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‘President’ Saddam calls Bush ‘real criminal’

Baghdad, July 1 (Reuters): Downcast but defiant, Iraq’s deposed dictator Saddam Hussein appeared before an Iraqi tribunal today, refusing to recognise its authority and saying the “real criminal” was US President George W. Bush.

Saddam, who arrived at the courthouse in handcuffs and chains, was read seven charges under a preliminary arrest warrant and told his rights, pool reporters granted access to the heavily guarded proceedings said.

“I am Saddam Hussein, President of Iraq,” he repeated.

“Put down ‘former’ in brackets,” the judge said to a clerk who was noting Saddam’s declared occupation as head of state.

Video footage of the 67-year-old Saddam, looking thinner, haggard and with a mostly grey beard, was broadcast around the world soon after his 30-minute court appearance.

He had heavy bags under his eyes and was wearing a dark grey, pinstriped jacket over a open-necked, formal white shirt, with no tie. It was the first footage shown of Saddam since he appeared unkempt with a bushy beard in photographs and videotape shot after his capture in December.

But he had not lost his fire and at times seemed intent on intimidating the youthful-looking judge, who declined to give his name but said he was appointed to the bench under the former dictator. Saddam, 67, gesticulated at the lone magistrate, and at times wagging his finger angrily across the wooden railing that separated his chair from the judge’s table.

Saddam also declared that the country’s occupiers could not strip him of his title of President. The judge told him that, under the Geneva Conventions, they could. Saddam refused to recognise that he was guilty of a crime in invading and occupying Kuwait in 1990, telling the judge: “I did that for the Iraqi people. How can you defend these dogs'” “You are putting Saddam on trial when the Kuwaitis said they could buy Iraqi women for 10 dinars on the street. The Iraqi soldiers went to defend the honour of Iraq, so what right do these dogs have'” he said.

Kuwait denounced Saddam’s description of its citizens as “dogs”, and repeated he should be sentenced to death for the 1990-91 Iraqi occupation of the Gulf state. “Without a doubt, after these crimes, Kuwait will demand that Saddam Hussein be executed according to the judicial system in Iraq,” information minister Mohammad Abulhasan said.

The judge reprimanded Saddam for his language and reminded him he was in a court of law. He looked around with half-smile, saying: “This is all a theatre, the real criminal is Bush.”

He arrived in a US helicopter at a military base and was then driven in an armoured bus to the makeshift courtroom in one of his former palaces near Baghdad international airport.

Two burly Iraqi guards escorted him into the courthouse where his chains were removed. His handcuffs were taken off inside the courtroom itself, where he sat down facing cameras.

The arraignment was the first step towards a trial which could help Iraq come to terms with 35 years of Baath party brutality, though it may not start for many months.

Apart from the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the preliminary charges against Saddam referred to the suppression of Kurdish and Shia revolts after the 1991 Gulf War, poison gas attacks and other massacres of Kurds, the killing of religious leaders in 1974 and the killing of political figures over three decades.

Hearing the charge that he ordered the gassing of thousands of Kurds in an attack at Halabja in 1988, Saddam seemed to imply it was none of his doing: “Yes, I heard about that,” he said.

Saddam’s arraignment took place at Camp Victory, a US base near the main airport, where the US military is thought to have held the former President in solitary confinement.

Similar proceedings were held for 11 of his former aides, including former deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz and Hassan Ali al-Majid, known as “Chemical Ali” for his alleged role in using poison gas against Kurds and Iranians.

Told by the judge that legal counsel would be provided for him if he could not pay for his own lawyers, Saddam said: “But everyone says, the Americans say, I have millions of dollars stashed away in Geneva. Why shouldn’t I afford a lawyer'”

At the end of the hearing, two guards approached Saddam to lead him away. “Take it easy,” he told them.“I’m an old man.”

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