Saddam lashes out

The day was marked by theatrical outbursts from Saddam and several of his co-accused and by testimony from witnesses alleging they were tortured under the Saddam regime.

The hearing ended with the case being adjourned until January 24 because of the end of year holidays and the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.

The defendants, facing charges of crimes against humanity, risk the death penalty if convicted.

“The White House are liars. They said Iraq had chemical weapons. They lied again when they said I had not been beaten,” Saddam told the court.

The White House dismissed his allegations as “preposterous,” and US officials suggested the former dictator was “grandstanding” to deflect attention away from the case.

The co-accused are charged with murdering more than 140 Shiites during a violent crackdown sparked by an assassination bid against Saddam in the town of Dujail in July 1982

Saddam’s half-brother and co-defendant, Barzan Ibrahim Hassan al-Tikriti, the former head of the feared secret police, also accused his jailers of torturing him.

“They asked me questions and when I asked to be able to explain things they demanded that I reply by yes or no and slapped me across the face while I had handcuffs on,” he said.

Allegations against Saddam

“Complainant” witnesses called by the judge and testifying anonymously from behind a screen told of torture under Saddam’s regime.

Three witnesses, testifying anonymously from behind a curtain, said security forces carried out widespread torture in Dujail following the 1982 assassination attempt.

“They had plastic pipes melted onto their bodies,” said one witness.

When a prisoner was returned from interrogation “he couldn’t sit down, he had to kneel, the skin on his back had peeled,” he added.

Later when the detainees were transferred to Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison, “they would take men into the hallway and make them crawl on the ground and then would hit them with hoses,” he told the court.

Blair’s Iraq visit

Meanwhile Prime Minister Tony Blair was upbeat about the prospect of starting a British troop withdrawal from Iraq as he made a surprise Christmas visit to visit British forces in the field.

However he refused to set an artificial timetable, saying the beginning of any pullout would depend on the ability of Iraqi armed forces and police to carry their weight.

Despite tight security, the prime minister chose not to wear a bullet proof vest or protective helmet while on the ground at a large army base in the southern city of Basra.

He said he was pleased to hear that they have a high regard for Iraqi forces.

“This is a very hopeful sign because obviously the whole purpose is to build up the capability of the armed forces and the police so we can then draw down our own forces,” Mr Blair told journalists.

“This is the whole purpose of the strategy. Political process can only be buttressed by a strong security aspect to it.”

Mr Blair also held round-table talks with General George Casey, the top US military commander in Iraq, and US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad as well as senior British diplomatic and military figures, his spokesman said.