BAGHDAD, Iraq, AP -Saddam Hussein and a former U.S. attorney general assembled in the special Green Zone courtroom built for the former dictator”s trial to the sound of mortar fire in the Iraqi capital Monday.
The case against Saddam and seven co-defendants reconvened after a five-week recess. The former leader pleaded innocent to charges of murder, torture, forced expulsions and illegal detentions at a court session Oct. 19.
Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark and former Qartari Justice Minister Najib al-Nueimi were seated with the defense team inside the heavy guarded room Monday, along with Saddam”s chief lawyer Khalil Dulaimi.
Chief Judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin ordered all handcuffs and shackles removed from Saddam and the seven co-defendants before they entered the court.
Dressed in black trousers and a gray jacket, Saddam was the last of the eight to enter, walking with a swagger, appearing cheerful and greeting people with a traditional Arabic greeting "peace be upon the people of peace."
Several mortar blasts could be heard in central Baghdad, although it was unclear where they occurred. There were no immediate casualty reports.
Tight security surrounds the court proceedings. The precise starting time was not announced due to fear of attack by both Saddam”s supporters and opponents.
Meanwhile, Iraqi police arrested eight Sunni Arabs for allegedly plotting to kill the judge who prepared the indictment of Saddam, authorities said Sunday.
The eight alleged plotters from Iraq”s Sunni Arab minority were apprehended Saturday in the northern city of Kirkuk, police Col. Anwar Qadir said.
He said they were carrying written instructions from a former top Saddam deputy, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, ordering them to kill investigating judge Raed Juhi, who prepared the case against Saddam and forwarded it to the trial court in July.
Al-Douri is the highest ranking member of the Saddam regime still at large and is believed to be at least the symbolic leader of Saddam loyalists fighting U.S. forces and Iraq”s new government.
"As an Iraqi citizen and a judge, I am vulnerable to assassination attempts," Juhi told The Associated Press. "If I thought about this danger, then I would not be able to perform my job … I will practice my profession in a way that serves my country and satisfies my conscience."
Saddam and seven co-defendants are charged in the killing of more than 140 Shiite Muslims after an assassination attempt against the former president in the Shiite town of Dujail in 1982. Convictions could bring a sentence of death by hanging.
Insecurity from the predominantly Sunni insurgency has complicated efforts to put Saddam on trial and forced draconian measures. For example, names of four of the five trial judges have been kept secret and some of the 35 witnesses may testify behind curtains to protect them from reprisal.
Defense lawyers had threatened to boycott the proceedings after two of their colleagues were slain in two attacks following the opening session Oct. 19. However, lawyer Khamees al-Ubaidi told the AP on Sunday that the defense team would attend after an agreement with U.S. and Iraqi authorities on improving security for them.
On the eve of the hearing, Clark and former al-Nueimi flew to the capital from Amman, Jordan, to lend weight to the defense team. Both have been advising Saddam”s lawyers and support their call to have the trial moved out of Iraq because of the violence.
However, neither Clark nor al-Nueimi has been officially recognized by the court as legal counsel. U.S. and Iraqi officials said Saddam”s chief lawyer, Khalil al-Dulaimi, did not officially request permission for any foreign attorneys to attend the trial.
Iraqi law permits foreign lawyers to act as advisers but requires that those arguing cases in court must be members of the local bar association.
Clark, who served as attorney general under President Johnson, wrote last month that Saddam”s rights had been systematically violated since his December 2003 capture, including his right "to a lawyer of his own choosing."
Clark and others say a fair trial is impossible in Iraq because of the insurgency and because, they argue, the country is effectively under foreign military occupation. U.S. and Iraqi officials insist the trial will conform to international standards.
Still, the trial has unleashed passions in an Iraqi society deeply divided in its judgment of Saddam and his rule.
Many of the Sunni Arab insurgent groups include Saddam loyalists, including members of the former ruling Baath party and veterans of both Saddam”s personal militia and the Republican Guard.
The ousted leader, meanwhile, is vilified by Iraq”s Shiite Muslim majority and its Kurdish community, which were oppressed during his rule.
On Saturday, hundreds of supporters of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr rallied in Baghdad to demand Saddam”s execution.
Separately, the leader of the biggest Shiite party, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, accused the court of "weakness" for not having sentenced Saddam to death already. He also complained that media attention over allegations of torture by the Shiite-led security services had belittled Saddam”s alleged crimes.
"The court will need all of its strength to resist the pressure," said Miranda Sissons of the International Center for Transitional Justice, an observer at the trial.
In an interview with a German magazine, chief judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin said he pondered moving the trial to Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq because of poor security in Baghdad. Iraqi law provides legal steps for moving the court elsewhere in the country.
However, Amin, a Kurd, said he decided the capital was secure enough for "regular and fair proceedings," even if "they are admittedly difficult."