March 16, 2006
Hussein Urges Iraqis to Unify in War on U.S.
By EDWARD WONG
BAGHDAD, Iraq, March 15 — Saddam Hussein took the witness stand on Wednesday for his first formal testimony in his trial and delivered an incendiary political diatribe that urged Iraqis to stop sectarian bloodshed and to carry on the war against the Americans. The presiding judge halted the session after Mr. Hussein, brandishing thick reading glasses, repeatedly lambasted the court.
Mr. Hussein's nearly 40-minute speech was the most riveting element so far in a trial that has already been punctuated by tirades from the defendants and searing testimony from victims. Mr. Hussein marched up to the defendants' lectern in the midafternoon, after his half brother had spent three hours proclaiming their innocence, and read from a yellow notepad.
He had delivered outbursts before, but his sense of decorum and calm manner on Wednesday showed he was keenly aware that this afternoon, at this hour, the spotlight was reserved for him. He was better dressed than in previous sessions, draped in a black suit and charcoal-gray vest with a white shirt. His hair was combed and parted.
He went on to do exactly what Iraqi and American officials had long feared he might — use the session, televised across the Middle East, to try to incite the Sunni-led insurgency to further violence.
"You've been great throughout history and you've been great in your resistance to the American and Zionist invasion and its followers," he said in a firm voice, after calling on Iraqis to stop the sectarian violence. "You've been great in my eyes."
"You're defending your country against the occupation," he continued. "I want you to stick to your virtues, your faith and your patience."
In sharp rejoinders, Mr. Hussein demonstrated a command of recent events in Iraq. Told by the judge that he was accused of killing innocent people, Mr. Hussein pointed to the scores of bodies found this week, the victims of sectarian killings. "Just yesterday, 80 bodies of Iraqis were discovered in Baghdad," he said. "Aren't they innocent?"
Not once did Mr. Hussein address the case at hand, in which he and seven co-defendants are charged with jailing, torturing and executing 148 men and boys from the Shiite village of Dujail in the 1980's. The expression on the face of the presiding judge, Raouf Abdel-Rahman, turned from bemusement to fatigue to fury. After a few heated exchanges, and after cutting off the sound at least nine times, the judge barred reporters from the court for more than 90 minutes, allowing them to return only after Mr. Hussein had finished speaking.
Mr. Hussein was the last of the defendants to testify, marking the mid-way point of the trial. Judge Abdel-Rahman adjourned the court until April 5, when Mr. Hussein may return for cross-examination. The three-judge panel will then decide what formal charges to bring against each defendant, while lawyers for both sides prepare for further arguments. American officials say the trial will continue until at least late May. Even before Dujail ends, investigative judges are expected to refer the next case against Mr. Hussein for trial. It covers what is known as the Anfal campaign, in which Mr. Hussein's government razed villages across Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1980's and killed about 80,000 Kurds.
Since October, when the Dujail trial opened, Iraqi and American officials have struggled to establish the legitimacy of the Iraqi High Tribunal in the eyes of international observers and ordinary Iraqis. Even before the first session, the court was plagued by the assassinations of a judge and defense lawyers; political machinations aimed at purging judges; and attempts by the Iraqi government to shape the trial. During the trial, the court has had to contend with disorderly defendants, ambiguous witness testimony and a reshuffling of judges, after the first presiding judge resigned over criticism that he was too lenient.
American and Iraqi officials have insisted that the trial be held in this country, in defiance of a growing chorus of human rights advocates and foreign observers who urge that it be moved to an international venue. In any case, those critics would be difficult to win over, because most of them oppose the death penalty, which is expected to be levied against Mr. Hussein and his top aides.
The trial took a serious turn on Feb. 28, when the lead prosecutor presented documents that, he argued, showed Mr. Hussein's signature on execution orders of the 148 victims, who were rounded up in Dujail after a failed assassination attempt on Mr. Hussein there in 1982. But Mr. Hussein's fiery speech on Wednesday threatened to plunge the trial back into the circuslike atmosphere that has dogged it.
Though Iraqis huddle around television sets during each court session, there are few in this country who have not already made up their minds about Mr. Hussein. His supporters, mostly Sunni Arabs, have been bolstered by his display of defiance. His detractors say that same defiance shows Mr. Hussein is unrepentant, and should have been marched to his death immediately.
"This is a farce," said Akil Mutar, 24, a worker in a cramped foodstuffs shop downtown. "A man like Saddam shouldn't be submitted to the court, but should instead be executed even without being questioned. Saddam, through his speech, thinks and talks as if he's still the president."
Judge Abdel-Rahman, though firm in previous sessions, appeared to stumble a bit on Wednesday on the tightrope he has walked between allowing the defendants their right to speak and silencing them when they grandstand. American and Iraqi officials say they need to find that balance because they are anxious to demonstrate that this is not just a show trial leading to an inevitable verdict.
Mr. Hussein's half brother Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, who oversaw the intelligence service during the Dujail massacre, strode into court before 11 a.m. on Wednesday in a gray robe and red-and-white head scarf, a statement in his hand. Six of the eight defendants had testified Sunday and Monday. Like the others, Mr. Ibrahim denied any wrongdoing and said that, during the Dujail incident, he had "released many detainees and shook hands with them."
He justified the trials of those rounded up from Dujail by saying they had conspired with Iran to try to assassinate Mr. Hussein.
Mr. Ibrahim also said that documentary evidence that the prosecution had unveiled in earlier sessions had all been forged. Court officials have not explained whether or how they are authenticating evidence.
After a recess, Mr. Hussein glided up to the lectern.
He spoke of the Feb. 22 bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra, and how "criminals" and not Iraqis were responsible. "This is part of a plan to divide the people instead of carrying out jihad," he said, brown-rimmed glasses perched on his nose. "We know the resistance against the occupation will organize and go on and on, and the government will stumble even if it's supported by the occupiers."
Judge Abdel-Rahman interrupted a couple of minutes later.
"This is rhetoric," he said. "What's its relation to the subject?"
"I am still the president of the state," Mr. Hussein said. "I am president."
"You were president of the state," the judge said. "Now you are a defendant."
Mr. Hussein responded, "This is what you say and this is according to you and your conscience. As for me, I hold my oath in front of my people until the people choose someone other than me."
He labeled the Americans "criminals who came under the pretext of weapons of mass destruction and the pretext of democracy."
The prosecutor, Jaafar al-Mousawi, shouted a harsh warning to Mr. Hussein. The defense lawyers and Mr. Hussein yelled back.
The judge pressed a button. Television screens across Iraq went silent. The reporters and cameramen inside the courtroom were asked to leave.
They were allowed back in for a few final remarks. Later, in the hallway, Mr. Mousawi told reporters that during the closed session, Mr. Hussein had "gone on saying what he wanted to say."
Khalid al-Ansary contributed reporting for this article.