|In a cafe in the Khadariya district four friends, a cross-section of Baghdad society spanning two generations, sat down on Friday night to talk about the court appearance of Saddam. A fifth man was present, taking notes: The Observer's translator in Baghdad. When Iraqis speak to Iraqis - and not to western journalists - they say different things.
These are men, with one exception, who despise Saddam Hussein, and yet they equally hate the process that is bringing him to trial. Yousef Ali, a 40-year-old agricultural engineer, speaks first. 'I would like to see Saddam get a fair trial with a lawyer,' he says, pointing to the fact that Saddam has so far not had legal representation or even, apparently, access to lawyers. 'I would like to feel that something has changed from the former regime.'
Jamal Hamed, also 40, speaks next. 'I consider it to be totally illegitimate. It is a false tribunal and illegal.' He is a Saddam supporter, but also a deserter from the army, jailed for eight months. 'Whatever he did against the Kuwaitis, he did for a good reason.'
Mohammed Hamza is in his mid-20s. He repairs TVs. 'I felt sorry for him. I cannot explain why. But I felt it was wrong. I felt he should be tried under an elected government and not like this. It felt like a media spectacle - like propaganda. They only showed the parts where he was arrogant or angry.'
Last Thursday's court appearance of Saddam, planned as it was to convince doubtful Iraqis that their country was once more back in their hands, seems to have backfired just as last week's other momentous event - the secretive and low-key handover of power - only convinced them that they are right to be suspicious of anything involving the US.
Later, a Shia friend whose well-off family lost all they had under Saddam surprises me with his response. He says his brother, who loathed Saddam, had called from the United Arab Emirates to unleash his 'fury at the humiliation of Saddam'.
Last week Iraqis at home and abroad confronted their future and their past. Many felt cheated. First, as the US-led coalition handed over sovereignty to the interim government of Iyad Allawi and then when it handed over its former dictator to the legal, if not the physical, custody of Iraq under equally tight control.
These were moments in the story of the troubled new Iraq that, for all the violence and instability and disagreement, for all the risk, should have forged new memories and expectations. Instead, it unfolded in secrecy and separation from the Iraqi people, jarringly managed by US officials for US consumption.
It was a separation that became evident on Monday. While President George Bush grasped the hand of Tony Blair at the Nato summit in Turkey; while he scrawled 'Let freedom reign!', in Baghdad the reaction was muted.
The failure of Iraqi expectation was summed up by Fakhri Karim, publisher of Al-Mada newspaper in Baghdad: 'Symbolically,' he wrote, 'the ceremony was not commensurate with [the] enormous price that the Iraqis paid during 25 years of a rule by a single party and a single ruler, of a regime of mass graves and a year, three months and 20 days of occupation and chaos that set the stage for looting, thefts, booby-trapped cars, abductions and murders of Iraqi citizens; days that reverberated of decades gone by and futile aspirations, while the Iraqis never gave up hope for a better time.'
It was a view echoed in a leader in the Iraqi daily Azzaman: 'Suddenly, and after a series of misleading the people, a symbolic process for the transfer of authority has taken place. The nature of the transfer, its style of secrecy and its premature timing without a prior notice embody the situation as it is.'
Instead, Iraqis watched events unfold with a wary and a critical eye, with a sense of disconnection that was most obvious in the court appearance of Saddam.
From Irbil to Baghdad and to the Shia south, the questions that the world's media was asking about the appearance of Saddam seemed strange to Iraqis.
While in the UK and the US the trial of Saddam is a self-evident conclusion, in Iraq there are those who would wish him dead, yet reject a process so heavily guided by the US. There were many celebrating his day in court, but just as many were uncertain of the outcome they desired.
Even in Halabja, the Kurdish town gassed by Saddam, there is doubt. They heard the gassing listed in the charges against Saddam, but say they have not seen a court investigator come to take their version of events. 'They say they are interested in what happened in Halabja,' said Osman Ahmad, 40, bitterly in a cafe in the town centre overlooked by the vast monument to those who died. 'But it is just for Baghdad. It is only propaganda.'
So why is it that so many Iraqis, even those who suffered most seriously at his hands, remain so ambivalent about the process against Saddam, whom they nicknamed The Destroyer?
A clue is supplied by the attitude of Baghdad gallery owner Fayzel Al-Haidery, whose brother was killed by Saddam. She says: 'I do not want him to face a trial like this. He is an Iraqi but it is God who should punish him.'
Perhaps the complexity of the Iraqi response is summed up by Colonel Khadyr Al-Zubaie, a former bodyguard of Saddam who was imprisoned and so badly tortured that his feet are damaged permanently. 'I would like to be the judge,' he said. 'I would tell him that history has no mercy on those who betray history. Then I would look at him and be silent, and my silence would be the loudest scream in the world.'
It has been a constant refrain that has been here since the first US troops arrived. Saddam and his henchmen, for all their crimes, are still Iraqis. Their crimes belong to Iraq. Iraqis might celebrate his capture. They might wish to send him quickly to the gallows. But never at the Americans behest.
The heavily choreographed nature of Saddam's appearance - most of his words silenced by the judge - has intensified the suspicion that this was not a properly Iraqi affair.
Iraqis point to the fact that the only media permitted in the room were Americans. The only Iraqi was ejected. It was hardly a surprise. Instead, the secrecy, censorship and control that surrounded his appearance, and that of 11 other senior former regime members, is part and parcel of the way he has been treated since his capture.
Held at a secret location by American troops, by secret US jailers, interrogated for months in private without lawyers to advise him, Saddam has now been brought before a courtroom whose location is also secret and presented to a youthful Iraqi judge and court officials whose identities are also hidden.
Amid a sea of secrecy and anonymity it has left Saddam where he wants to be: a manipulative and charismatic killer, now self-proclaimed victim, at centre stage, surrounded by a host of faceless nobodies. He is the only character in a Samuel Beckett play rewritten for Iraq - evil, yes, but also uncertain, sometimes confused, robbed of his voice. It is for this reason, perhaps, that so many Iraqis say that they feel sorry for him.
So what is it that we learned about the conditions of Saddam's captivity? About his state of mind? And about Saddam?
We know that his interrogation, by and large, has been conducted by a single US officer who, we are told, has learned little from his hundreds of hours of conversation. We know, too, how the questions were framed, amid unverifiable assurances from anonymous US intelligence officials that he was not harmed, and that the only coercion was of the psychological kind.
We know that officers played mental tricks on Saddam, questioning him for long periods and then leaving and returning to ask a solitary and loaded question.
We know that he was boastful at times, angry at others, that sometimes he would talk about his sons or chide his American pursuers while he was on the run for 'shaming' those who had become too terrified to shelter him although they wanted to take him in.
What is clear from his appearance in the Iraqi court is his rejection not only of their right to try him, but by implication his rejection of his own condition. It was articulated in his declarative identification before the court: 'I am Saddam Hussein,' he said. 'President of the Republic of Iraq.'
It is a rejection of a court that is felt by far too many.
Additional reporting by Wail Mahdi Salih