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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 March 2006, 02:23 GMT
Chaos and comedy at Saddam trial
By Andrew North
BBC News, Baghdad

Saddam Hussein at his trial
Saddam used his appearance to condemn the invasion of Iraq
Saddam Hussein set the tone for his latest chaotic court appearance from the start - a day that led to the media being barred from much of the proceedings.

Invited by the judge to start his defence, he condemned the trial as a "comedy".

Twenty minutes later, the former Iraqi leader, wearing a black suit and white shirt, had not even mentioned the charges against him.

Instead, he used the session to call on people to fight American troops, whom he described as the "aggressors" and "the invaders".

With seven other defendants, he is accused in connection with the killing of 148 people in a village north of Baghdad in the early 1980s - which followed an assassination attempt on the Iraqi leader there.

But it was recent events that Saddam Hussein wanted to talk about.

Expressing his concern about recent sectarian strife in Iraq, he said "I call on the people to start resisting the invaders instead of killing each other."

That led to the first of several interventions by chief judge Raouf Abdel Rahman.

"What does this speech have to do with the case?" he demanded. "We asked for your testimony on the subject of Dujail and your role as the head of state at that time."

"I am the head of state," Saddam shot back.

"You used to be the head of state," the judge said. "Now you are a defendant in a court."

That exchange provoked smiles from officials across the courtroom.

Media censorship

But much of the time, the expressions you see are what you could describe as fearful fascination.

Iraqis in a Baghdad cafe watch Saddam's trial on television
Iraqis have been following the trial closely

Saddam Hussein's court appearances may no longer be a novelty, but for many Iraqis, seeing the man on trial whose name they would not even dare mention when he was in power, remains a compelling sight.

But when the former dictator continued with his appeals to the Iraqi people, the judge ordered transmission of his words and the English translation to the watching media to be cut.

This has happened before. Fearing security breaches and that defendants' statements could spark violence, court officials and their US advisers decided from the beginning to censor video and audio output from the trial.

At one point, journalists also heard in their headphones one of the American officials telling a translator to stop conveying Saddam Hussein's words.

Amid chaotic scenes in the courtroom, the judge then ordered journalists out.

The rest of the hearing was held in secret.

Denials and accusations

Is there any government that would not punish assailants after an assassination attempt on the head of state?
Barzan al-Tikriti

However, in effect, Saddam Hussein had already made his defence clear at his last appearance two weeks ago - admitting he had ordered the trial and executions of the Dujail villagers in response to the assassination attempt on him.

"Where is the crime?" he demanded then.

And sources in the court said he took a similar line in his statements after journalists were ejected.

So, too, did Barzan al-Tikriti, Saddam Hussein's half-brother and his former intelligence chief, when he testified earlier in the day.

"Is there any government," he asked the court, "that would not punish assailants after an assassination attempt on the head of state?"

But he denied any personal involvement in the Dujail killings.

He had been in the village, he said, but it was another security agency that had been responsible for the operation there.

His hands "were as clean as Moses" he insisted, frequently invoking the name of the key Shia figure, Imam Ali, despite the fact he is a Sunni Muslim.

Both Barzan al-Tikriti and Saddam Hussein are accused of far worse crimes than they allegedly committed in the Dujail case, including charges of genocide against Iraq's Kurds and Shias.

But prosecutors went for this one first because they believed it was more clear-cut and hoped it would be easier to prove their responsibility.

But as things are turning out, they are having to put the old Iraqi legal system under Saddam Hussein on trial as well as the man himself.

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