BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Saddam Hussein took the witness stand at his trial for the first time yesterday and openly incited insurgents to continue resisting the U.S. military presence in Iraq, prompting the chief judge to close the session to journalists and the public.
Rather than answer capital charges that he orchestrated the torture and killing of Shiite Muslims in the 1980s, the deposed president delivered a rambling 49-minute harangue, his longest and most inflammatory of the five-month-old trial.
"Oh, Iraqis, in your resistance to the invasion by the Americans and Zionists and their allies, you are great in my eyes and will remain so," he declared, standing in the dock and reading from a yellow legal pad. "It is only a short time before the sun will rise and you will be victorious."
An agitated Judge Raouf Rasheed Abdel Rahman, seeking to dampen the effect on one of Iraq's bloodiest spasms of violence since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, shut off Hussein's microphone nine times before halting the delayed television broadcast and closing the session. He later recessed the trial until April 5.
The skirmish was a setback for the judge, who in recent weeks had imposed order on an unruly process and obliged Hussein and the seven co-defendants to address incriminating documents that include signed execution orders. The prosecution alleges that 148 men and boys were slain without trial as collective punishment for an assassination attempt against Hussein in the predominantly Shiite village of Dujail in 1982.
"You are being tried in a criminal case for killing innocent people, not because of your conflict with America," the judge lectured Hussein yesterday.
"Just yesterday 80 people were killed in Baghdad," Hussein retorted. "Are they not innocent?"
The Iraqi High Tribunal and its U.S. advisers had long sought to avoid such a spectacle, mindful of the insurgency here and the embarrassment posed by Slobodan Milosevic to his accusers in The Hague. The former Yugoslav president's war crimes trial dragged on for more than three years without a conclusion before his death in prison last week.
An unwieldy 66-count indictment against Milosevic - alleging genocide in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo - complicated his trial. Acting as his own defense counsel enabled Milosevic to slow it further with rants portraying himself as a lone warrior standing up to the West.
The lesson for Iraqis was twofold: A law was passed barring defendants from representing themselves before the Iraqi tribunal, and the first case against Hussein was a relatively uncomplicated one. For good measure, the court installed a system enabling the chief judge to shut off a defendant's microphone.
But Hussein has seized the spotlight anyway. The first chief of the five-member trial panel, Rizgar Mohammed Amin, tried to be evenhanded and was reluctant, or unable, to rein in the former president's outbursts. Not once did he shut off a microphone.
After Amin resigned in January under government criticism, Abdel Rahman took over and cracked down on grandstanding. Hussein, other defendants and their lawyers walked out of the trial for several days.
Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times.