BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq's (search) president said Tuesday that Saddam Hussein (search) had confessed to killings and other "crimes" committed during his regime, including the massacre of thousands of Kurds in the late 1980s.
President Jalal Talabani (search) told Iraqi television that he had been informed by an investigating judge that "he was able to extract confessions from Saddam's mouth" about crimes "such as executions" which the ousted leader had personally ordered.
Asked about specific examples, Talabani, a Kurd, replied "Anfal," the codename for the 1987-88 campaign which his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan maintains led to the deaths of about 182,000 Kurds and the destruction of "dozens of Kurdish villages."
Those villages included Halabja, where thousands of Kurdish villagers were gassed in 1988.
However, Abdel Haq Alani, a legal consultant to Saddam's family said Saddam did not mention any confession when he met Monday with his Iraqi lawyer.
"Is this the fabrication of Talabani or what? Let's not have a trial on TV. Let the court of law, not the media, make its ruling on this," Alani said.
Saddam faces his first trial Oct. 19 for his alleged role in another atrocity — the 1982 massacre of Shiites in Dujail, a town north of Baghdad, following an assassination attempt there against him.
The Iraqi Special Tribunal has decided to conduct trials on separate alleged offenses rather than lump them all together in a single proceeding.
Saddam could face the death penalty if convicted in the Dujail case, the only one referred to trial so far.
Iraqi television aired the interview so late that it was impossible to reach Saddam's lawyer, Khalil al-Dulaimi, or officials of the special tribunal.
Alani, however, condemned Talabani's remarks and said the alleged confession "comes to me as a surprise, a big surprise."
"I have heard nothing whatsoever about this alleged media speculation," Alani told The Associated Press in Amman, Jordan. "This is a matter for the judiciary to decide on, not for politicians and Jalal should know better than that. Why should he make a statement on the accused to the public? The court, the judge need to decide on this."
Saddam's former chief lawyer, Ziad Khasawneh of Jordan, said the Iraqi president could still face the death penalty if he confessed, but a full trial would not be necessary if he admitted to the charge.
However, details of the purported confessions were unclear. It was uncertain, for example, whether Saddam believed he was admitting to a crime or simply acknowledging having issued orders which he believed were legal — something only a trial could determine.
Operation Anfal took place during Iraq's war with Iran, which the Iraqi government believed maintained ties to the Iraqi Kurds.
The 1991 suppression of Iraqi Shiites, another atrocity for which Saddam may face charges, occurred after the majority rose up after U.S.-led forces drove the Iraqi army from Kuwait. Shiite leaders had hoped — wrongly — that the Americans would intervene on their behalf.
Saddam's lawyers could argue that Talabani's comments were prejudicial, which might not sway an Iraqi court but would have resonance abroad and within the country's already disaffected Sunni Arab minority, of which the former president is a member.
Sunnis, who form the core of the insurgency, are already enraged by alleged killings of Sunni civilians by the Shiite-dominated security forces — a charge the government denies — and by the draft constitution which was approved Aug. 28 by the Shiites and Kurds over the objections of Sunni negotiators.
The perception that Saddam was being convicted before a trial could add the Sunni anger.
Saddam's legal team said it plans to challenge the starting date as allowing insufficient time for a proper defense. Defense lawyers also said they would challenge the trial's legitimacy.
Saddam has been in U.S. custody at an undisclosed site in Baghdad since his capture in December 2003, eight months after his regime was overthrown by U.S. forces.