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Saddam Takes the Stand, Praises Iraqi Insurgency

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Saddam Hussein entered a Baghdad courtroom today and took the stand for the first time officially in his own defense. He and seven codefendants are facing charges in connection with the murder of 148 Shiite villagers.

NORRIS: In a moment, a discussion about the increased violence in Iraq with U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. The U.S. is sending 700 new troops into the country. First, in today's trial, Saddam was warned by the chief judge to make only statements pertinent to the trial. It was a warning Saddam ignored.

From Baghdad, NPR's Tom Bullock.

(Soundbite of Saddam Hussein's trial)

TOM BULLOCK reporting:

His testimony started simply enough, with Chief Judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman verifying the defendant's full name and his former occupation.

Mr. SADDAM HUSSEIN (Former Iraqi Dictator): (Foreign language spoken)

BULLOCK: From there, the deposed dictator launched into a political diatribe, laced with references to Allah and verses of the Koran. Saddam said the special tribunal trying him and his seven codefendants was little more than a comic play. Saddam showed that even while he's detained, he's keeping up on Iraqi current events, referring to the recent bombing of a Shiite shrine that sparked sectarian violence still sweeping Iraq.

Mr. HUSSEIN: (Foreign language spoken)

BULLOCK: What pains me most, Saddam told the court, is not the conditions in which I live, but what I've heard recently about aims to harm our people. Saddam added, my conscience and my mind tell me the great people of Iraq have nothing to do with these acts. Then, the man currently standing trial for the execution of 148 and still waiting to stand trial for the deaths of thousands more called on Iraqis to stop killing each other and to join together in fighting the Americans. And he urged on the insurgency.

Mr. HUSSEIN: (Through translator) So we pray to God that that will be the end of our suffering, so our people would turn their attention to fighting the occupier. I call upon all Iraqis, men and women in all parts of Iraq, and your resistance to the American Zionist invasion. You are great. In my eyes you'll always be great.

Judge RAOUF ABDEL-RAHMAN (Judge, trial of Saddam Hussein): (Through translator) This is a courtroom. This is a criminal court. We are not interested in politics.

BULLOCK: Chief Judge Abdel-Rahman stepped in, demanding Saddam stick to the case at hand, the killings in the Shiite village of Dujail more than 20 years ago. And after each interruption Saddam asked for the court's patience, saying he would get to the charges.

Mr. SADDAM HUSSEIN (Former Iraqi Dictator): (Foreign language spoken)

BULLOCK: When he didn't, the chief judge cut the audio feed from the courtroom, in effect censoring what Iraqis and the rest of the world would hear. Eventually the chief judge closed the proceedings entirely.

Judge ABDEL-RAHMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BULLOCK: Judge Abdel-Rahman said the court would go into secret session. Saddam replied, that's fine with me. With that, the courtroom video and audio were cut. Throughout his testimony, Saddam Hussein continually referred to himself as the president of Iraq and the commander of its military forces. He called himself the sword of the great Iraqi people and referred to them as his shield, the stock phrases of Saddam past, the same that Iraqis were constantly bombarded with under his regime. It didn't surprise 28-year-old Ahmed Hassan (ph).

Mr. AHMED HASSAN (Citizen, Iraq): (Through translator) The speeches of Saddam Hussein are known. He starts by addressing his speech to the Iraqis. Oh, great Iraqi people. Oh, Arab nation. Then he begins with a verse from the Koran. He is doing exactly the same thing now.

BULLOCK: Hassan is a Sunni, and, like the fallen Iraqi strongman, he sees this court as nothing but a puppet show run by the Americans. But Hassan believes Saddam should be convicted. Akram Mahmoud (ph), a 40-year-old Shiite, agrees.

Mr. AKRAM MAHMOUD (Citizen, Iraq): (Through translator) According to the Iraqi law, if a person deliberately kills a human being, he should be executed. But Saddam did not kill one person. He killed 148 people. He should be executed 148 times. Every Iraqi has a tragedy. Every house has a tragedy.

BULLOCK: If convicted, Saddam Hussein and his codefendants could be sentenced to death by hanging. The trial is set to reconvene on April 5. However, defense lawyers have asked for a lengthy delay in order to prepare their case.

Tom Bullock, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bullock
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