as if to signal the possibility of retribution by Saddam's supporters.
It makes sense to bring Saddam to justice in front of the Iraqi people, with the trial conducted in their country and available by television to the Iraqi public. But there is danger in providing Saddam with a public forum to attack the legitimacy of Iraq's post-invasion governments and to rally Iraqi nationalist sentiment against the United States.
The alternative would have been to haul him off to an international tribunal somewhere else. But that didn't work at the long, dragged-out trial of former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic, which he has used successfully as a forum for stirring up Serbian nationalism.
The difference between Milosevic and Saddam is that Milosevic is in bad health and over the hill as a Serbian leader. The Saddam Hussein who appeared in court this week was clearly capable of taking care of himself in a courtroom, and of scaring the heck out of those given the thankless and perhaps eventually fatal task of judging him.
What will come of this trial, now adjourned until Nov. 28, remains to be seen. Even a guilty verdict and execution of the deposed president won't much help the current poisonous climate in Iraq. A live Saddam Hussein is a lot of trouble; a dead Saddam Hussein will be a martyr, at least to the Sunnis.
Even so, his demise would be an outcome little mourned by anyone else.