Hussein admits responsibility, not guilt

Iraq's former leader defended his actions in court Wednesday.

Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, after days of withering testimony about his involvement in the killings of 148 residents of a small farming town, decided he'd had enough.

He'd been called a torturer and a murderer and toward the end of Wednesday's court session, he sternly sought to command the courtroom's attention. The essence of his comments: "Of course I did it."

"I am Saddam Hussein, and at the time of leadership I am responsible," he said. "It is not [my] habit to rely on others."

What looks like an admission of guilt for the crimes committed against the residents of Dujail after Mr. Hussein survived an assassination attempt there in 1982, may be a preview of his probable defense strategy.

Hussein, whose brutal micromanagement of Iraq was patterned after his hero, Joseph Stalin, doesn't appear to be preparing to argue that he wasn't aware of crimes that might have been committed. Instead, legal experts say, the essence of his defense will be that his acts were reasonable ones given that Iraq was at war at the time, and legal under the country's then laws and constitution.

Hussein's comments were the most forthright and substantive admission of involvement in the harsh reprisals in Dujail. However, he argued that he acted well within his rights as head of state.

After a Shiite militia tried to kill Hussein in 1982 in the formerly sleepy town of Dujail, he brought the full fury of his regime down upon its residents.

Hundreds were arrested, including infants, and 148 people were ordered executed after being found guilty by the Revolutionary Court, which was directly answerable to Hussein. Those killed included at least 10 juveniles.

"When the defense makes its case, they will do a lot of things that compare what happened in Dujail to what the US has done in Afghanistan and Iraq,'' says Michael Scharf, a Case Western University law professor who helped train the judges and lawyers for Hussein's trial and also helped set up the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia.

Mr. Scharf says the prosecution has done a good job of demonstrating Hussein's command authority with regard to what happened at Dujail.

"I don't think it would have helped him to say, 'no, I didn't give those orders, or no, I didn't know this was going on,' '' says Scharf. "And psychologically, I think he's incapable of admitting that things were being done in his country that were beyond his control."

Scharf says the prosecution is almost certain to rest in the next few trial sessions, and that while the proceedings have been disrupted by shouted insults from Hussein and his codefendants, as well as walkouts by their defense lawyers, the evidence presented looks very strong.

"The reason they started with this case is that it's open and shut - a case that even a chimpanzee couldn't screw up,'' says Scharf. "Witnesses did show up, documents that were presented were signed by Saddam, so what the prosecution had to do was done."

The Dujail case is the first in what's expected to be a series of war-crimes prosecutions of Hussein and members of his regime.

On Wednesday, Hussein asked for his seven codefendants to be excused because they were following orders. He said he was puzzled by why the court was "going to all the trouble" to prove his direct involvement.

On Tuesday, prosecutors in his trial presented a decree, with a signature they said was Hussein's, that approved death sentences for the 148 Shiites. It was their most direct evidence against him so far in the trial. Hussein did not deny signing the approval.

The same day, prosecutors also entered documentary evidence that showed 50 of the 148 people who were killed died before they could even be brought to trial, having been tortured to death during interrogation.

Prosecutors also played a tape of a discussion Hussein had with a member of his Baath Party in the early 1990s, discussing how the palm groves around the city of Basra had recently been destroyed to punish its citizens for rising up against his government in 1991.

Hussein explained that destroying the groves in Dujail was appropriate, because that was where he was attacked from. After their destruction, the trees couldn't "be used as a refuge anymore," he said.

"His defense will seek to suggest the groves needed to be destroyed, just like the US used Agent Orange in Vietnam,'' predicts Scharf.

"Collateral damage is OK in armed conflicts, but it has to be proportional," he says. "If you indiscriminately round up 8-year-olds, and use torture ... you are breaking all the rules of armed conflict and engaging in crimes against humanity under customary international law."

Hussein also used his court time to complain that a toilet he used during a break in the session didn't have a door to prevent prying eyes, and he was disturbed when a court attendant came to get him.

"Is this humanity?'' he asked.

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