Saddam tells all Iraqis to settle their differences

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The Independent Online

A subdued Saddam Hussein pleaded for forgiveness and reconciliation as he appeared in court on charges of genocide.

In a stark contrast to his defiance on Sunday, when he was sentenced to death by hanging, Saddam cited references to the Prophet Mohamed and to Jesus, whom he said had asked for forgiveness for those who opposed them. "I call on all Iraqis, Arabs and Kurds to forgive, reconcile and shake hands," he said.

Showing none of the bravado of three days ago, Saddam and his six co-defendants sat silently as witnesses gave evidence of mass murders during a crackdown on Kurdish guerrillas in 1988.

Saddam and his cousin, the former Baath party leader in northern Iraq, Ali Hassan al-Majid, are charged with genocide during Operation Anfal. Five other defendants are accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes. All could be sentenced to death by hanging if convicted.

For Saddam, however, the sentence itself could be academic as it was reported last night that the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, said he expected the former dictator to be executed by the end of the year.

In an interview with John Simpson, the BBC's world affairs editor, Mr Maliki was reported to have said the decision to hang the former president would not be affected by any external or internal pressure. He said that if the appeals court confirmed the sentence "it will be the government's responsibility to carry it out".

In court yesterday the prosecution said 180,000 Kurds, most of them civilians, were killed in the crackdown in 1987-88. The first witness, Qahar Khalil Muhammad, told the court that he and other men from his village surrendered to Iraqi soldiers after being promised that Saddam had issued an amnesty for them. Instead, the 33 men were lined up at the bottom of a hill and soldiers opened fire. "When they fired in our direction, we all fell to the ground," he said. Mohammed said he was wounded but survived.

"When I went back, I saw my father and two brothers had been killed, as well as 18 of my relatives," he said.

Saddam complained quietly to the judge that the witnesses were not giving incriminating testimony, and that they were not being adequately cross-examined. He contested the testimony, saying nobody could verify Mr Muhammad's account of events.

The Anfal trial will continue today while an appeal is under way against the death sentence passed on Saddam for the murder of Shia Muslims in the town of Dujail in 1982. Following a visit to the town, as his cavalcade headed out, local men opened fire. Saddam had switched vehicles at the last moment, however, and avoided assassination.

In the following days, Republican Guardsmen surrounded Dujail and four hundred families were arrested. At least 148 people were killed. Women and children were forcibly removed, imprisoned and later sent to a desert internment camp where many were killed. Hundreds are still unaccounted for.

Saddam's calls for forgiveness and reconciliation failed to impress rebel groups yesterday as the secular violence continued. In Baghdad a suicide bomber walked into a café in the Shia Greyat district and blew himself up, killing 17 people and wounding 20. In the nearby Sunni Adhamiya district, mortars killed five people and wounded 26.

Ten bodies were also found with gunshot wounds in districts of Baghdad yesterday. Some of the victims showed signs of torture.

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