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Iraq: Saddam Hussein's Top Aides Assume Low Profile In Court

Saddam at his arraignment Saddam Hussein's arraignment on crimes against humanity has riveted the world's attention and observers and analysts continue today to consider how his court appearance went. But almost lost in all the attention on the former Iraqi leader are the 11 other top regime figures who also came before the judge yesterday. Reporters in the courtroom say that where Saddam was sometimes combative, his aides mostly sought to be self-effacing, as charges were brought against them. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports.

Prague, 2 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- There is good reason why Saddam Hussein so fully occupied the public's attention yesterday.

Even though both he and a large part of his inner circle appeared in court to be charged with crimes they committed together, only Hussein was repeatedly defiant before the judge.

When charged with invading Kuwait in 1990, Hussein questioned how an Iraqi tribunal could question actions taken by the official Iraqi government of the time.

"Charge number seven is that Saddam Hussein was the president of the Republic of Iraq and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and that those armed forces went to Kuwait," he said. "That means that it happened in an official way. Now, is it acceptable that charges are made against what is official and that the one responsible is treated without the official guaranties mentioned in the constitution and the law, including the law under which you are conducting your inquiry?"

Hussein, who alternated frequently between being downcast and combative, not only challenged the authority of the court but refused to sign a statement acknowledging he had been charged and informed of his rights.

But if Hussein still appeared to believe -- and in fact repeatedly told the court -- that he is still the president of Iraq, his top aides seemed to be under no such illusions.

The 11 key figures in the former regime came before the magistrate for 10 minutes each and were generally so self-effacing that they barely caught the attention of reporters covering yesterday's event. Like Hussein, they also were charged with leading roles in many of the worst mass killings of Iraqi citizens over the past two decades.

One is Tariq Aziz, who was often the regime's spokesman in crises with the UN and Western powers. He told the court he was innocent of all charges because he personally never killed anyone with his own hands. "If there was a crime the moral responsibility rests with the leadership," he said. "But a member of the leadership cannot be personally responsible. I never killed anybody by any direct act."

Another of the defendants is Ali Hassan al-Majid. He is known as "Chemical Ali" for his alleged part in ordering a gas attack on Iraqi Kurd civilians in the northern town of Halabjah in 1988. He is also reported to have personally tortured prisoners as Hussein's forces cracked down on an uprising by Iraqi Shi'a in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War.

Al-Majid entered the court walking with the aid of a stick because he has diabetes. Observers at his arraignment say he looked pensive and sought to be polite to the judge as he -- like the others -- was charged with deeds that carry the death penalty.

When charged, al-Majid merely said, "I'm happy with the accusations because I'm innocent of them."

After their appearance in court, all 11 were taken away in a group to a prison at an officially undisclosed location where they are held separately from one another. The prison is believed to be on a U.S. military base in the Baghdad region.

It is unclear when Hussein or his aides will appear in court next. U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said yesterday that prosecutors are likely to need months more to prepare their cases before trials can begin.

"Some investigations have begun, but they're certainly -- certainly far away, I think, from collecting everything they need to have. That process is going to take some time. We, as well as our other international partners, are providing assistance to the Iraqis as they go through this process. This is designed to help ensure that they have the resources and the training to conduct fair, open and effective prosecutions," Ereli said.

It is also uncertain whether any of the defendants will be executed if found guilty. Executions are likely to be opposed by many of the new Iraqi government's European allies, who ban the death penalty in their own countries, as well as by the UN on human rights grounds.

But Iraqi interim Deputy Foreign Minister Hamid al-Bayati said yesterday that many Iraqis will insist that the court impose the maximum penalty. "I think they [Iraqis] will be satisfied with a death sentence, no less than that," he said.

Hussein and his aides will be tried by an Iraqi tribunal funded by Washington. Almost half the $75 million budget for the tribunal is spent on ensuring security. The security extends both to judges and prosecutors, who may be under risk of assassination by Hussein loyalists -- and to the former regime leaders themselves, who could be targeted by the families of their victims.