IMAGE: Saddam Hussein
Erik De Castro  /  Pool via Getty Images
Saddam Hussein testifies on Thursday, the fourth day of his trial in Baghdad.
updated 9/14/2006 8:57:24 AM ET 2006-09-14T12:57:24

The chief judge in Saddam Hussein’s genocide trial said Thursday that he does not believe Saddam was a dictator.

Judge Abdullah al-Amiri made the remark in a friendly exchange with the deposed leader, a day after the prosecution said the judge should step down because he is biased toward the defense. Saddam and his co-defendants are being tried on charges of committing atrocities against Kurds in northern Iraq nearly two decades ago.

Questioning a Kurdish witness Thursday, Saddam said, “I wonder why this man wanted to meet with me, if I am a dictator?”

The judge interrupted: “You were not a dictator. People around you made you (look like) a dictator.”

“Thank you,” Saddam responded, bowing his head in respect.

Two hours after the comment about Saddam, al-Amiri abruptly postponed the session until Monday for what he called “technical reasons,” without having heard from a third scheduled witness. No further explanation was given.

Al-Amiri heads the five-judge panel that oversees the trial and will deliver the verdict. A Shiite Muslim in his mid-50s, he has been a judge for 25 years, serving a substantial portion of that time under Saddam’s regime.

The panel will vote on guilt or innocence and a majority decision will be final.

Saddam lashed out Tuesday against what he called “agents of Iran and Zionism” and vowed to “crush your heads” after listening to Kurdish witnesses tell of the horrors allegedly committed by his fallen regime.

The next day, Chief Prosecutor Munqith al-Faroon demanded al-Amiri step down, accusing him of bias toward the deposed leader and his co-defendants.

“You allowed this court to become a political podium for the defendants,” al-Faroon told al-Amiri.

The prosecutor said the judge was giving Saddam time to make “political” statements that were irrelevant to the proceedings.

Kurdis tells of meeting with Saddam
On Thursday, the first witness, a 57-year-old Kurdish farmer, testified that Saddam aggressively told him to “shut up” when he pleaded for the release of nine relatives who disappeared in an offensive on his northern Iraqi village nearly two decades ago.

“I told Saddam, ’Sir, my family members were arrested,”’ Abdullah Mohammed Hussein recounted.

“Saddam asked me where, and I told him, ’in my village.’ Saddam said, ’Shut up. Your family is gone in the Anfal,”’ Hussein said, referring to Iraq’s 1987-88 campaign to suppress a Kurdish revolt in northern Iraq.

The witness looked anxious as he gave the opening testimony in the fourth court session this week.

Hussein said he had not been shy about arguing with Saddam, whom he had been allowed to see in response to a plea he presented to local authorities in his village.

Speaking in Kurdish through an Arabic translator, Hussein said Saddam told him, “Shut up. Don’t talk anymore. Get out of here.”

“I saluted him, saying, ’Yes, sir.’ And I left. I consoled myself, thinking that Saddam may feel sorry for me and set my family free. I was very sad. But I really hoped he would release them,” Hussein said.

Previous witnesses said the remains of relatives who went missing during Operation Anfal were found in mass graves several years later. Some recalled how they survived chemical attacks allegedly carried out by Saddam’s regime against the Kurdish population.

Saddam has accused the Kurdish witnesses of trying to sow ethnic division in Iraq by alleging chemical attacks and mass arrests in their villages during a crackdown in the late 1980s.

Saddam and six others, including his cousin “Chemical” Ali al-Majid, have been accused of genocide and other offenses in connection with Operation Anfal.

The prosecution alleges that about 180,000 Kurds died — many of them civilians. Saddam and the others could face death by hanging if convicted.

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