June 27, 2005

Iraqi tribunal questions Saddam aide Tareq Aziz

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Tareq Aziz, Saddam Hussein's formerdeputy prime minister, has appeared before Iraq's specialtribunal as it steps up the process of questioning formerregime loyalists about war crimes, officials said on Monday.

The tribunal released film showing Aziz, looking relaxed ina white prison robe, responding to questions about an exchangeof letters he had with Saddam's office over a written questionfrom the United Nations about the killing of Kurds in 1991.

"I had no authority then," Aziz told the prosecutor,explaining why he had not provided the statistics requested.

Several other officials were also questioned, includingSaddam's cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as Chemical Ali, whoappeared before a judge for the second time in two weeks.

In the tribunal footage Majid, who wore a traditional Arabhead-dress and look old and tired, examined documents shown tohim by the court.

Two of Saddam's half-brothers, Watban and Barzan al-Hassan,were among six other officials questioned last week, thetribunal said in an earlier statement.

The Iraqi government wants to put Saddam and otherofficials on trial as soon as possible. Saddam himself wasquestioned two weeks ago. Officials with the Tribunal, set up18 months ago, say the process cannot be rushed and no trialdate has been set.

It was not clear when Aziz was questioned but his lawyerBadea Aref, who was present during the questioning, said thatit happened on June 21.

"The prosecutor was impolite to Mr. Aziz and he even toldhim: 'You are a criminal'. This angered Mr. Aziz and me and wehad heated argument with him," he told Reuters.

"It is not acceptable and I am filing a complaint askingfor the prosecutor to respect the defendant."

Aziz, a rare Christian among the top Baath Party leadershipand often considered number two in the leadership, is allegedto have been involved in several party purges in the 1970s and80s during which an unspecified number of people died.

A fluent English speaker, he was the face of Saddam'sregime in foreign capitals and at the United Nations.

Majid was questioned with two other officials about usingchemical weapons in 1988 and dropping poison gas on Kurdishvillagers in a military operation called Anfal.

Also questioned on the same accusations two weeks ago wereTaha Yassin Ramadan, Saddam's former vice-president, andSaadoun Shaker, interior minister early in Saddam's rule, whowas also asked about the killing of Shi'ite villagers in 1982.

The killings in Dujail -- more than 140 villagers werekilled after a failed assassination attempt on Saddam as hismotorcade passed through the village -- may be key to an earlytrial of Saddam, who was questioned about the incident himself.