CAIRO (Reuters) - Arabs showed little sympathy for Saddam Hussein as he went on trial on Wednesday but many said the court trying the toppled Iraqi leader would not give him a fair hearing because it was set up under U.S. occupation.
"Everyone knows that the trial is an American game, but the truth must come out," said Mohammad Abdullah Majrashi, a 56-year-old retired government employee in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Saddam is being tried by the Iraqi Special Tribunal, charged with crimes against humanity for his role in killing more than 140 people in the village of Dujail after an assassination attempt more than two decades ago. Seven other members of his Baath Party are also being tried.
"The people do not like Saddam. He should be tried because he oppressed his people. But this an American process," said bookshop employee Mohamed Mahmoud, 27, in downtown Cairo.
Qatari graphic designer Lulwa al-Qadi said: "I believe Saddam should be tried, but I am certain he will not have a fair trial. It is a case for Iraqis to try, but I feel his fate has already been decided."
The tribunal was set up after Saddam's capture in 2003 while U.S. forces were formally occupying Iraq. International rights groups have queried the tribunal's impartiality and some Arabs believe the verdict has already been fixed.
The pan-Arab daily al-Hayat printed a cartoon showing Saddam before the tribunal seated in an electric chair plugged into the power socket and with a note attached reading: "A present from President Bush."
Most Arabs vigorously opposed President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and remain suspicious of U.S. intentions in Iraq and the region. Some question whether the Iraqi government can really be independent when U.S. forces are still in the country.
"This is an illegitimate trial because the Americans have occupied Iraq, a Muslim country. Bush should be the one in Saddam's chair," said Hassan Nasser, 33-year-old Lebanese man, who works in the Internet industry.
"There is a sense and a conviction that what is going on inside Iraq, including the trial of Saddam, is the result of an illegal occupation ... imposed on Iraq by the Americans," said Egyptian political analyst Mohamed al-Sayed Said.
Nevertheless, some in the region say the trial could send a message about accountability to other leaders in the Arab world, where many presidents and ruling families have governed for decades with few, if any, democratic credentials.
"It's an important step for justice when we get to the day when all those who massacred their people would get their punishment. It's a lesson for all the Arab leaders," said George Estfan, a 45-year-old Lebanese architect.
"Saddam committed many crimes but all the Arab states helped him," said Haitham Nabil, 31, an Egyptian Internet shop manager. "It's the Iraqis' right to put him on trial but not the Americans'."
For many Kuwaitis, Saddam's trial has been eagerly awaited since 1990, when Saddam ordered his troops into the small Arab state and occupied it for seven months.
"I am ecstatic for the start of the trial of the tyrant Saddam Hussein and for witnessing earthly justice taking place before heavenly justice," Abdulrahman al-Humaidan, head of Kuwait's Lawyers Association, told the daily al-Rai al-Aam.
And there was similar anticipation in non-Arab Iran, which fought a bloody eight-year war with Iraq in the 1990s.
"I have always dreamed about today. I wish they could have let me kill Saddam with my own hands. My brother was a 19-year-old soldier, when killed by Iraqis," said 53-year-old Iranian Zohreh Zarandi.
(With additional reporting by Tom Perry and Mohammed Abbas in Egypt, Dominic Evans in Saudi Arabia, Parisa Hafez in Iran, Ayat Basma in Lebanon, Yara Bayoumy and Miral Fahmy in the United Arab Emirates, Odai Sirri in Qatar, Haitham Haddadin and Mahmoud Harbi in Kuwait)
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