A defiant Saddam Hussein admitted in court Wednesday that he ordered the trial of 148 Shiites eventually executed in the 1980s, but he insisted that doing so was legal because they were suspected in an assassination attempt against him.

"Where is the crime? Where is the crime?" Saddam asked, standing before the panel of five judges.

"If trying a suspect accused of shooting at a head of state — no matter what his name is — is considered a crime, then you have the head of state in your hands. Try him," Saddam said, arguing that his co-defendants should be released because he was in charge.

His dramatic courtroom speech came a day after prosecutors in his trial presented a presidential decree with a signature they said was Saddam's approving death sentences for the 148 Shiites, their most direct evidence against him so far in the four-month trial.

Saddam did not admit signing the approval in his comments, made just before the trial adjourned until March 12.

Saddam and seven co-defendants are on trial for the executions of 148 Shiites, as well as the arrest and torture of others and the confiscation and razing of their farmlands, following a July 8, 1982, attempt to kill the then-Iraqi leader in the southern town of Dujail.

The prosecution has argued that the crackdown went far beyond the actual attackers, presenting documents that show entire families were arrested, tortured and held for years, including women and children as young as 3 months old.

The 148 people eventually sentenced to death in the case included at least 10 juveniles, one as young as 11, according to the documents. The death sentences came after what the prosecution called an "imaginary trial" before Saddam's Revolutionary Court.

But Saddam argued he was acting within the law. He told the court his co-defendants should be freed and that he alone should be tried since he was the president and they were following orders.

"If the chief figure makes thing easy for you by saying he was the one responsible, then why are you going after these people?" he said. "A head of state is here. Try him and let the others go their way."

He pointed to Awad al-Bandar, the former Revolutionary Court official whose signature was allegedly on documents announcing the death sentences that were presented to the court Tuesday.

"I referred them [the prisoners] to the Revolutionary Court in accordance with the law," he said. "So Awad tried them in accordance to the law — he had the right to try or to acquit according to the law and according to his own judgment."

He also referred to the destruction of the Dujail families' farmland, saying: "I razed the land. I don't mean I rode a bulldozer and razed it, but I razed it. It was a resolution issued by the Revolutionary Command Council," a regime institution that Saddam headed.

Saddam said the government had the right to confiscate land for the "national interest," and he ordered "substantial compensation" paid to its owners.

Chief judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman was about to adjourn the session when Saddam asked to speak. After 15 minutes, the court adjourned until March 12.

Over the past two days, prosecutors showed on an overhead screen a series of documents detailing the bureaucracy behind the wave of arrests and executions. Those documents them was the June 16, 1984, presidential decree approving the executions.

In often dry government language, the memos, decrees and even handwritten notes — from Saddam's presidential office, the Mukhabarat intelligence service headed by co-defendant Barazan Ibrahim and other agencies — laid out a paper trail behind the suffering that prosecution witnesses recounted in the first months of the trial.

Those witnesses — Dujail residents — previously told the court they were imprisoned and tortured, and their relatives were killed. Several women related how they were stripped naked, beaten or given electric shocks — one testifying that Ibrahim himself kicked her in the chest as she hung upside down.

On Wednesday, chief prosecutor Jaafar al-Moussawi showed handwritten letters said to be from three of defendants sent to the Interior Ministry in the days after the assassination attempt on Saddam, informing on Dujail families linked to the Dawa Party, a Shiite opposition militia accused in the attack.

More than 10 of the names in the letters eventually appeared on the list of those sentenced to death, and al-Moussawi said the three men, therefore, had a direct role in their deaths.

"May my hand be cut off if I gave information against anyone," defendant Ali Dayih, who allegedly wrote one of the letters, said. "I had no political responsibility ... It's all a frame-up."

Two other defendants — Abdullah Kazim Ruwayyid and his son, Mizhar — also denied the letters were theirs. All three men allegedly were Dujail officials from Saddam's Baath Party.

"The handwriting is not mine. The signature is not mine," Mizhar Ruwayyid said.

He insisted his only job in Dujail was as a telephone operator, and he argued that the vocabulary used in the letter proved it was not written by him.

"I only finished elementary school and the document presented was written by someone with a bachelor's degree," he said.

Saddam also stood to defend the men, saying that "leaving aside the issue of whether these documents were forged," they were simply notifying authorities.

"This was an informing operation, like any policeman when he tells something to his station or any citizen who sees or hears [a crime]," Saddam argued. "To say that those people were sentenced to death because Abdullah wrote or it was said that he wrote it, this is rubbish."

The prosecution detailed how 399 detained men, women and children from Dujail were transported in 1984 from a Baghdad prison to a southern desert prison.

For each vehicle that carried the prisoners, a list was made containing the names of the drivers and the prisoners on board. Al-Moussawi presented more than a dozen such handwritten lists.

The lists included a 3-month-old girl named Suad Jassim and entire families, with women and their preteen children.

In contrast to the outbursts, insults and arguments that characterized past proceedings, the defendants listened silently as the documents were shown. When they wanted to make a point, they raised their hands, and Abdel-Rahman often told them to wait, then let them speak later.

Saddam's defense team attended the trial for a second straight day after ending a boycott started when Abdel-Rahman rejected their demand to step down.

The turn in the case boosted hopes the trial will be seen as credible in a country still sharply divided by Saddam's legacy.

But those splits have only gotten wider amid a surge of bloody sectarian violence between Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites. At least 68 people were killed Tuesday in bombings and mortar barrages, mainly against religious targets, in continued violence sparked by an attack last week on a major Shiite shrine.