RAY SUAREZ: John Burns, welcome. Today after many weeks of waiting, the first live witnesses took the stand in testimony against Saddam Hussein and his fellow defendants. What story did they tell?
JOHN BURNS: It was really the most extraordinary day. You have to remember that this trial has been 20 months in preparation since this special Iraqi court was established. It's been in session, the court, for seven weeks but has only managed to meet three times, the third time today. They've never got, until today, to the heart of the matter, the case against Saddam Hussein, the case that is the first of many that is going to tell us the story of how as many as two million people died here during his 24 years in power.
And it was the most wrenching experience to hear this first live witness speaking of the torture, speaking of babies being thrown out of windows, of human grinding machines at the headquarters of the secret police, of fathers watching their sons being tortured.
I'm sure much of this is in the evening television news in the United States but the effect has been quite electric across Iraq as we can measure it. People who have until know - people that I know who have until now seemed indifferent in some ways to the terrible things that were done here under Saddam Hussein-- I'm talking for the most part about Sunni Arabs who were the principal beneficiaries of Saddam's rules -- were absolutely mortified by what they heard today.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, as these wrenching details were being revealed, what was the former president of Iraq's demeanor?
JOHN BURNS: Well, that was very much part of the drama. As we have seen on his previous appearances in court: Defiant, indignant at the indignities, as he sees them that were visited upon him.
In the midst of the witness telling this tale so difficult for him in the telling that he broke down and sobbed several times, Saddam was continuously complaining that he didn't have a paper and pen, that he had to write his notes on his hand.
His attitude seemed to be in effect how dare you, Mr. Mohammed, and who are you anyway, to make these kinds of accusations against me? The other person who was notable in this respect was Saddam's half brother, Bazan al-Takriti, who was in some ways being more defiant today. He's the former head of the secret police at the time of the events charged in this trial which was an assassination attempt against Saddam in 1982 which was followed by the execution of 148 men and teen-aged boys from the town Dujail where that happened.
And the attitude seemed to vary on the part of the defendants, Saddam and his half brother in particular, from indifference to indignation. But at no point did you see anything reproaching pity or remorse.
RAY SUAREZ: Are these witnesses able to be cross-examined either by the defense attorneys or by the defendants themselves?
JOHN BURNS: Well, to the western eye, to the American or the British eye, this is a very strange proceeding. It's a civil law proceeding similar to one that you'd find in France, for example. They call it a truth-seeking process. It's not adversarial so the court summons the witnesses, not the prosecution or the defense.
We started today with the complaining witnesses, they are so-called that, that is to say the surviving victims of the atrocities that are charged in the case. And there is an opportunity for the defendants and their lawyers to intervene.
Today it was mostly the defendants themselves. The lawyers were eventually sidelined in this. And the judge was extraordinarily-- and some people might say excessively-- tolerant of their intervention so it became an adversarial process as between Saddam Hussein and Rizgar Mohammed Amin, the judge, with for long periods of time, the witness standing at his microphone waiting for Saddam in effect to end his postulation and rant.
RAY SUAREZ: Is the judge in control of the courtroom?
JOHN BURNS: Well, it's certainly a question as I'm sure anybody who has seen this trial and particularly today's proceedings would ask. He's a very experienced, a very sober, very even-tempered man, Mr. Mohammed Amin. And he's trying to do something that is extremely difficult.
This court in its inception and ever since has been heavily criticized both in Iraq and of course outside Iraq by legal monitoring groups as being in effect an American puppet creation, as being the wrong place and the wrong time to hold a trial in the middle of a war.
There have been many who said it should be an international tribunal at The Hague like the one that is trying Slobodan Milosevic. So he's trying very hard to impress the latitude that is being given to the defense.
On the other hand, he needs to get this trial moving because there are many millions of people in Iraq who want to see justice here. They want to see justice done not justice delayed.
And up until now it's been justice delayed even in the context of the trial itself because the defense lawyers have been extremely effective in the first three days in inhibiting, in effect, any real progress toward the core of the matter.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you talk about the people of Iraq wanting justice. What do they make of this whole spectacle that they're able to see on TV?
JOHN BURNS: I think I'd have to say that they, like us, find it is most astonishing spectacle. And I'm talking here not just the communities that were the principal victims of Saddam: The Shiites and the Kurds and the Turkmens and others but also the Sunni-Arab minority that ruled through Saddam Hussein, in fact, ruled here for centuries.
I think they find it extremely arresting. I would say the net of it all today after listening to this gut-wrenching testimony, the most important thing that happened today was there was finally after all this wait, there was an accounting of sorts.
The horrors through which people were subjected by Saddam's secret police were finally being laid out to the evident astonishment even of people who until very recently were telling me that Saddam Hussein was a hero and hoped for his restoration.
RAY SUAREZ: John Burns in Baghdad, thanks for being with us.
JOHN BURNS: Not at all. It's a pleasure.