BAGHDAD, Iraq – Saddam Hussein was cross-examined for the first time in his 6-month-old trial Wednesday, saying he approved death sentences against Shiites in the 1980s because he believed the evidence had proven they were involved in an assassination attempt against him.
Saddam, standing alone as the sole defendant in the courtroom, dodged some questions from prosecutors over his role in the crackdown, giving long speeches calling the court "illegitimate." He accused the current Shiite-led Interior Ministry of killing and torturing thousands of Iraqis and bickered with chief judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman.
The session came a day after prosecutors indicted Saddam on separate charges of genocide, accusing him of trying to exterminate Kurds in a 1980s campaign that killed an estimated 100,000 people. The charges will be dealt with in a separate trial.
In the current trial, Saddam and seven former members of his regime are charged in a crackdown against Shiites launched after the 1982 assassination attempt in the town of Dujail. In the sweep that followed, 148 Shiites were killed and hundreds were imprisoned, some of them undergoing torture.
Throughout Wednesday's questioning, Saddam — dressed in a black suit and white shirt — appeared relaxed, frequently shooting grins at chief prosecutor Jaafar al-Moussawi and even reciting a short bit of poetry to the judge.
Al-Moussawi asked Saddam about his approval for death sentences passed against the 148 by his Revolutionary Court, which prosecutors have argued gave the Shiites only a cursory trial.
"That is one of the duties of the president," Saddam replied. "I had the right to question the judgment. But I was convinced the evidence that was presented was sufficient" to show their guilt in the assassination attempt.
In a previous court session, Saddam acknowledged ordering the trial in which the 148 Shiites were sentenced to death but has maintained his actions were legal because they were in response to the attempt to kill him.
Al-Moussawi asked Saddam if he was aware that 28 of those sentenced to death were under 18 years old and presented identity cards for some of the killed minors. Prosecutors have earlier said an 11-year-old boy was among those killed.
Saddam replied that ID cards can easily be forged.
"There is a clear ulterior motive by those who have given you these documents. You can buy IDs like this in the market," he said. "Is it the responsibility of the head of the state to check the IDs of defendants and see how old he is?"
"I could get a hold of an ID saying Raouf is 25 years old," he added, waving toward the judge.
Al-Moussawi displayed a series of documents that he has previously shown the court — including an approval of medals for intelligence agents involved in the crackdown and approvals for the razing of Dujail farmlands in retaliation for the assassination attempt. Al-Moussawi repeatedly asked if the signatures on the documents were Saddam's.
But Saddam avoided a direct reply, refusing to confirm the signatures but also stopping short of saying the signatures were forged.
"Any comment, matter or document signed by Saddam Hussein, and it has been proven that the handwriting and the signature are his, then I take the responsibility," he replied.
The prosecutors also showed a video they said was taken in the 1980s that showed Saddam talking in an apparent interview about "enemies of the revolution," saying, "I would chop off their heads without one hair of mine shaking. ... As for the ranks of the enemies, if someone died during investigations, he has no value."
The video appeared to be taken from an anti-Saddam film, as the scene of Saddam talking was intercut with scenes of people being beating. Pressed by the judge, the prosecutor acknowledged the tape was not directly connected to the Dujail case but insisted it was relevant, asking Saddam what he thought about his comments.
Saddam said they were shown out of context and that he was talking about things "outside the borders" at a time Iraq was at war. He dismissed the video as "unrelated to this case."
When defense lawyer Bushra al-Khalil tried to comment on the video, Abdel-Rahman accused her of being out of order and after an argument ordered her out removed from the courtroom.
At the beginning of the session, Saddam launched into a speech in response to the prosecutor's first question, bringing repeated demands by Abdel-Rahman that he answer the question.
Saddam denounced the court as illegitimate, saying "a body whose base and formation is illegitimate and unjust can't pronounce justice. How could anyone imagine that it could issue a verdict on the Iraqi president, who stood as a sharp spear inside the eyes of those who planned and worked to poke Iraq's eyes?"
He also denounced the current, Shiite-controlled Interior Ministry, calling it a body "that kills thousands people on the streets and tortures them." Some Iraqis accuse the ministry of backing Shiite militias that have assassinated Sunni Arabs in a wave of violence since a Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in the city of Samarra.
"Don't venture into political matters," Abdel-Rahman replied.
"If you are scared of the interior minister, he doesn't scare my dog," Saddam retorted.
Saddam had been due to testify and be questioned in the last session of the trial, on March 15. But instead, he gave a rambling speech calling on Iraqis to stop sectarian violence and unite to fight U.S. troops. After arguing with Saddam, Abdel-Rahman closed most of the session to the public to allow Saddam to finish his speech.
Saddam and the seven former members of his regime face possible execution by hanging if they are convicted in connection with the crackdown launched in Dujail following a July 8, 1982, shooting attack on Saddam's motorcade in the town.
Tuesday's indictment paves the way for a second trial of Saddam in which he would likely face execution if convicted, although prosecutors have not yet said what sentence they will seek.
He and six other former regime members will be tried for Operation Anfal, the 1988 military campaign launched in the final months of the war with Iran to crush independence-minded Kurdish militias and clear Kurds from the sensitive Iranian border area of northern Iraq.
A memo released by the tribunal Tuesday said the Anfal campaign included "savage military attacks on civilians," including "the use of mustard gas and nerve agents ... to kill and maim rural villagers and to drive them out of their homes."