Saddam had right to kill villagers, says Tariq Aziz

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Tariq Aziz, once a senior member of Saddam Hussein's regime, said in court in Baghdad that the current leaders of Iraq should be on trial for organising assassination bids in the 1980s.

Mr Aziz, the best known witness appearing in defence of Saddam at his trial, claimed that the Dawa party of the new Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, had tried to kill him and the former Iraqi President.

Referring to an assassination attempt when someone threw a hand grenade at him during a visit to al-Mustansariya University in Baghdad in early 1980, Mr Aziz asked the court: "Weren't the killings at Mustansariya University a mass killing? And you are judging officials, accusing them of mass killings."

Mr Aziz's combative performance revived interest in the trial in Baghdad, where people clustered around television sets to watch. Mr Aziz, a Christian from northern Iraq, was for decades a trusted lieutenant of Saddam Hussein and an effective defender of the regime in countless interviews. Speaking good English, he usually came out ahead in press conferences.

"I'm the victim of criminal acts committed by a party presently in power now," said Mr Aziz, who is 70 years old, and looks frail. "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 the 1980s."

In the wake of the Mustansariya attack, Saddam's regime reacted with exceptional ferocity even by its brutal standards. It tortured and killed members of Dawa and their families. The assassination bid against Saddam in the Shia village of Dujail in 1982 provoked similar mass punishment, including the execution of 148 villagers. It is for this that the former Iraqi president and his seven co-defendants are now on trial.

Mr Aziz sought to justify the regime's savage retribution against the people of Dujail by saying it was a reasonable reaction to the assassination attempt. "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."

The trial was repeatedly interrupted by rancorous exchanges between the defence and the chief judge, Raouf Abdul-Rahman, who told them not to "insult the court" by claiming the proceedings were unfair.

Barzan Ibrahim, a former head of the Mukhabarat intelligence service who is also on trial, said: "Your honour, you are before a big case, and we all have to control ourselves and deal with each other in a calm way." Speaking of the expulsion from court of Bushra al-Khalil, a woman lawyer, in a previous session, he added: "You insulted a woman last time."

The defence is saying that the former regime had every right to defend itself and that, in any case, the punishment of the Dujail villagers was carried out by the general security services and not by the Mukhabarat or People's Army, whose leaders are now on trial.

n The sharp escalation of violence across Iraq as a result of the attack on the Shia shrine of al-Askari in Samarra on 22 February has been confirmed by a report issued by the UN Assistance Mission to Iraq.

It said the Medico Legal Institute in Baghdad issued 1,294 death certificates in March for individuals who have not been identified or died violently or in suspicious circumstances. It issued a further 1,155 death certificates in April. But the true number being killed is probably much higher.