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Hussein Tells Iraq to Unite Against U.S.

Times Staff Writer

Saddam Hussein took the witness stand at his trial for the first time Wednesday and openly incited insurgents to continue resisting the U.S. military presence in Iraq, prompting the chief judge to close the session to the press and public.

Rather than answer capital charges that he orchestrated the torture and killing of Shiite Muslims in the 1980s, the deposed president delivered a rambling 49-minute harangue, his longest and most inflammatory of the 5-month-old trial.

“O Iraqis, in your resistance to the invasion by the Americans and Zionists and their allies, you are great in my eyes and will remain so,” he declared, standing in the dock and reading from a yellow legal pad.

“It is only a short time before the sun will rise and you will be victorious,” he said.

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An agitated Judge Raouf Rasheed Abdel Rahman, seeking to damp the possible effect of the ex-leader’s words on one of Iraq’s bloodiest outbreaks of violence since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, shut off Hussein’s microphone nine times before halting the delayed television broadcast and closing the session. Later he recessed the trial until April 5.

The skirmish was a setback for the judge, who in recent weeks had imposed order on an unruly process and obliged Hussein and seven co-defendants to address incriminating documents that included signed execution orders. The prosecution says 148 men and boys were slain without trial as collective punishment for an assassination attempt against Hussein in the predominantly Shiite village of Dujayl in 1982.

“You are being tried in a criminal case for killing innocent people, not because of your conflict with America,” the judge told Hussein on Wednesday.

“Just yesterday 80 people were killed in Baghdad,” the former dictator retorted. “Are they not innocent?”

The Iraqi High Tribunal and its U.S. advisors had long sought to avoid such a spectacle, mindful of the ongoing insurgency here and the embarrassment posed by Slobodan Milosevic to his accusers in The Hague. The former Yugoslav president’s war crimes trial dragged on for four years without a conclusion before his death in prison last week.

Milosevic’s unwieldy 66-count indictment -- alleging genocide in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo -- complicated his trial. Acting as his own defense counsel allowed him to slow it further with rants portraying himself as a lone warrior standing up to the West.

Iraqis took note and made key decisions: A law was passed barring defendants from representing themselves before the Iraqi tribunal, and the first case against Hussein was a relatively uncomplicated one. For good measure, the court installed a system enabling the chief judge to shut off a defendant’s microphone.

But Hussein has seized the spotlight anyway. The first chief of the five-member trial panel, Rizgar Mohammed Amin, tried to be evenhanded and was reluctant, or unable, to rein in the former president’s impromptu outbursts. Not once did he shut off a microphone.

After Amin resigned in January under government criticism, Judge Abdel Rahman took over and cracked down on grandstanding. Hussein, other defendants and their lawyers walked out of the trial for several days.

When they returned, the judge began using a different system: The push of a button illuminates a red light, prompting a sound engineer in a booth to shut off a defendant’s mike.

Though Hussein had spoken out frequently during the trial, Wednesday was the first session intended for him to testify formally, answering the judge’s and prosecutor’s questions, as his co-defendants had done earlier in the week.

Abdel Rahman was uncharacteristically lenient at first, allowing Hussein to hold forth freely for 20 minutes.

The 68-year-old defendant, wearing a black suit and dark gray vest over a white shirt, spoke in a strong voice, alternately lyrical and scornful, addressing the judge as “your highness” and dismissing the trial as a “comedy.” He claimed to still be president.

He addressed the “great Iraqi people” -- a phrase he used in speeches as president -- and urged them to stop “these strange and horrid acts” of violence between Shiites and Sunni Arabs that have pushed Iraq to the brink of all-out civil war since the Feb. 22 bombing of the Golden Mosque, a Shiite shrine in Samarra.

Iraqis should stop fighting one another and unite against the U.S. occupiers, he said, “or you will live in darkness and rivers of blood for no reason.” The judge ordered Hussein to stop making political speeches and behave as a criminal defendant.

“If it were not for politics, I would not be here, and you would not be here,” Hussein retorted.

The sparring descended into chaos when chief prosecutor Jaafar Mousawi tried to lecture Hussein, bringing defense lawyers angrily to their feet. The judge screamed at them and at Hussein, waving his eyeglasses in the air. Hussein took off his glasses and waved them back.

A court official said Hussein finally addressed the charges in a general way, denying any wrongdoing, during the 90-minute closed portion of the hearing. When the courtroom reopened to the public, the defendant refused to be cross-examined by Mousawi until he could read a transcript of testimony he gave to investigators before the trial.

Mousawi agreed, but it was not clear whether Hussein would continue testifying when the trial resumes next month.

Hussein took the stand after his half brother, Barzan Ibrahim Hasan, underwent more than two hours of questioning during which he denied playing a role in the Dujayl massacre.

Mousawi showed the court a series of documents from the national intelligence service headed by Hasan in the early 1980s, some of which bore signatures said to be the defendant’s. One was a memo asking Hussein to promote six intelligence officers involved in the Dujayl crackdown.

“This is not my signature,” Hasan said. “My signature is easy to forge, and this is forged.”

He used the same argument to disavow another intelligence service document reporting on hundreds of Dujayl detainees held at intelligence headquarters and the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, where most of them were hanged.

The judge ordered handwriting analyses of the signatures.

While insisting that another agency was responsible, Hasan said the government was justified in punishing the villagers because they had plotted the assassination attempt with help from Iran, which was then fighting a war against Iraq.

Several witnesses from Dujayl testified earlier that Hasan had tortured them under interrogation about the Iran-backed Islamic Dawa Party.

Hasan claimed he was being prosecuted because he refused to testify against Hussein.


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