July 8, 2004 | The Indianapolis Star

Saddam Takes the Stage and Delivers His Lines

Saddam Hussein's defiant attitude during his court appearance was not the product of a delusional former tyrant. It is a staged cinema of a carefully planned series of steps. While many in the West had their eyes wide-open at the first appearance of the former dictator in the Iraqi court, the man who ordered the massacre of tens of thousands, and caused about a million deaths, had his eye on the world cameras: here lies his real and final lines of defense.

His aggressiveness in court has its roots in a logic that still escapes many. By Hussein's standards, he has already won one battle. He felt he would be executed on-site had he been found by the Peshmergah fighters or armed Shiites. The first challenge, for him, was to avoid the fate of Mussolini and Ceacescau. There was not a shred of a doubt, that if captured by the militias of the communities he had tried to eliminate, he would have been submitted to retaliation, ending with “revolutionary” execution. The world would have read the news, and few would have complained. Ironically, it was U.S. soldiers, the ones killed by his followers, who found him and therefore whisked him into legal protection.

Once he survived his own people, and got the protection of a legal system he has abused for so long, he feels he has a podium, a weapon of mass confusion.

So, what's his plan? First, he wants to dominate the stage. He's seen Slobodan Milosevic on TV. He knows that all the strong statements — such as “I don't recognize this ” — won't cause more than the noise of a fallen tree in a huge forest, if not accompanied by brush fires. Hence, he has planned his words meticulously. Each time Saddam answered a question, he was sending a coded message to his lawyers, followers and friends around the world.

“This is a masrahiya,” he screamed. Literally, this means “comedy” in Arabic, but also means a theatrical conspiracy. This is his instruction to attack the “legitimacy” of the court, and, hence, the Iraqi interim government. He knows his words will make their way in the Arab Street through al Jazeera television and other friendly media.

He introduced himself as the “President of Iraq,” stating that no one can remove him from office. The argument will be used by his defense team.

“This trial is to allow Bush to be re-elected,” he analyzes. Any criticism of any sitting American president, in a country that has not been able to absorb the jihad complexities yet, will please his political opponents, both at home and overseas. Saddam knows this. He has heard the marching anti-war demonstrators for months. He knows there is fuel out there. This is the ammunition for his weapon of mass confusion.

But Saddam knows that all his tactics are designed to gain him time. For when the witnesses start pouring into the court room, his nightmare will debut. No lawyer, no editorialist, no activist can withstand the tears of survivors. The former Baathist dictator wants to score as many points before this deluge starts. He hopes he will upgrade himself to the status of “political prisoner,” instead of struggling with the qualification of war criminal. He has planned on shaking the earth under his opponents, before the earthquake of the testimonies would wipe out all of his defenses.

Hussein, who has never hesitated before massacring his own people, won't stop himself from intimidating the judges who are trying him for these horrors. In an almost veiled manner, which escaped most analyses, Saddam promised more bloodshed. With subtle language that only people who have the experience of Arab dictatorships can detect, he has sent a threat to the judge facing him. “You are an Iraqi judge, right? Then beware, you are responsible in front of the Iraqi people.” And with his eyes, Hussein asked, “Do you know what it means?”

To many observers, this is equal to a warning. The “Iraqi people” are none other than the “cells” operating within the Sunni triangle. If you decode Hussein's speech, you come to realize that the entire court, as well as its government, is put on notice by the “capo de capi.”

Note how young and determined the judge is. Hussein represents Iraq's past attempting to come back, and those who have chosen to serve in this tribunal are among the most courageous people in Iraq, possibly around the world. These men know very well that they will have to live with the remnant of this violent past. They are among the first fighters for a free and democratic Iraq.

Phares is a professor of Middle East studies and religious conflict at Florida Atlantic University and a terrorism expert with MSNBC.