BAGHDAD (AFP) – Ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was back in his US-run prison cell after the dramatic first day of a trial hailed by victims of his brutal regime but condemned as illegitimate by his supporters.
On the ground, insurgent attacks killed another four US soldiers, while an Irish reporter was abducted by gunmen in the Iraqi capital.
Saddam and seven former regime officials all pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges including murder and torture at the start of a trial watched around the world.
It marked the first time an Arab leader has appeared in court for crimes against his own people.
"The trial of the 21st Century – Saddam and his era in the dock" thundered the headline of Iraq”s Al-Mashiraq newspaper.
Facing what could be several trials for crimes committed during a quarter century in power, the once-feared dictator came out fighting, refusing to give his name, challenging the legitimacy of the court and scuffling with guards.
"I am not guilty, I am innocent," Saddam, 68, said after the presiding judge read out charges related to the 1982 killings of 143 Shiites from a village north of Baghdad.
If found guilty, Saddam and his co-defendants face execution.
Saddam insisted from his metal pen that he was still "president of Iraq,"
"I don”t acknowledge either the entity that authorises you or the aggression because everything based on falsehood is falsehood," he said.
"Who are you and what are you?" he demanded of presiding judge Rizkar Mohammed Amin.
The hearing was adjourned to November 28 to allow witnesses to be questioned about the massacre which followed an attempt on Saddam”s life in the village of Dujail.
The trial was hailed by Shiites and Kurds who were long oppressed under Saddam but his supporters denounced the "traitor government" that put him on trial.
Human rights groups have also voiced concern about the legal process and the death penalty facing Saddam and his co-defendants.
Meanwhile, the authorities were looking into the abduction of an Irish reporter in a the impoverished Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City in eastern Baghdad on Wednesday.
Rory Carroll was kidnapped by gunmen after conducting an interview with a victim of Saddam”s regime, his employer Britain”s Guardian newspaper said.
"We urge those holding him to release him swiftly – for the sake of his family and for the sake of anyone who believes the world needs to be kept fully informed about events in Iraq today," said editor Alan Rusbridger.
In other news about foreign journalists, the US defense department defended the actions of US soldiers cited for arrest by a Spanish judge in connection with the 2003 shelling of a Baghdad hotel that killed a Spanish cameraman.
"The US Central Central Command fully investigated the incident and determined that the US service members acted appropriately during that combat action," Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Barry Venable told AFP.
In Paris, French officials said that reporter Fred Nerac, who disappeared in Iraq over two and a half years ago, was now believed to have been killed in a firefight between Iraqis and US troops.
On the ground in Iraq, four US soldiers died Wednesday in two attacks north of Baghdad.
The latest deaths brought to at least 1,980 the number of US military personnel killed in Iraq since the US-led invasion of March 2003, according to an AFP tally based on Pentagon figures.
Since Saturday, the day of a largely peaceful vote on Iraq”s new constitution, 12 US military personnel have been killed in fighting with insurgents.
In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said US troops would stay in Iraq until the government was capable to "break the back" of the insurgency, but would not say if they would be out in a decade.
Results of the referendum had still not been announced early Thursday, though it was possible that figure on the turnout would be available later in the day, a senior electoral official said.
The vote tally in the crucial "swing province" of Nineveh, which includes the mixed, restive city of Mosul, was "close", he told AFP without elaborating.
Iraq”s draft charter for the period to follow Saddam”s ousted regime can be approved by a simple majority, but rejected if at least two-thirds of voters say "no" in at least three of Iraq”s 18 provinces, with Nineveh looking to hold the key.