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Saddam Takes Stand, Calls Trial a 'Comedy'

RENEE MONTAGNE, host

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Saddam Hussein has taken the stand in his own defense. For the first time since his trial began last October, the former Iraqi leader testified from the witness box, calling the trial against him and seven co-defendants a comedy. He insisted that he remains the head of state, at which the chief judge interrupted him, saying, you are a defendant now. NPR's Jamie Tarabay is monitoring the proceedings in Baghdad, and she joins me now.

And, Jamie, did Saddam address the charges for which he and the others are on trial? That is, the 1982 massacre in Dujail?

JAMIE TARABAY reporting:

Not from what we've been seeing. He arrived, he was wearing a black suit, and he very quickly dismissed the trial proceedings, and then launched into a political speech. He brought a prepared document with him, and he didn't address the court. He directed his words directly to the Iraqi people. He talked about the violence that's increased tensions here. He said that didn't believe Iraqis themselves would be capable or responsible for the attacks that are going on. But at the same time, he hints words of praise and encouragement to the insurgency, saying that he had faith in their resistance of the American and the Zionist invasion, and that they would always be great in his eyes.

He may have finally addressed the subject of Dujail, but we're not able to know that now, since the session's been closed.

MONTAGNE: And the chief judge closed the proceedings to the public?

TARABAY: The judge is able to decide what is going to be censored, and what everyone can see. And if the journalists can watch it, then everyone else can watch it as well. It's sent out on a delay telecast onto Iraqi television.

MONTAGNE: And why did he do that?

TARABAY: Well, Saddam just wouldn't stay on the subject. I mean, every time the judge told him to focus on the charges, Saddam would just take up where he left off in his speech. They had a lot of exchanges that we were able to watch, and you could see the judge getting really annoyed with Saddam. At one point, he interrupted him and he said, you're facing criminal charges. This role of yours as president, it's over. You know, it's over now, you're a defendant, this is a court, we're not interested in politics. You were asked a question. And Saddam replied, well, you know, if it wasn't for politics, neither you or I would be here. You know, and the judge just kept on saying to him, leave the politics out of this. And Saddam said, well, if you don't like, you can add it to the accusations you have against me.

Not long after that, the judge, who's shown very little tolerance for bad behavior in the court, closed the session to the public.

MONTAGNE: Saddam is the last of the eight defendants to take the stand this week. Who among the others have taken responsibility for what happened in Dujail?

TARABAY: Well, one of the defendants that we've seen recently was the head of the revolutionary court during Saddam's time, and the revolutionary court ordered the execution of these villagers. But he argued that all the men confessed, and that they all received fair trails, and that's something that the court has been trying to show, that these men did not have due process, and that they were all punished unfairly. Barzan al-Tikriti here, Saddam's half-brother, he opened the testimony this morning, and he said the same thing. He said the death sentences were justified, and he said that Iraq was at war with Iran at the time, and this assassination attempt was part of an Iranian plot.

MONTAGNE: Just very briefly, where does the trial go from here?

TARABAY: Well, it adjourns for several weeks, and then the court will come up with formal charges. And, you know, there's still some way to go before it's all completely over.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Jamie Tarabay in Baghdad, where Saddam Hussein is testifying today in his own defense. Thanks, Jamie.

TARABAY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jamie Tarabay
After reporting from Iraq for two years as NPR's Baghdad Bureau Chief, Jamie Tarabay is now embarking on a two year project reporting on America's Muslims. The coverage will take in the country's approx 6 million Muslims, of different ethnic, socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, and the issues facing their daily lives as Americans.