"I am the president of Iraq," said Saddam himself, dark suited and striving for appropriately presidential detachment as he leaned back in the dock after lecturing the Kurdish judge and reading aloud from the aged Quran he carried into court on Wednesday.

He took issue on being described as "former" president; he did not recognise a court set up by American occupiers and resented being asked to identify himself, he said, standing up to be seen above the white bars of the pen in which he faced the five, black-robed judges from the floor of the court.

"You know me," the bearded, 68-year-old ousted leader told the judge, whose accent spoke of the Kurdish mountains, where Saddam, prosecutors are expected to say, committed genocide.

Judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin, however, was not intimidated either. Grey-haired and sharp-featured, he remained implacable:

"Who are you? What is your identity?" he asked.

"Why don't you take a seat and let the others say their names and we will get back to you."

"You are an Iraqi and you know who I am," Saddam shot back.
"And you know I don't get tired."

Peformance rehearsed

It was a performance rehearsed in previous appearances on camera during investigative hearings over the nearly two years since Saddam was dragged, bearded and dishevelled, from a hiding hole in the ground near his home town.

Saddam argued that video
evidence was inadmissible

At one stage he imperiously demanded - and got - a yellow legal pad and pencil. At another he stood to argue that video evidence being shown was inadmissible in court.

During a short recess, he joked and chatted with his co-accused, commenting in gesture on how their appearances had changed in the months since he last saw them.

He shrugged off two guards who tried to escort him out and, after a brief  argument, they relented and let their former leader walk alone.

Court performance

For three decades Saddam has used the grand stage of television to keep his people in thrall, and it was clear that he had given plenty of thought to his court performance.

The same was true of his seven co-defendants, including his half-brother Barzan.

Several wore traditional, simple Arab robes and loudly demanded head-dresses to go with them, they were handed out by court officials and put on with bravado.

With the trial beaming out, almost live, across the Arab world the message was clear in the context of an Iraq now torn between Saddam's once dominant Sunni Arab minority and the ethnic Kurds and Shia Muslims whom they accuse variously of selling out to the Americans or to non-Arab Shia Iran.

The defendants, also including Saddam's former vice-president Taha Yassin Ramadan, one of Saddam's own judges and other officials of his Baath party, sat caged, the bars of their pens up to their sitting shoulders.

Residents of Dujail watch the
trial on television

But when they rose to face the judge, they played to the global gallery, not just the few journalists and observers ranged behind bullet-proof glass around the courtroom built under US supervision in the old Baath party headquarters.

Arguments

Mohammed Azzam Ali, one of the more obscure defendants, described in documents as "farmer", stood and harangued the bench, jabbing his arm out and demanding to know: "What have I done?"

The charges relate to the killings and executions of more than 140 Shia men from the village of Dujail, put to death after a failed assassination attempt on Saddam in 1982.

When, later, the prosecutor appeared to stray onto wider territory in the accusations, it was the turn of the defence teams to break in across the calm of the court.

"This trial is about Dujail," shouted one of the defence lawyers sitting alongside the pens holding the accused. "The attorney-general has gone too far."

As the prosecutor continued detailing the events at Dujail in July 1982, Saddam sat, silent at last. And smiling.