BAGHDAD, Iraq – Tariq Aziz, once a close member of Saddam Hussein's inner circle, testified for the defense Wednesday, saying the regime had to crack down on a Shiite town after a 1982 assassination attempt on the Iraqi leader.
The 70-year-old Aziz, a former foreign minister and deputy prime minister, took the stand wearing checkered pajamas and looking pale. Aziz, who is in U.S. custody, has complained of health problems and his family has been pressing for him to be released temporarily for medical treatment.
The session saw a number of testy exchanges between defense lawyers and chief judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman, who repeatedly shouted at them not to "attack the court" by questioning the fairness of the trial.
"You don't have a defense plan, so you just insult the court," Abdel-Rahman shouted at chief defense lawyer Khalil al-Dulaimi when he complained the judge wasn't letting the defense speak.
Abdel-Rahman also bickered with Saddam and his top co-defendant, Barzan Ibrahim, former head of the Mukhabarat intelligence agency, who chastised the judge for being too harsh and for throwing out a female lawyer, Bushra al-Khalil, in Monday's session.
"Your honor, you are before a big case, and we all have to control ourselves and deal with each other in a calm way. You insulted a woman last time," he said.
"Sit down. If you continue with this I'll throw you out," Abdel-Rahmamn shouted. At first Ibrahim tried to argue with him, but a guard entered the defendants' pen and Ibrahim sat down.
"Do you want to shut people's mouth this way?" Saddam said from his seat.
"Quiet. You are a defendant," Abdel-Rahman yelled.
"I am Saddam Hussein, your president, and you did elect me," Saddam shouted back.
Abdel-Rahman has shown increasing frustration with the defendants' constant accusations that the court was formed by Americans and is illegitimate.
After the outbursts, the court heard testimony from Aziz and a series of defense witnesses, including several of Saddam's former bodyguards, Saddam's brother-in-law and the husband of his youngest daughter. The trial then adjourned until Monday.
Saddam and seven former members of his regime are on trial for alleged crimes against humanity during a crackdown on the Shiite town of Dujail after a 1982 assassination attempt on Saddam. Hundreds of Shiite men, women and children were arrested, some allegedly tortured to death and 148 were sentenced to death for the attempt on Saddam's life.
The defense has focused on two main themes: that the crackdown was a legitimate response to the assassination attempt and that the prosecution has blamed the wrong authorities for the sweep. They maintain the general security services were responsible for the arrests, not Ibrahim's Mukhabarat or the People's Army, headed at the time by co-defendant Taha Yassin Ramadan.
During Wednesday's session, Saddam stood and insisted he didn't order Ibrahim or Ramadan to oversee the crackdown.
"This issue took its normal path. The security service is in charge of Iraqis inside Iraq while Mukhabarat was in charge of foreigners inside Iraq and Iraqis outside Iraq." he said. "I didn't order either Taha or Barzan in the Dujail issue ... Why accuse Taha and Barzan in such a wrong way?"
One of the presidential bodyguards in the Dujail attack, Abed Abdel-Hamid Mahmoud al-Tikriti, sought to show the seriousness of the assassination attempt, which was carried out by the Iran-backed Shiite Dawa Party at a time when Iraq and Iran were at war.
He said security forces found weapons, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and communications equipment used by the attackers.
"Iran had a role in this incident, and we were in a war with Iran," he said.
In his testimony, Aziz turned the accusations around, saying members of the Dawa Party should be put on trial for killing Iraqis in attacks against Saddam's regime. He pointed to Dawa leaders who, since Saddam's fall, have become leaders of Iraq's first elected governments: current prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and his predecessor, Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
Speaking in a hoarse voice, he said the Dujail attack was "part of a series of attacks and assassination attempts by this group, including against me." He said that in 1980, Dawa Party activists threw a grenade at him as he visited a Baghdad university, killing civilians around him.
"I'm a victim of a criminal act conducted by this party, which is in power right now. So put it on trial. Its leader was the prime minister and his deputy is the prime minister right now and they killed innocent Iraqis in 1980," he said.
He said the arrests were in response to the assassination attempt. "If the head of state comes under attack, the state is required by law to take action. If the suspects are caught with weapons, it's only natural they should be arrested and put on trial," Aziz said.