BAGHDAD, Iraq – Saddam Hussein launched into an extended outburst at his trial Wednesday, alleging he had been beaten and tortured by his American captors while in detention after a witness testified that his agents had tortured people by ripping off their skin.
Chief prosecutor Jaafar al-Mousawi said he would investigate and that if American-led multinational forces were abusing the former Iraqi leader, he would be transferred to the custody of Iraqi troops.
"I want to say here, yes, we have been beaten by the Americans and we have been tortured," Saddam said, before gesturing to his seven co-defendants around him, "one by one."
After sitting quietly through several hours of testimony, Saddam said he'd been beaten "everywhere on my body. The marks are still there."
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called it "highly ironic" that Saddam would accuse his jailers of mistreatment.
"I know of nothing that would substantiate such a claim," McCormack said. "Look, he's been given to grandstanding in this trial, but where the focus should be is on the testimony of those people who were victimized by the tyranny, the oppression and the violence of Saddam Hussein. That's what people should be listening to."
Pentagon spokesman Maj. Todd Vician said it was U.S. policy "to treat all detainees humanely and according to international standards."
According to the Pentagon, the Iraqi government has legal custody and control of Saddam, while U.S. forces maintain his physical custody in a detention facility.
Saddam and his co-defendants are on trial in the deaths of more than 140 Shiites following a 1982 assassination attempt against him in the town of Dujail, north of Baghdad.
Standing in the fenced-in defendant's area, Saddam complained at length about the conditions of his detention, engaging in a debate with al-Mousawi. Some of the exchange was edited out of the televised feed of the trial, which later adjourned until Thursday.
Saddam also told the court that he knew the name of the person who betrayed his hiding place when U.S. forces found him in December 2003.
Earlier, Saddam was composed as a witness testified that his regime killed and tortured people by administering electric shocks and ripping off their skin after pouring molten plastic on it.
Two weeks ago, Saddam had called the court "unjust" and boycotted a session.
Ali Hassan Mohammed al-Haidari was the prosecution's first witness Wednesday, testifying about killings and torture in Dujail after the attempt to assassinate Saddam.
Al-Haidari, who was 14 in 1982, started off by quoting from the Koran, the Islamic holy book, about how evil would be defeated.
The judge, in an apparent early bid to take control of a courtroom that has often been unruly, told the witness to address the court and not Saddam directly.
Al-Haidari, whose brother was the trial's first witness, testified that seven of his brothers were executed by Saddam's regime and their bodies have not been found.
Al-Haidari said that he and other Dujail residents — including relatives — were taken to Baghdad and thrown into a security services prison, where people from "9 to 90" were held.
Blood poured from head wounds and skin was pale from electric shocks, he testified. Security officials would drip melted plastic hoses on detainees, only to pull it off after it cooled, tearing skin off with it, he said.
"I cannot express all that suffering and pain we faced in the 70 days inside," he said.
After a recess, another witness took the stand — the first of four the judge said would testify from behind a curtain Wednesday.
During previous sessions, Saddam has been defiant and combative, often trying to dominate the courtroom.
The deposed president had refused to attend the previous session on Dec. 7. "I will not come to an unjust court! Go to hell!" he said in an outburst in court a day earlier.
On Wednesday, his behavior was initially calmer, and he appeared clean-shaven and in fresh clothes, wearing a dark suit but no tie. At previous sessions, Saddam has appeared disheveled and has complained about being held in unsanitary conditions.
After greeting the court with a traditional "Peace be upon you," he sat quietly in the defendants' area and appeared to pay close attention to the proceedings, at times taking notes.
Later on, Saddam, interrupting al-Haidari, asked the judge if the court could take a break for prayer. Though the witness agreed, the judge ordered the trial to continue. About 10 minutes later, Saddam swung his chair to the left, closed his eyes and repeatedly bowed his head in what appeared to be about a minute-long prayer, the first time he has done that in court.
Muslims are required to pray five days a day at specific times.
At another point when al-Haidari referred to Saddam by name, the former leader interrupted, saying "Saddam who?" implying the proper respect hadn't been shown. The judge asked the witness whom he meant, and the witness restated: "I mean the former Iraqi president."
At another point in the trial, Saddam's half brother and intelligence director, Barazan Ibrahim, launched into an unruly exchange that was largely edited out of the televised feed. He called al-Haidari "a dog" and his dead brothers "rotten dogs." Guards entered the court and threatened to take him out, but Ibrahim wagged his finger at them, saying he could only be ordered to leave by the judge, who allowed him to stay.
The court — which held its first session Oct. 19 — has now heard from 11 witnesses, who often gave emotional testimonies of random arrests, hunger and beatings while in custody and torture in detention.
Khamis al-Ubeidi, a member of Saddam's defense team, argued that the "witnesses have no legal value. Their testimonies are based on coaching and unjustified narrative."
He said the defense team had security concerns that it wanted to tell the court about.
"The court has to provide the lawyers and the defense witnesses with security," he told the AP on Tuesday. "How can a lawyer work if he cannot move freely because of the security situation?"
Some Iraqi government officials have said they hope the trial will help heal the wounds of his regime's victims and bring Iraqis closer together.
But the trial has also highlighted divisions between Iraq's various ethnic and sectarian groups, with many Sunni Arabs expressing sympathy with the former president and even nostalgia for his era.
By contrast, many Shiites and Kurds gloated over seeing the once powerful Saddam reduced to a defendant.
The Dujail case is the first of up to a dozen that prosecutors plan to bring against Saddam and his Baath Party inner circle for atrocities during their 23-year rule.
The trial is taking place in the five-story marble building that once served as the party's National Command Headquarters. The building in Baghdad's Green Zone — the heavily fortified district where Iraq's government, parliament and the U.S. Embassy are located — was heavily guarded.