Former president Saddam Hussein was brought before an Iraqi judge on Thursday and formally accused of ordering mass killings and other atrocities while he ruled this nation, but he defiantly refused to recognize the court and insisted he was still the leader of Iraq.

Hussein's 26-minute court appearance, similar to an arraignment in the United States, was the first step in a lengthy process aimed at putting him on trial for crimes against humanity, genocide and other offenses. He was followed by 11 of his top deputies, who also were accused of roles in many of the same atrocities.

Appearing in court for the first time since he was captured by U.S. forces in December, Hussein at first looked confused, his eyes darting warily around the room that was once part of a presidential compound.

Then, in response to the investigative judge's questions, he began responding, combatively at times but coherently. He became animated, gesturing, shaking and nodding his head, wagging his finger and at times taking notes.

He challenged the legitimacy of the proceeding, saying that "everyone knows this is theater by Bush the criminal in an attempt to win the election."

He repeatedly interrupted the judge and demanded to have his lawyers present before he would sign documents certifying that he had been informed of the charges against him and of his rights.

And he attempted, briefly, to defend some of his actions, such as the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which was included among the charges read to him Thursday.

"I'm surprised you're charging me with this as an Iraqi, when everyone knows Kuwait is part of Iraq," Hussein told the judge, according to an initial translation provided by a member of the small pool of journalists who were allowed to attend the proceeding. Hussein was repeating an argument that his government used to justify the invasion that led to the Persian Gulf War the following year.

Hussein asserted later in the hearing that he was protecting the Iraqi people from Kuwaiti "dogs." He charged that oil-rich Kuwait had been turning Iraqi women into ten-dinar prostitutes and that he had sought to "defend Iraqi honor" and revive Iraq's "historical rights" to Kuwait.

In response to Hussein's disparaging remarks about Kuwait, the judge admonished him that he was in a court of law.

As videotapes of the proceedings were played later, translations of the exchanges between the judge and Hussein varied somewhat. But there was no mistaking the defiant attitude of the former president, who asserted that he had been "elected by the people" and asked the judge at one point, "What law formed this court?"

His demeanor stood in marked contrast to that last seen shortly after he was captured nearly seven months ago. Then, looking haggard and scruffy, with a bushy beard and unkempt hair, he meekly submitted to an examination by a U.S. military doctor, who probed his mouth with a tongue depressor.

Thursday, Hussein, 67, appeared in court looking older and thinner than he did during his days in power. But he was dressed neatly in a suit with a light blue shirt and no tie, and his gray-tinged beard and hair were trimmed.

In one finger-wagging exchange, Hussein told the judge, "It doesn't really matter whether you convict me or not. That's not what's important. But what is important is that you remember that you're a judge. Then don't mention anything [about] occupying forces. This is not good. Then judge in the name of people. Then that's good. Then judge in the name of the people. This is the Iraqi way."

In addition to Hussein, 11 of his former lieutenants are scheduled to be formally charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Thursday's hearing was the first step in what could be a lengthy process of investigation, legal maneuvering, trials and, most likely, appeals. While no actual trial is expected for many months, the initial proceeding was freighted with great symbolic importance here.

Two years ago, Hussein, shuttling from palace to palace, was feared by millions of Iraqis. Seven months ago, U.S. troops hauled him from a hole in the ground where he had been hiding, his hair as wild as brillo, his beard tangled and caked with dirt.

Thursday, he was led by countrymen from a heavily guarded armored bus in handcuffs secured to chains around his waist. They brought him into a courtroom at Camp Victory, a U.S. base that was once a presidential palace near Baghdad's airport, removed the cuffs and chains and sat him down before the Iraqi judge.

Inside the courtroom were a pool of reporters chosen to represent the international press, a television camera that recorded the proceedings and a number of Iraqi officials, some of them longtime enemies of the Hussein government. There was considerable confusion about the initial reports brought out by pool reporters. Some of them understood Arabic but did not take verbatim notes, while others did not understand Arabic at all.

Some video was released early, but included no sound. Video excerpts released later included audio and a translation.

Quotations from the proceedings in this report were based on initial accounts of the reporters at the event and on the various translations of subsequently released videotapes.

The proceedings, according to the pool reports, began about 2:15 p.m. local time (6:15 a.m. EDT).

"Are you Saddam Hussein?" the judge asked.

"Yes. I am Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq."

He was asked a series of questions: Where was he born? Was he once the leader of the Baath Party? Was he once the leader of the armed forces?

He responded to some verbally and indicated yes with a shake of his head to other questions. He also demanded that the judge introduce himself.

The judge informed Hussein that he was the investigating judge for Iraq's special tribunal, set up to try the crimes of the Hussein era.

Hussein asked who formed the court?

