BAGHDAD, IRAQ — BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraq's interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi, marked the first full day of the country's return to sovereignty yesterday by announcing that Iraq would take legal custody of Saddam Hussein today.
Hussein, 67, is to face charges in an Iraqi court tomorrow, but his trial is not expected to begin for months. Eleven other members of his regime also will face warrants before Iraq's special war crimes tribunal.
"I know I speak for my fellow countrymen when I say I look forward to the day former regime leaders face justice," Allawi said. "We would like to show the world that the new Iraq government means business and wants to do business, and wants to stabilize Iraq and put it on the road toward democracy and peace."
Allawi promised open court proceedings for the former president and the other "high-value detainees," including former Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, who had often served as the public face of the regime; Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as "Chemical Ali" for his role in using poison gas against Iraqi Kurds; former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan; and two of Hussein's half-brothers.
Though the U.S. military will continue to guard Hussein, for many here the legal move against him is as important symbolically as the ceremony Monday that gave Iraqis political control of their country.
The transfer of Hussein to Iraqi custody seemed designed to underscore to Iraqis that the new government, not the old regime, was in control. It also bolstered the new government's standing when compared with the U.S.-led occupation, which had classified Hussein as a prisoner of war rather than as a defendant in a criminal proceeding.
Tomorrow's arraignment will be televised and is expected to show Hussein and others in chains as they walk into the courtroom to hear the charges - a dramatic and graphic display of how far from power they have fallen.
'He should suffer'
With all the chaos in this country, the issue of the fate of the dictator at whose orders hundreds of thousands were killed had seemed sometimes to recede into the background.
But not for Mahu Aboot or Harith Kosay or Diyaa Abdul-Kareem or the many other Iraqis who lived through his rule, who saw people disappear, whether family, friends or strangers.
When it was announced that Hussein would be turned over to Iraqi authorities today, Aboot apologized for her bitterness.
"I will never forget what he did to Iraq. What he did in his time, there is no law that could cover everything," said Aboot, 28, in the Internet cafe she manages in Baghdad. "This is not easy for me to say because I don't want you to think my heart is dark, but I do not want him to be sentenced to death. I want him to be tortured. He should suffer the way he made Iraqis suffer."
That would not be possible, given the scale of his deeds.
When Hussein answers for his crimes, including a charge of genocide, it will be after more than three decades of atrocities and perhaps 300,000 deaths, maybe more, including the use of poison gas against thousands of Kurds. Allawi said up to 1 million people might have gone missing during Hussein's rule.
Bodies and tears
It took only a couple of weeks after Hussein's fall in April 2003 to document the extent of his brutality. The scenes were beyond disturbing.
At al-Kark cemetery, just down the road from Abu Ghraib prison, dozens of Iraqis had arrived with shovels and tears.
The Iraqis had visited the headquarters of a group called the Committee for Free Prisoners, who had entered the emptied ministries of Hussein's government and collected records on thousands of people who had been missing for years.
Much of what was collected were records of executions, kept from victims' families for decades. The papers documented where the bodies were buried. Most were wrapped in burlap and placed in the ground. Only a metal plate on a metal pole, numbered and stuck into the grave, identified the dead.
Families dug with shovels, children jumped in the holes to dig with their hands, scooping away the last few inches of dirt and sand to unearth the bodies and pass them up to adults.
That graveyard, which held at least 3,000 bodies, could be where Aboot's cousin was buried. She does not know. She knows only that he was accused of deserting the army in about 1996 and taken away by agents who found him in what is now known as Sadr City.
"He did not get a trial," she said. "They just killed him."
Trial and execution
Harith Kosay said he learned to fly airplanes in Iraq during Hussein's rule. While he was a student at Iraq's Civil Aviation Academy - where he learned to speak near-perfect English - students often disappeared suddenly.
"People would make a joke about Saddam and then they would disappear," Kosay said. "He had his agents listening everywhere. He hated educated people because he was a humiliated, uneducated man.
"We should be fair with him even though he wasn't with us," said Kosay, a 25-year-old jeweler. "Let there be a trial. And then let there be a public execution."
For people like Kosay, the executions, the torture, were but a part of the terror Hussein brought to Iraq.
"He took us into three wars that were disasters for Iraq," Kosay said. "Every Iraqi person has been hurt by Saddam. We went from rich to poor under him."
A mixture of laws
The tribunal that will try Hussein will do so under a mix of Iraqi criminal law, international rules such as the Geneva Conventions, and with what it can learn from such bodies as the war crimes tribunal for Rwanda.
Allawi said the Iraqi Cabinet is still discussing whether to reinstate the death penalty.
The Jordanian lawyer claiming to represent Hussein has argued that the former president should be released because handing him over to Iraq's new government would violate international law.
Ziad al-Khasawneh, one of 20 Jordanian and foreign lawyers appointed by Hussein's wife, Sajidah, told the Associated Press that the United States has no legal basis to keep prisoners, including her husband, now that it has transferred authority to an interim Iraqi government.
Good and bad
But even to people such as Diyaa Abdul-Kareem, 32, who can summon up a good word for Hussein despite the suffering his regime brought Iraq, there can be no legal justification for letting the former dictator go unpunished.
During Hussein's rule, he said, he would pass people on the streets, see them daily as they went about their routine. Occasionally, though, it would occur to him he had not seen someone for a while.
"When that happened, you knew it was Saddam," Abdul-Kareem said in the darkened shop where he sells bootlegged compact discs - the electricity out again.
Around the corner, 15 minutes earlier, there was shooting - again.
"We are glad he is gone and he should be punished, but it is true that when Saddam was in charge there was order."
The Los Angeles Times and Newsday, Tribune Publishing newspapers, contributed to this article.
Saddam HUssein will face war crimes charges tomorrow in an Iraqi court.
While an official date has not been set, the trial won't take place for several months.