BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) — Saddam Hussein stepped into an Iraqi court on Thursday and entered a new chapter in the country’s history, facing accusations that included the invasion of Kuwait and the gassing of Kurds.
Appearing before a judge in a 30-minute hearing, Saddam looked thin and downcast.
When he was ushered into the court, the judge asked him his name and twice he said, “I am Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq.”
The judge asked whether he understood his rights and could afford counsel. Saddam pointed his finger at the judge, asking whose jurisdiction the court was under.
He was read seven preliminary charges outlined in his arrest warrant, which involve the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, suppression of the Kurdish and Shiite uprising in 1991, political killings, religious killings and the gassing of the Kurds.
These are not the formal charges against Saddam, which will be worked out in an indictment over the next few months.
Saddam challenged the court on his invasion of Kuwait.
He kept saying, “How could you say that? I did that for the Iraqi people … how could you defend these dogs,” he said, referring to the Kuwaitis.
The judge reprimanded him for his language.
“This is all a theater, the real criminal is Bush,” Saddam said, during one outburst, referring to the U.S. president.
He also denied the accusation of gassing Kurds at Halabja.
“I heard about that on the television reports, saying it happened during the rule of President Saddam Hussein,” he told the judge.
He refused to sign court documents that said he understood what took place in court, noting that he wanted his attorney present.
Saddam arrived about 2:20 p.m. in an armored bus, as part of a convoy that included four Humvees and a military ambulance.
He was led into the building by two Iraqi correctional service officers. Six other correctional officers stood at the entrance to the court facility, which is near the Baghdad International Airport.
He wore handcuffs and a chain around his waist. Once Saddam was in front of the judge, guards removed the shackles.
Images of his arrival were not broadcast live, but video and photographs will be released later in the day.
After the proceeding, Saddam was being escorted to a new place of detention, still under U.S. military guard.
The same procedure will take place with the 11 high-profile members of his regime, who also face charges. They include former deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz, who often defended the regime internationally, and Ali Hassan al-Majid, dubbed “Chemical Ali” for his alleged role in the use of chemical weapons on Iraqi civilians.
Two of Saddam’s half-brothers are also in the group, along with his vice president, defense minister and presidential secretary.
None of the detainees will have legal counsel in Thursday’s proceedings.
Saddam and the others were transferred to Iraqi legal custody on Wednesday, but they remain in U.S. military hands.
Iraq’s interim president, Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawar, told CNN’s Jane Arraf the trial will be fair and not influenced by politics.
“All Iraqis can listen and hear and understand that he will be tried according to the law,” al-Yawar said. “There will be no political aspect to his trial.
He said the trial “means that a very dark era has been gone forever.”
National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie said Iraq has “a long, long, long list of crimes against Saddam Hussein,” citing the chemical attacks in Halabja, the execution of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, people killed in mass graves, and the launching of three wars.
“These are crimes against humanity, homicide and genocides,” he concluded.
Months from now, the suspects will be formally indicted. After that, Saddam and his aides will face trial — all part of a process that that his Jordanian attorney asserts will be illegal and unfair.
The historic transfer of Saddam from United States to Iraqi custody began on Tuesday night, the end of the first full day of power for the interim government.
Official papers were handed to the U.S. authorities, formally requesting legal custody of Saddam and the others.
Later, the transfer to legal authority took place. It means the 12 are no longer prisoners of war or protected under the Geneva Conventions. Instead, they are criminal suspects under Iraqi law.
During the transfer Saddam looked visibly shaken, according to Salem Chalabi, head of the Iraqi Special Tribunal.
Chalabi said Saddam was advised that he had the right to legal counsel, and he wanted to ask questions but he was told he would be able to ask them during his court appearance Thursday.
Some former regime officials who remain at large — such as Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, the highest-ranking former official not in custody — could face trial in absentia, according to Iraqi Justice Minister Malik Dohan al-Hassan.
In an interview with CNN, Feisal al-Istrabadi, the principal drafter of the transitional administrative law, was asked about the availability of war crime evidence if Saddam didn’t sign documents approving the actions he is suspected of spearheading.
“The crimes of the regimes were not few and were not small in scale. You are talking about mass public executions. For instance in 1969 there were mass public executions on TV of 13 men.
“These were not hidden crimes, they were in open, under the principles of command responsibility, whether you have a document signed by Saddam or not, under the principles of command, the crimes were so ubiquitous, that I think it would be virtually impossible for Saddam to argue that he did not know.”
Fugitives may face trial in absentia
Iraqi Justice Minister Malik Dohan al-Hassan said some former regime officials who remain at large — such as Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, the highest-ranking former official not in custody — could face trial in absentia.
Al-Rubaie said the trial “is going to be the trial of the century” and “we will try our best to broadcast and show this trial live on television everywhere in the world to see what Saddam has done to this country.”
“We are going to demonstrate to the outside world that we in the new Iraq are going to be an example of what the new Iraq is all about,” said al-Rubaie, saying there will be a separation of powers with the government not having any influence on the trial proceeding.
“We are not going to see Saddam say, ‘I’m sorry. I did these crimes. I apologize to the Iraqi people and please forgive me.’ We’re not going to see that.”
From Christiane Amanpour
CNN Chief International Correspondent