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Select Iraqis meet their tormentor

Four senior Iraqi political officials were allowed permission to meet Saddam Hussein after his capture in a remarkable half-hour session.
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Early Sunday morning, after his bushy beard had been shaved off and he had caught some sleep on an Army cot, Saddam Hussein received his first Iraqi visitors.

They were four senior Iraqi political figures, invited by American officials to the high-security detention center in Baghdad for the purpose of confirming Hussein's identity with their own eyes.

But instead of viewing him through a one-way window or a closed-circuit camera as the American officials had intended, the Iraqis asked for — and were granted — permission to meet with the former president. In a remarkable half-hour session, Hussein sat in a small room with four men who represented the legions of Iraqis imprisoned, tortured or killed by his government, as well as the thousands who fled into exile during his rule.

"It was surreal," said Mowaffak Rubaie, a Shiite Muslim member of Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council who fled the country in 1979 after being arrested and tortured by Hussein's secret police.

At first, they said, Hussein appeared fatigued and disheveled, as if he had just awakened. "He seemed tired and haggard," said Adnan Pachachi, who served as Iraq's foreign minister before Hussein's Baath Party took power in a 1968 coup. Rubaie said Hussein appeared "broken down."

Still defiant
But the former president's attitude changed when questioned about some of the worst crimes that occurred during his years in power, including the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the use of chemical weapons on Kurdish villagers and the killing of two prominent Shiite Muslim clerics. Despite being in American custody at a base at the Baghdad airport and facing the prospect of being tried in an Iraqi tribunal that could sentence him to death, Hussein was unrepentant, the four politicians said.

"He was arrogant and hateful," said Adel Abdel-Mehdi, the head of the political bureau of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a party representing Shiites, who were a particular target of Hussein's government, which was dominated by rival Sunni Muslims.

"He was defiant," Pachachi said. "He tried to justify his crimes by saying he was a just ruler."

Rubaie said he asked the first question of Hussein: Why had he ordered the killing of two prominent Shiite clerics in the 1990s, Mohammed Bakr Sadr and Mohammed Sadiq Sadr?

Hussein responded with a callous joke, playing off the word "sadr," which means chest in Arabic, Rubaie said.

"He said, 'The chest or the foot?' " Rubaie recalled.

"It was blasphemous," the council member said. "It was outrageous and immoral."

Defends his record
Later in the meeting, Hussein insisted the chemical weapons attack on the northern Iraqi town of Halabja in 1988, in which an estimated 5,000 people were killed, was the work of Iran. And in response to a query about the invasion of Kuwait, he insisted that the tiny nation belonged to Iraq.

Asked about the mass graves across the country that contain the bodies of tens of thousands of Iraqis killed by his government, Hussein scoffed and called the victims "thieves, army deserters and traitors," according to Rubaie.

"He showed no remorse whatsoever," said Ahmed Chalabi, a prominent former opposition leader who also was at the meeting. Rubaie said one of the visitors noted that if they were still detainees and Hussein were still president, he would "put us in a meat grinder."

"We asked him, 'What if we give you to the Iraqi people?' " Rubaie recalled. "He said, 'To those demagogues?' Can you believe it? He called the Iraqi people demagogues."

That prompted one of the four to ask Hussein how he planned to "face God on doomsday."

"I will face him with a calm heart," Hussein responded, according to Rubaie.

As he left the room, Rubaie said he could not resist taking one parting shot. "I told him, 'Damn you!' " Rubaie said. " 'The Iraqis will send you to hell.' "