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Iraq Transition

Behind closed curtains, Hussein still boastful

By Jennifer Deaton
CNN

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Barzan Hassan gestures on May 17 as Jennifer Deaton, white shirt, and other journalists take notes.

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Behind the Scenes

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- The trial for Saddam Hussein and his seven co-defendants is over for the day and, as usual, the curtains are drawn to mark the session's end. Only this time, the curtains aren't fully drawn. Where the curtains should meet is a gap wide enough to allow a view into the courtroom.

A few other journalists and I excitedly crouch, crowd and climb chairs to see the forbidden. We see a court now informal with the departure of the chief judge and a behind-the-scenes glimpse of Hussein. His defense lawyers stand in line to greet him.

One by one, faces filled with a kind of reverence, they kiss his cheeks and exchange words. Hussein looks pleased and relaxed, smiling and chuckling with his new cohorts. For just this moment, the Saddam Hussein of old is back, literally holding court.

My friend and producer from a competing network, Jomana Kharadsheh, assures me this is a rare treat. She'd know, having attended the trial 15 times. After several minutes of peeking through the divide, a guard blocks our view.

Who's running the show?

This was my first time in the Iraqi High Criminal Court, a grand building by current Iraqi standards. The ride to court that morning didn't take long. The security measures are exceptionally thorough and I was able to walk around for the first time in Baghdad without a flak jacket.

Inside the high court, everything's glossy, most notably the marble floors and 1980's design. A large room designated for journalists is fitted with a Hussein-era chandelier and private workspaces. We all have computers and phones, and there's a flat-screen monitor that shows the trial. We have the choice to watch the session from here or go into the courtroom itself. Everyone chooses to start in the courtroom.

On a cue, we enter the media box, which is separated from the courtroom by a glass wall. Until the trial begins, that wall is concealed behind curtains. Some seats are labeled as being visible by cameras taping the trial so that local media, weary of being identified and targeted, can avoid them.

I sit up front to get a good view. I expect to be some distance from the defendants' pen, but as the curtains slide open, I realize I'm just inches behind the once-ever-so-powerful characters of Hussein's regime.

Chief Judge Raouf Abdul Rahman enters, followed by the lawyers. The glass partition is transparent from both sides and journalists are expected to rise when the rest of the court does and generally behave with decorum. I'd heard several stories of court clerks bearing memos from the judge asking journalists not to prop their feet up on the glass, sleep in clear view, or in certain instances to keep laughing at a minimum. One Arab journalist shares with me later that he rose not out of deference for the judge, but out of deference for Hussein. Not everyone hates him.

In standard Iraqi courtroom drama, the bailiff screams out the name of each defendant, and they enter one by one. The first name called is Hussein's. He walks in quietly, wearing a dark suit and looking thinner and more tired than I expect. He sits in his pen with no comment and no fanfare. The man often called the Lion of Babylon now seems just an old man -- quite the contrast to the proud man I will see behind closed curtains a few hours later.

Hussein was followed by his co-defendants. The last to enter is Hussein's half-brother Barzan Hassan, former head of the Mukhabarat, or Iraqi intelligence. Hassan's seat is right in front of mine. As he turns to sit, he looks sulkily and directly at me and Jomana. I look away first, unnerved. It's Hassan who interrupts sessions most often.

He once called the court a "daughter of a whore" and then spent the remainder of the session with his back to the judge, staring then, as he is now, straight into the media box. Jomana tells me that at yet another session, a female journalist dropped her notebook, and made Hassan's day when she leaned over to pick it up in her loose-fitted blouse. I sit up straighter.

Hussein smiles when a co-defendant, frustrated by the pace and unconvincing testimony, interrupts angrily to plead his innocence. Later, when another witness admits he was only 7-years-old at the time of the Dujail incident, Hussein reminds the court he is a lawyer and dispenses legal counsel, advising that children have imaginations and are, therefore, not reliable witnesses.

For the most part though, Hussein is quieter and more submissive this day. And that's why I'm so struck by the contrast when the show is over. Hussein might be less substantial physically, but behind closed curtains he is -- at least to his supporters -- still a man in power.

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