BAGHDAD, Iraq – Saddam Hussein dodged questions from prosecutors cross-examining him for the first time Wednesday over a crackdown against Shiites in the 1980s. But he acknowledged approving death sentences for 148 Shiites, saying he was convinced they tried to assassinate him.
At times sharp and combative but often relaxed or even smiling, the former Iraqi leader declined to confirm his signature on documents. When prosecutors presented identity cards of children whose death sentences they said he signed, he maintained they were forged.
“You can buy IDs like this in the market,” Saddam said. “Is it the responsibility of the head of the state to check the IDs of defendants and see how old they are?”
Standing alone in a black suit in the defendants’ pen, Saddam refrained from the outbursts he has made in previous sessions. But he denounced the court as “illegitimate” and attempted to tap into Sunni resentment of the Shiite-led Interior Ministry, which many Sunnis accuse of backing death squads.
The Interior Ministry “kills thousands of people on the streets and tortures them,” Saddam said.
“Don’t venture into political matters,” Chief Judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman admonished him.
The session came a day after the tribunal indicted Saddam and six former members of his regime on separate charges of genocide for a campaign against Kurds in the 1980s that killed an estimated 100,000 people.
A separate trial will be held on those charges, possibly beginning in 45 days, though some officials have questioned whether the tribunal will be able to conduct two trials simultaneously. In any case, it means a drawn-out legal process amid continued violence and political wrangling over the formation of Iraq’s next government.
In the current trial, Saddam and seven other former members of his regime face possible execution by hanging if convicted of a crackdown on Shiites launched after a 1982 assassination attempt against Saddam in the town of Dujail. In the sweep that followed, 148 Shiites were killed and hundreds were imprisoned. Many say they were tortured.
After a six-hour session, the trial adjourned until today. Prosecutors appeared to have finished questioning Saddam.
Chief Prosecutor Jaafar al-Moussawi asked Saddam about his approval of the death sentences handed down by his Revolutionary Court, which prosecutors have argued gave the Shiites only a cursory trial.
“That is one of the duties of the president,” Saddam replied. “I had the right to question the judgment. But I was convinced the evidence that was presented was sufficient” to show their guilt.