Aziz takes stand for Saddam

IRAQ'S former deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, made his first public appearance in three years on the stand for Saddam Hussein yesterday, calling on the court to try current leaders for attacks on the state in the 1980s.

Aziz, 70 - who appeared in public for the first time since the 2003 US-led invasion, during which he turned himself in to US forces - is the most famous Saddam-era figure to take the stand so far in the seven-month-old trial.

Aziz insisted Saddam had no choice but to crack down in the Shiite town of Dujail after a shooting attack on his motorcade there on 8 July, 1982, blamed on the Shiite Dawa Party backed by Iran. "It was an assassination attempt against the president, and this party also tried to assassinate me in 1980," Aziz said. "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."

Aziz's lawyers and family have said he has heart problems and have been pressing for the US military to allow him to get treatment abroad, though US officials have insisted he gets adequate care in prison.

Aziz, known during his time in office for his designer suits, wore pyjamas in the witness stand and looked pale and weak.

Though his voice was hoarse, he spoke firmly and launched into a lively denunciation of the Dawa Party, to which the head of Iraq's current government, Nouri al-Maliki, and his predecessor, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, belong.

He said Dawa Party activists threw a hand-grenade at him during an April 1980 visit to Baghdad's Mustansiriya University, an attack he claimed killed dozens of students.

When the chief judge, Raouf Abdel-Rahman, told him to stick to the Dujail case, he protested that the Dujail shooting was "part of a series of attacks and assassination attempts by this group".

He told the court: "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 insisted that in government meetings following the shooting, Saddam did not bring up Dujail and never ordered his co-defendants - former Mukhabarat intelligence chief Barzan Ibrahim and former Revolutionary Command Council member Taha Yassin Ramadan - to carry out the wave of arrests in Dujail.

The defence has been making its case for two weeks in the trial of Saddam and seven other former regime members on charges of crimes against humanity in the Dujail crackdown. Hundreds of Shiite men, women and children were arrested, some allegedly tortured to death and 148 were ordered sent to the gallows.

Saddam and his co-defendants could face execution by hanging if convicted of the charges.

During Saddam's rule, Aziz was seen as the regime's more humane and urbane face at home and abroad. He often represented it at the United Nations. He remains in US custody and could face a future trial, though prosecutors in the special tribunal trying former regime elements have not decided on any charges.

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