BAGHDAD, Iraq – Saddam Hussein's trial turned chaotic shortly after resuming Sunday, with one defendant dragged out of court and the defense team walking out in protest. The former Iraqi leader was then escorted from the room after shouting "down with the Americans" and refusing his new court-appointed lawyers.
Seeking to assert tight control, the new chief judge, Raouf Abdel-Rahman, pressed ahead with the proceedings even after the opening drama, hearing three prosecution witnesses before adjourning the trial after 4 1/2 hours.
Abdel-Rahman said the trial will continue Wednesday or Thursday, depending on the date of the Islamic new year, which is set according to the sighting of a new moon.
Abdel-Rahman was installed as chief judge after his predecessor resigned amid complaints he was not doing enough to rein in Saddam's frequent courtroom outbursts.
Defense lawyers said the stormy session showed the trial was not fair — a vital concern in a nation that is trying to reconcile its Sunni Arab minority, which dominated Iraq under Saddam, and the Shiite Muslim majority that now controls the government.
Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who is part of Saddam's defense team but did not attend Sunday's session, denounced the court as "lawless" and repeated calls for it to be moved out of Iraq.
"Now the court is seated without the defendants' counsel of choice. This is wrong. They have the right to their own counsel and for that counsel to hear and question testimony made against the defendants," Clark said, speaking from New York.
Saddam and his seven co-defendants are charged in the deaths of about 140 Shiite Muslims following an assassination attempt against the former Iraqi leader in the Shiite town of Dujail in 1982. The defendants could face death by hanging if convicted.
Sunday's proceedings, the first in over a month, disintegrated almost immediately into shouting and insults.
First, co-defendant Barzan Ibrahim, who is Saddam's half-brother and former intelligence chief, was dragged out of the room by guards after he stood and called the court "the daughter of a whore." Saddam shouted "down with traitors" and "down with the Americans."
Then Abdel-Rahman, a Kurd, threw out a defense attorney for arguing with him. The rest of the defense team stormed out in protest as the judge shouted after them, "Any lawyer who walks out will not be allowed back into this courtroom."
Abdel-Rahman appointed four new defense lawyers. But Saddam stood to reject them and demand to leave the courtroom, holding a copy of the Quran and other papers under his arm.
"You do not leave, I allow you to leave when I want to," Abdel-Rahman said.
"For 35 years, I administered your rights," Saddam replied, referring to his time in power.
"I am the judge and you are the defendant," Abdel-Rahman responded. Two guards pushed Saddam back into his chair, before they were ordered to lead the ousted ruler from the room.
Two other defendants also rejected their new lawyers and were allowed to leave.
The proceedings then resumed with the four remaining defendants — and none of their original lawyers.
An anonymous female prosecution witness started the testimony, speaking for about an hour from behind a beige curtain, as several earlier witnesses have done to protect them from reprisals. The new defense lawyers declined the opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses or make statements.
The delayed television feed of the proceedings — which is controlled by the judges and broadcast throughout Iraq and the Arab world — was cut off after Ibrahim's initial outburst. It resumed later, cutting out the removal of Ibrahim and the subsequent fight with the lawyers but showing the judge's arguments with Saddam.
Abdel-Rahman obviously came into the session aiming to impose control on a trial that has been plagued by delays, the killing of two defense attorneys and the resignation of two judges, including Amin, since it began on Oct. 19.
The new judge stressed in an opening statement that "political speeches" were not allowed and "if any defendant crosses the lines, he will be taken out of the room and his trial will be carried out with his absence."
Abdel-Rahman's strong hand impressed some Iraqis.
"His seriousness shows that he is an efficient and controlling judge who refuses to turn the court into a field to exchange slanders," said Tariq Harab, an Iraqi lawyer not involved in the trial. "This is the right approach that should have been adopted right from the beginning."
Heading into Sunday's session, Saddam's defense team said they would file motions questioning the court's independence and legitimacy because of the shake-up among the judges. Former chief judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin resigned in mid-January after politicians complained about the slow pace of the proceedings.
The trial had been due to resume on Tuesday, but that session was abruptly canceled after some members of the five-judge panel opposed Abdel-Rahman's appointment over Amin's deputy, Saeed al-Hammash, who was removed the case amid accusations he once belonged to Saddam's Baath Party. Al-Hammash — a Shiite — denied the claims.
When testimony began, the first witness told the court she was arrested several days after the 1982 assassination attempt on Saddam. She said her interrogators removed her Islamic headscarf and gave her electric shocks to her head.
"I thought my eyes would pop out," she said. Sixteen other members of her family also were arrested, and seven of them were killed in detention — including her husband, who she said was tortured.
She said two of the defendants remaining in the courtroom — Ali Dayih Ali and Mizhar Abdullah Ruwayyid — were among those who arrested her. The two defendants denied the accusation.
A second woman gave similar testimony Sunday, saying she saw women tortured after she was detained. "I have seen things that I could not have believed. Children crying and mothers tortured. I've seen a blind girl crying while she was being tortured," she said, sobbing.
The day's final witness was a man, who said he was detained when he was six years old in the sweep that followed the attack on Saddam in Dujail.
Amin, the former chief judge and a Kurd, watched the trial from home in the northern city of Sulaimaniyah and questioned whether his critics could run the tribunal any better than he did.
"I am happy that I am no longer part of this trial. I am happy to watch it on television while sitting in my house," he told The Associated Press. "I wish the trial were run by a Shiite judge because I want to know how they are going to manage it."