Aziz testifies for Hussein

One-time Iraqi official relentless in defense, praise of former boss at trial


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Nobody in Saddam Hussein's inner circle was more tirelessly reverential toward Iraq's former ruler while he was in power than Tariq Aziz, the one-time deputy prime minister, so much so that one former aide to Aziz claimed after Hussein's overthrow that he used to salute the telephone when calls from Hussein came in.

So there was little surprise yesterday when Aziz became the first senior member of the old ruling elite to testify for Hussein at his trial on charges of crimes against humanity. Nor did the 70-year-old Aziz, once Hussein's chief mouthpiece and now a prisoner of the United States, disappoint with an hour of relentless defense and praise of his old boss that kept Hussein smiling genially from the dock.

Hussein, 69, is charged with directing the persecution of the people of Dujail, 35 miles north of Baghdad, after a foiled assassination attempt on him there in July 1982. The indictment charges that Hussein's secret police arrested hundreds of men, women and children, tortured dozens to death, banished more than 300 others to years of exile in the desert and ordered a vast acreage of date palm groves in the town plowed under, and that Hussein signed the execution orders for 148 people, including 32 who were under 18 at the time.

Appearing in what appeared to be an open-necked hospital gown, with a patient's plastic identification tag on his wrist, and looking frail, Aziz offered as worshipful a eulogy for Hussein as any he offered during his years as the former ruler's traveling emissary.

The former Iraqi leader, Aziz said, had done no more than any president would have done after an attempt to kill him, and, as "a man of the law," Hussein had acted with admirable restraint. He was "a brave man, a generous man, who loved his people so much" and had committed "no legal or humanitarian errors" over events at Dujail, he said.

"All over the world, even in Switzerland, if the president is subjected to an assassination attempt, he is compelled by law to take the necessary measures and arrest anyone who has any relationship with the attack, whether he took part directly, assisted in it or incited it in any way," Aziz said.

If some of the Dujail actions were not sanctioned by courts, he said, that was also normal, because under Hussein any orders issued through the Baath party's Revolutionary Command Council - a rubber-stamp body of which Aziz was a member - "was the law."

"It's that simple," Aziz said.

Aziz, a cigar-smoking, whiskey-drinking Christian from the Chaldean sect, was the acceptable face of Iraq to the world during most of Hussein's years in power. He used his posts as foreign minister, and later deputy prime minister, to justify or explain the invasion of Kuwait, the attempt to acquire weapons of mass destruction, the mass killings of Kurds and Shiites in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the use of chemical weapons at the Kurdish town of Halabja, among other things.

As American troops massed in Kuwait for the invasion in 2003, Aziz told visitors with a wave of his cigar that he and other top leaders would be "shadows" by the time the Americans arrived in Baghdad. But two weeks after the fall of Baghdad, he surrendered to American troops, apparently for his own safety against the mobs then hunting down officials of the ousted government.

In the second week of defense testimony at the seven-month-old trial, Aziz was followed to the witness box by Abid Hamid Mahmud al-Tikriti, Hussein's distant cousin, his chief bodyguard, and, many accounts of the ousted government have said, his closest confidant.

Mahmud's testimony amounted to little more than an account of the assassination attempt and its immediate aftermath - how gunmen opened fire on Hussein's motorcade, hitting several vehicles and then killing several members of the security force who pursued the attackers into an adjacent palm grove - that has been known for years.

But Aziz mesmerized the court and infuriated the chief judge, Raouf Abdel-Rahman, with his high praise of Hussein and three high-ranking associates on trial with him - Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, former head of the Mukhabarat intelligence agency, accused of overseeing the arrests and torture of the Dujail victims; Taha Yassin Ramadan, a former vice president, charged with directing the razing of 250,000 acres of palm groves and fruit orchards; and Awad al-Bandar, former chief judge of Hussein's Revolutionary Court, accused of presiding over a show trial with no witnesses and no defense, and of ordering to the gallows 46 men and boys who had already died under torture.

Owlish behind oval-rimmed spectacles, his voice gravelly, his face pale, Aziz seemed as contradictory in the courtroom as he was when, as Hussein's envoy, he sought to wash away the brutalities of the old government.

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