Saddam calls on Iraqis to fight American troops, prompting judge to close court

Thursday, March 16, 2006

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Saddam Hussein, testifying Wednesday for the first time in his trial, called on Iraqis to stop killing each other and instead fight U.S. troops. The judge reprimanded him for making a rambling, political speech and ordered the TV cameras switched off.

Saddam began his speech by declaring he was the elected president, touching off a shouting match with chief judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman.

"You used to be a head of state. You are a defendant now," Abdel-Rahman told him.

Saddam, dressed in a black suit and wearing large reading glasses, repeatedly brushed off the judge's demands that he address the charges against him -- the killing of 148 Shiites and the imprisonment and torture of others during a crackdown in the 1980s.

Instead, he read from a prepared text, addressing the "great Iraqi people" -- a phrase he often used in his presidential speeches -- and said he was "pained" by the recent wave of Sunni-Shiite violence.

"Let the people unite and resist the invaders and their backers. Don't fight among yourselves," he said, praising the insurgency.

"In your resistance to the invasion by the Americans and Zionists and their allies, you were great. You were great in my eyes and you remain so. ... It's only a matter of time until the sun rises and you'll be victorious," he said.

Abdel-Rahman shouted at him again and closed the session for 90 minutes, ordering journalists out of the room and the delayed broadcast cut while Saddam finished reading his speech.

The stormy exchanges were a stark contrast to the past few sessions, when each of Saddam's seven co-defendants took the stand, one by one, and were questioned by the judge and prosecutor about the crackdown in the Shiite town of Dujail after a 1982 assassination attempt on the then-Iraqi president.

Even Saddam's half-brother, former intelligence chief Barzan Ibrahim -- who has frequently caused an uproar in the court in the past -- submitted to more than three hours of questioning earlier Wednesday. He denied any role in the crackdown, and as prosecutors presented a series of intelligence memos on the arrests allegedly with his signatures, he insisted each was a forgery.

Prosecutors will have another chance to try to question Saddam on the charges when the trial reconvenes April 5.

But in Wednesday's session, Saddam sought to project the image of a man still in power addressing his people in troubled times, even as Abdel-Rahman repeatedly stabbed a button on his desk to shut off Saddam's microphone.

At one point, the judge screamed, "Respect yourself!" Saddam shouted back: "You respect yourself!"

"You are a defendant in a major criminal case, concerning the killing of innocents. You have to respond to this charge," Abdel-Rahman told him.

"What about those who are dying in Baghdad? Are they not innocents?" Saddam replied. "I am talking to the Iraqi people."

In his speech, Saddam told Iraqis that "of all religions and sects ... I do not discriminate among you."

"What pains me most is what I heard recently about something that aims to harm our people," he said, referring to Shiite-Sunni violence that has rocked the country since the bombing of a major Shiite shrine in Samarra last month.

He blamed "criminals" for the shrine bombing and the attacks on Sunni mosques that followed, and urged Iraqis to unite. "What happened in the last days is bad," he said. "You will live in darkness and rivers of blood for no reason."

"The bloodshed that they (the Americans) have caused to the Iraqi people only made them more intent and strong to evict the foreigners from their land and liberate their country," he said.

After Abdel-Rahman closed the session, Saddam finished reading his speech.

Former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark, who is a member of Saddam's defense team, told CNN the speech explained the context of the time period in which the Dujail events took place, arguing the legality of the government actions while Iraq was at war with Iran.

But Clark said the judge "threatened us with prosecution if we release what (Saddam) said."

Saddam argued further with Abdel-Rahman, complaining about the closing of the session and insisting he wanted to help stop the violence. "I am trying to extinguish the fire with few drops of water," he said, according to a person close to the trial, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the judge's gag order.

When journalists returned to the court, Saddam was sitting alone in the defendants' pen. The chief prosecutor tried to question him, but he refused, demanding first to see a copy of an affidavit he made to investigators before the trial. Abdel-Rahman ordered that he be given a copy and adjourned the trial until April 5.

Saddam and the seven former members of his regime face possible execution by hanging if they are convicted in connection with the crackdown launched in Dujail following a July 8, 1982 shooting attack on Saddam's motorcade in the town.

In a March 1 session, Saddam stood up in court and boldly acknowledged that he ordered the 148 Shiites put on trial before his Revolutionary Court, which eventually sentenced them all to death. But Saddam insisted it was his right to do so since they were suspected in the attempt to kill him.

The defense has argued that Saddam's government acted within its rights to respond after the assassination attempt. The prosecutor has sought to show that the crackdown went well beyond the planners of the attack to punish Dujail's civilian population, saying entire families were arrested and tortured and that the 148 who were killed were sentenced to death without a proper trial.

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