Hussein gives no plea

`Not guilty' entered on his behalf to list of charges


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A characteristically defiant Saddam Hussein refused to enter a plea to formal charges of crimes against humanity yesterday, lashing out at the judge while insisting he was still Iraq's leader as the defense phase of the trial got under way.

"I can't reduce my answer to `yes' or `no,' " he told Judge Raouf Abdel Rahman, who demanded that Hussein answer the charges of murder, forcible deportation, imprisonment and torture of villagers in the Shiite town of Dujail after a 1982 assassination attempt against the deposed president.

"I cannot say `guilty' or `not guilty,'" Hussein said. "You are in front of Saddam Hussein, the president of the republic."

"You are a defendant," Raouf shot back.

"I am the president of the republic by the will of Iraqis," Hussein insisted. "I do not recognize the agents who were brought here under banners and given titles and became political officials."

Rahman entered a "not guilty" plea on Hussein's behalf, after reciting a long list of formal charges based on testimony and evidence presented in the seven-month trial. Testimony then shifted to the defense of a minor defendant.

Court officials have said the defense plans to call 60 witnesses, with the trial set to resume today.

Meanwhile, violence continued outside the courtroom, and negotiators failed to reach an agreement on a new government.

The U.S. military announced yesterday the deaths of two soldiers after their helicopter was apparently shot down Sunday about 12 miles south of Baghdad, in Yusifiyah, where fighting over the weekend killed 41 suspected Sunni Arab insurgents.

Also killed Sunday were two Marines in Anbar province west of Baghdad, bringing to 38 the number of U.S. and coalition military personnel killed this month.

American officials said two women and two children suffered shrapnel wounds in the fighting in Yusifiyah and nearby Latifiya, but the Iraqi Islamic Party, the country's main Sunni Arab political group, disputed the American account, saying U.S. forces destroyed a residential building, killed seven family members, injured women and children, and arrested two women and three children. The statement demanded their immediate release.

There was no immediate response from U.S. officials.

Police said yesterday that the bodies of at least 17 men, victims in apparent sectarian killings, had been found in and around the capital. Gunmen also killed officials of the electricity and housing ministries, and roadside bombs in Mosul and Baghdad killed one Iraqi and injured seven.

Western officials and Iraqi leaders are banking on a new government to help stem the violence. Prime Minister-designate Nouri al-Maliki has until Monday to form a Cabinet that meets parliament's approval but has yet to determine who will lead the ministries of interior and defense.

Negotiations continued yesterday, with some officials claiming that the government would be announced by tomorrow and others sharply disagreeing. Despite claims that the control of all but the most important government agencies had been settled, politicians said much was unresolved, with Shiites and Sunnis fighting over ministries such as health.

"Our Shiite brethren have promised us yesterday the Ministry of Health, but as usual, the talk of night vanished by the light of the day," said Ammar Wajeeh, a Sunni negotiator.

Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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