Iraqis formed the court, the judge responded.

"You are representing the occupying forces?" Hussein asked.

"No," responded the judge. "I'm an Iraqi representing Iraq." He went on to say he had been appointed as a judge "by a presidential decree under the former regime," meaning by Hussein himself, and was resuming his duties.

"Is it allowed to call a president elected by the people and charge him according to a law that was enacted under his will and the will of the people?" Hussein asked at another point.

The judge informed Hussein that he was being charged with seven serious incidents: The gassing of Kurdish villagers in Halabja in 1988; the killing of members of a prominent Kurdish family, the Barzani clan; the intentional killing of political party leaders over a 30-year period; a campaign to suppress ethnic Kurds and Shiite separatists; and the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Hussein tried to offer some comments on the charges. "I did all these things as president, so don't strip me of that title," he said at one point.

But the judge explained that this was not a trial.

The judge told Hussein he was entitled to an attorney and to have that attorney paid for if he could not afford one.

"Well," said Hussein, "according to the Americans I have millions of dollars in Geneva, so I should be able to afford one."

The judge asked Hussein to sign a document certifying that he had been read his rights, but Hussein refused, saying he wanted to confer with his lawyers first. The judge then ordered that the record should reflect that Hussein was duly informed of his rights.

The proceeding was the equivalent of a preliminary hearing or an arraignment. Legal experts believe the most likely path to a conviction of Hussein for committing genocide or crimes against humanity is to establish his command responsibility for the institutions of Iraqi government, including the military that tormented the Kurds and the security services that killed thousands of ordinary Iraqis between 1968 and 2003.

The well-documented 1988 Halabja attack, included by the judge in today's charges, may serve as a case in point. The chemical weapons attack on the Kurdish town in northeastern Iraq killed 5,000 people -- one of many instances in which the Hussein government allegedly used airborne poisons.

Documents gathered in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War include an order from Hussein granting supreme powers in Kurdish northern Iraq to his cousin, Ali Hassan Majeed, who was also to be arraigned Thursday. A June 1987 order from Majeed instructed Iraqi military commanders to carry out "special bombardments . . . to kill the largest number of persons present," according to Human Rights Watch.

The next year, an audiotape captured Majeed telling colleagues that he will use chemical weapons against the Kurds, whose political aspirations Hussein saw as a threat. Majeed, now a prisoner in Iraq, soon deployed the gas and became known as Chemical Ali.

"I will kill them all with chemical weapons," Majeed is quoted as saying in a transcript provided by Human Rights Watch. "Who is going to say anything? The international community? [Expletive] them -- the international community, and those who listen to them. I will not attack them with chemicals just one day, but I will continue to attack them with chemicals for 15 days."

In addition to the Halabja assault, a trial of Hussein will address the fearsome force used to quell an insurrection by Shiite Muslims at the end of the Gulf War and the subsequent draining of the southern marshes.

Led again by Majeed, who had moved south to take command, Iraqi troops terrorized communities with indiscriminate public shootings and air attacks, witnesses said. They killed an estimated 30,000 to 60,000 Shiites, most of them civilians, according to human rights organizations.

Back in control, Hussein and his security forces -- in a country labeled the "Republic of Fear" by Iraqi academic Kanan Makiya -- squeezed the Shiites in innumerable ways through the 1990s. One of the most infamous was the rerouting of the Euphrates River to dry up the southern marshes and disrupt traditions thousands of years old. An estimated 250,000 Marsh Arabs were forced to flee to Iran or move elsewhere inside Iraq.

Also included in the charges against Hussein was the 1983 roundup and massacre of as many as 8,000 members of the Barzani clan. Hussein became angered when the Kurdish Barzanis helped Iranian forces seize two slices of Iraq and is believed to have sent his forces to exact revenge.

Hussein's smaller-scale persecution of real and perceived political opponents will be an almost certain target, with prosecutors taking examples from the innumerable individual executions and episodes of violent harassment. Human rights workers identified scores of mass graves last year, suggesting that long-term repression claimed more lives than estimated.

Two prominent cases under discussion are the killings of Shiite ayatollahs Mohammed Bakr Sadr, executed with his sister in 1980, and his cousin Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, assassinated in 1999.

Since the fall of Hussein's government in April, researchers have identified 80 to 100 mass graves in Iraq. The number depends upon how one counts, since some sites include several mass graves in close proximity.

Some graves contain a few dozen bodies. Others -- like one in Hilla in southern Iraq -- contained 5,000 bodies, exhumed to the anguished cries of local residents. Four thousand of those men have been identified so far as Shiite rebels, all of them executed -- eyes blindfolded, hands tied behind the back, gunshot wounds to the head.

Barbash reported from Washington; staff writer Peter Slevin in Washington contributed to this report.