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Tariq Aziz, once a close member of Saddam Hussein's inner circle, testified as a defense witness in the trial of the former Iraqi leader Wednesday, saying the regime had to strike back with a crackdown on a Shi'ite town after a 1982 assassination attempt on Saddam.
The 70-year-old Aziz, a former foreign minister and deputy prime minister, sat on the stand wearing checkered pyjamas and looked pale. Aziz, who is in US custody, has complained of health problems and his family has been pressing for him to be let out temporarily for medical treatment.
Chief judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman opened the session with a sharp warning to the defense lawyers and the eight defendants that he would not allow insults to the court. In the previous session, Abdel-Rahman threw out a woman defense lawyer when she tried to speak after he warned her not to.
"From the beginning, we have said that this court is a transparent one and the defense team and defendants are allowed to express their attitude in a democratic way. No one is allowed, whoever he is and under any name, to attack the court, its employees and Iraqi people." he said.
Abdel-Rahman has shown increasing frustration with the defendants' constant accusations that the court was formed by Americans and is illegitimate. The lawyer he ejected, Bushra al-Khalil, has made that argument in past sessions, though she didn't on Monday when she was forced out.
The judge's comments sparked an argument with Saddam and his top co-defendant, Barzan Ibrahim, former head of the Mukhabarat intelligence agency, who stood and chided Abdel-Rahman for being too harsh.
"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 spoke up from him seat.
"Quiet. You are a defendant," Abdel-Rahman yelled.
"I am Saddam Hussein, your president, and you did elect me," Saddam shouted back.
Saddam and seven former members of his regime are on trial for alleged crimes against humanity in a crackdown launched on the Shi'ite town of Dujail after a 1982 assassination attempt on Saddam. Hundreds of Shi'ite men, women and children were arrested, some allegedly tortured to death, and 148 were sentenced to death for the shooting attack on Saddam.
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. In particular, they have said 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? But you see the director of General Security or you ask the interior ministerâ€¦ that's a natural thing. But to accuse someone who doesn't have anything to do with it is not normal," he said.
Aziz, who was deputy prime minister at the time of the events in Dujail and has been jailed since he surrendered to US forces in April 2003, also hit both the main defense themes.
He turned the accusations around, saying members of the Shi'ite Dawa Party - which carried out the shooting attack on Saddam - should be put on trial. 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 precedessor, 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 (Dawa), 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," he said.
"Barzan and other Mukahabarat employees had nothing with Dujail case. Barzan didn't take over Dujail's case at all," he said.
"Saddam is my colleague and comrade for decades, and Barzan is my brother and my friend and he is not responsible about Dujail's events," Aziz said.