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Arduous Hussein trial winding up

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The prosecutor called for the "maximum punishment" for the former Iraqi leader, his half-brother Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, former vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan, and the former head of the Revolutionary Court, Awad Hamid al-Bandar.

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The prosecution also called for charges to be dropped against farmer Mohammad Azzawi Ali, and "minimum" sentences for the three other low-ranking defendants. The defense team will make its closing arguments on July 10, after which the five judges will consider their verdict.

The air of relative civility that prevailed in the courtroom Monday masked a messy trial that has seen the murder of two defense lawyers, defense boycotts, the resignation of a chief judge, and long political speeches by the defendants that have only been reined in since Judge Abdel-Rahman took control last January.

The quiet image of the men in the dock stood in stark contrast to scenes after the regime was toppled in 2003: scores of mass graves; more than 900 individual graves near Abu Ghraib, crippled survivors of Halabja, and a nation damaged by more than two decades of war and sanctions.

In court Monday, the name "Saddam" rang out again and again, as the prosecutor and lawyers sought to punch holes in the defense team's case that all acts were legally carried out.

One lawyer, who could not be named or shown on the time-delayed TV, said the "so-called assassination attempt ... was imaginary," and that the regime had violated UN conventions on human rights and genocide.

Another lawyer said some testimony was faked, referring to confessions from four defense witnesses that they lied under oath.

Indeed, defense witnesses have often made contradictory or strikingly consistent statements. That was the case last Tuesday, when three former Hussein bodyguards, testifying from behind a curtain, each said the target car had been marked by a woman who had just slaughtered a sheep, using her bloody handprints. Each said the presidential convoy halted 50 yards after coming under gunfire from an orchard on the left. Each said that they heard Hussein issue orders to halt return fire.

"My understanding is that he did not want a single animal to be injured," the witness said. When asked by a defense attorney if such a man could ever order revenge, he replied: "I know the president has such high moral standards; his conscience would not allow him...."

At that, the judge dropped his head into his hands, clearly disgusted.

Such exchanges have kept Iraqis tuned into the 35 sessions so far. Several members of one family laughed about an exchange last week, when defendant Ibrahim complained that two guards were afraid to testify. "Afraid of whom? Ghosts?" asked Abdel-Rahman. "Afraid of this terrifying court," replied Ibrahim. "They're afraid to talk to you anymore." "You're terrifying," the judge shot back.

Within minutes, Ibrahim was removed from the court as defense lawyers cried: "They're assaulting him ... beating him!"

"Defense lawyers ... made a stupid strategy ... of challenging the legitimacy of the court," says Judge Maliky. "Instead of discussing evidence, they say: 'This court is illegal. This judge is illegal.' "

"They've done it for publicity," he charges, "to say: 'I was the lawyer of Saddam.'"