BAGHDAD, Iraq – Saddam Hussein said in a defiant courtroom confession Wednesday that he ordered the trial of 148 Shiites who were later executed, and arranged for the flattening of their palm groves and farms. But he insisted he had the right to do so because they were suspected of trying to kill him.
"Where is the crime? Where is the crime?" Saddam asked. "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."
The dramatic speech came a day after prosecutors presented the most direct evidence against him in the four-month trial: a 1984 presidential decree approving the death sentences for the 148, with a signature said to be Saddam's.
Saddam did not admit or deny approving their executions, but stated outright that he was solely responsible for their prosecution, adding that his seven co-defendants should be released.
"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.
The deaths of the Shiites are one of the main charges against the defendants, who could face execution by hanging — the same fate as most of the 148 — if convicted.
They are on trial also for torture and imprisonment of the Shiites, as well as the razing of their farmlands, in a crackdown launched after a July 8, 1982 assassination attempt against Saddam in the town of Dujail.
The prosecution has argued the imprisonment and executions were illegal, saying the 148 were sentenced to death in an "imaginary trial" before Saddam's Revolutionary Court where the defendants did not even appear.
The crackdown, they argue, went far beyond the actual attackers. They have presented documents that show entire families — including women and children as young as 3 months old — were arrested, tortured and held for years. Those executed included at least 10 juveniles, one as young as 11, according to the documents.
The five judges will be able to take Saddam's confession into account when they rule in the case. It will be up to them to decide whether Saddam's actions were illegal, since there is no jury. After Wednesday's session, the trial was adjourned to March 12.
The often turbulent trial has become more orderly in the past two sessions under the tough new chief judge, Raouf Abdel-Rahman, who broke a defense team boycott and clamped down on outbursts, shouted insults and arguments by Saddam and other defendants.
The discipline could boost the trial's credibility, which U.S. and Iraqi officials hope will encourage Iraq's sharply divided Shiites and Sunnis to accept the verdict. But outside the courtroom, those divisions have become only bloodier. Nearly 100 people have been killed in the past two days in sectarian violence.
The trial is also beginning to tackle the core of the case against the defendants, as prosecutors presented a series of documents — memos, decrees and reports from Saddam's office and the Mukhabarat intelligence agency — detailing the bureaucracy behind the crackdown.
On Wednesday, the prosecution played an audiotape of Saddam discussing the razing of the Dujail farms with a Baath Party official in the early 1990s and showed satellite photos of the flattened land.
Chief prosecutor Jaafar al-Moussawi showed the court handwritten letters allegedly sent by three of the defendants days after the assassination attempt, informing on Dujail families linked to the Dawa Party, a Shiite opposition militia accused in the attack.
At least 18 of the people named in the letters, sent to the Interior Ministry, were later sentenced to death. 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," said defendant Ali Dayih, who allegedly wrote one of the letters. "It's all a frame-up."
Two other defendants — Abdullah Kazim Ruwayyid and his son Mizhar, who, like Dayih, were said to be local Dujail officials from Saddam's Baath Party — denied the handwriting on the letters was theirs.
Saddam stood to defend the men, saying that even if the letters were authentic, 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)," he said.
The prosecutor presented lists of vehicles that transported 399 Dujail detainees from a Baghdad facility to a desert prison in southern Iraq in 1984. Each handwritten list included the number of the vehicle, the driver's name, and the names and ages of the prisoners carried in them — 25-40 of them in each vehicle.
The names included entire families — women with daughters and sons below the age of 10, even the name of a 3-month-old girl.
The defendants listened silently as the documents were shown. When they wanted to make a point, they raised their hands, then waited patiently until Abdel-Rahman let them speak.
After four hours, Abdel-Rahman was about to adjourn the session, when Saddam interrupted and asked to speak.
He stood and admitted he had ordered the 148 sent to the Revolutionary Court and issued the orders for the Dujail detainees' palm groves and farms to be confiscated and flattened.
"I referred them to the Revolutionary court in accordance with the law. Awad implemented the law. He had the right to try and to acquit," he said, referring to Awad al-Bandar, the former Revolutionary Court head whose signature was allegedly on the announcement of the death sentences, presented to the court Tuesday.
"I razed the land. I don't mean I rode a bulldozer and razed it," he said. "It was a resolution issued by the Revolutionary Command Council," a regime institution that Saddam headed.
He argued the government had the right to confiscate land for the "national interest" and said he ordered "substantial compensation" be paid to its owners.
"Why are you trying other people?" he said. "The head of state is here, so try him, and let the others go."