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Saddam Admits to Ordering Killings

March 1, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: Ed Wong, welcome back. We are hearing that dozens more people were killed and injured in and around Baghdad today, is this new violence or is this a continuation of the unrest from last week’s tensions?

EDWARD WONG: Well, I think it is hard to tell what is a continuation and what is basically the work of insurgents, who might have lain low during the violence last week. I mean, I think anyone here will tell you that there has been a low-level civil war in Iraq for a long time. Last week it threatened to tip into a full-scale civil war. And so by just by definition, a lot of the violence we have been seeing in Iraq during most of the last couple years has been due to sectarian tensions.

And so the type of violence we’re seeing today that we saw yesterday, a lot of it seemed to be aimed at mosques. Some of it was in marketplaces in certain neighborhoods like either Shiite neighborhood, or Sunni neighborhood. So it’s hard to tell how much of it was a type of attack that you have seen before the civil unrest and how much of it was due to bad feelings or ill-will or tensions that arose because of the killings that took place last week.

The method of some of what we are seeing harkens back to the more traditional type of attacks in Iraq, the car bombings, that are believed to be either caused by the insurgent cells that are fighting Americans and the Sunni- led government — I mean the Shiite-led government or the foreigners that have come into the country.

GWEN IFILL: Yesterday we heard the American president, President Bush say there was a choice between chaos or unity in Iraq and that we heard Zalmay Khalilzhad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, say that they were on the brink of civil war but had decided to pull back. Are American voices calming or inflaming tensions on the ground there?

EDWARD WONG: In general, the Americans here are calming it. The ambassador himself as well as his diplomatic staff have been working as mediators, as go-betweens, between a lot of different Iraqi political groups to try to get them to sit down together and to talk. I don’t think it is in the Americans’ interests here or the interest of any of the political groups to see Iraq descending into a full-scale civil war.

They might have their differences, but I think they understand a lot of them would end up being losers in a scenario like that. So the Americans have been working hard to try and keep people at the table.

The ambassador was fairly frank in his appraisal. And I think it was from the views of many of the people here, whether it is some of the military commanders or the diplomatic staff, I think a lot of them would agree with him. We did hear some American generals say last week during the violence that Iraq was nowhere near to spiraling down to civil war. And it was interesting to see the ambassador basically contradict that assessment in his statement.

GWEN IFILL: As you try to do some reporting there in Baghdad, how do you assess whether — what the tension level is in the streets, especially after attacks like you saw today?

EDWARD WONG: Well, when you talk to people, when you go out to the streets, when you talk to some people, they do say that things aren’t back to normal; there is tension. They are waiting to see whether there will be another eruption of more intense sectarian violence.

The type of bombings you saw today, because of the tactics that were used, the car bombs, and same with the bombings yesterday, that I think people in sort of a grisly way here are more used to that type of violence than what they saw last week when mosques were being attacked, when mosques were being overrun by a militia.

I think in a way that violence is more disturbing than the car bombs that explode in a market just because this has been more familiar, sadly more familiar here in Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: In the case of Saddam Hussein he was back in court today. Last we had heard he and his compatriots there were talking about boycotting these proceedings because they weren’t legitimate. What brought him back to court?

EDWARD WONG: It’s unclear what exactly brought him back to court. But I think as we’ve seen from Saddam’s performances in other sessions, he sees the court as basically a way for him to grandstand.

His brother, half-brother Barzan al-Tikriti, obviously feels the same way. They basically had turned it into a show for themselves, a stage for their performances before.

We did see the trial take a more serious turn yesterday when the prosecutor presented documents that he said directly tied Saddam to orders to execute the Dujail prisoners, the prisoners who were taken from Dujail.

And then today we saw Saddam go off on a long monologue where he basically told the court that he had ordered the trials of those 148 men and boys. And then he — but he basically said that that was fairly meaningless.

So you know, coming here to the court does give Saddam a stage on which he can act.

GWEN IFILL: He said at the end of that long statement you referred to, yeah, I did this. But what was the crime? I guess his argument was he was operating under Iraqi law at the time. Did he get an answer to that question?

EDWARD WONG: Well, basically he was trying to justify his actions by saying an assassination act against a president, which what is happened — there was a small group of men who had tried to assassinate Saddam — an assassination act against the president would eventually lead to a trial if the perpetrators were caught or if people suspected of the crime were caught. And you know, he’s trying to imply that all of these people, all of these 148 people were involved in that crime.

I think basically what the court is arguing, what the prosecution is arguing is that these were innocent people. And I think generally it has been — it’s fairly understood that a lot of innocent people were killed in those executions.

GWEN IFILL: Is what is happening in that courtroom being followed closely by ordinary Iraqis? Or is this something that is happening apart and separate from the more immediate concerns about violence and tension and curfews and political instability?

EDWARD WONG: No, I think a lot of Iraqis I have spoken to are following the trial, whether they watch it every time it appears on TV, or whether they just hear about it, about the results of the session from their friends or families or whether they read about it in newspapers. But they are interested in it.

I mean Saddam was a presence here for decades. He was the overwhelming presence in the country. And they are interested to see what comes of this.

Their political views on the trial might differ radically, depending on who you talk to. There are still many people who support Saddam and who basically see Saddam’s – Saddam’s show of defiance in the trial as a sign of strength, as a sign of strength of the Iraqi nation.

And then there are many, especially among a lot of Kurds and among Shiites, among a lot of Shiites who actually would love to just see Saddam executed immediately. They ask: What is the need for a trial?

GWEN IFILL: Ed Wong, New York Times, thank you very much.