BAGHDAD -- Saddam Hussein dodged questions from prosecutors cross-examining him for the first time yesterday over a crackdown against Shi'ites in the 1980s. But he acknowledged approving death sentences for 148 Shi'ites, saying he was convinced that they tried to assassinate him.
At times sharp and combative but often relaxed or even smiling, the former Iraqi leader declined to confirm his signature on documents. When prosecutors presented identity cards of children whose death sentences they said he signed, he maintained they were forged.
''You can buy IDs like this in the market," he said. ''Is it the responsibility of the head of the state to check the IDs of defendants and see how old they are?"
Standing alone in a black suit in the defendants' pen, Hussein refrained from the outbursts he has made in previous sessions. But he denounced the court as ''illegitimate" and tried to tap into Sunni resentment of the Shi'ite-led Interior Ministry, which many Sunnis accuse of backing death squads.
The Interior Ministry ''kills thousands of people on the streets and tortures them," Hussein said.
''Don't venture into political matters," Chief Judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman admonished him.
''If you are scared of the interior minister, he doesn't scare my dog," Hussein retorted.
The session was held a day after the tribunal indicted Hussein and six former members of his regime on separate charges of genocide for a campaign against Kurds in the 1980s that killed an estimated 100,000 people.
A separate trial will be held on those charges, possibly beginning in 45 days, though some officials have questioned whether the tribunal will be able to conduct two trials simultaneously.
In the current trial, Hussein and seven other former members of his regime face possible execution by hanging if convicted of a crackdown on Shi'ites launched after a 1982 assassination attempt against Hussein in the town of Dujail. In the sweep that followed, 148 Shi'ites were killed and hundreds were imprisoned. Many say they were tortured.
After a six-hour session, the trial adjourned until today. Prosecutors appeared to have finished questioning Hussein.
Chief Prosecutor Jaafar al-Moussawi asked Hussein about his approval of the death sentences handed down by his Revolutionary Court, which prosecutors have argued gave the Shi'ites only a cursory trial.
''That is one of the duties of the president," Hussein replied. ''I had the right to question the judgment. But I was convinced the evidence that was presented was sufficient" to show their guilt.
''At the time this crime was committed against the head of state, Saddam Hussein, we were in a state of war," Hussein said yesterday, referring to the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
Moussawi asked Hussein if he was aware that 28 of the Shi'ites sentenced to death were under 18 and presented identity cards showing some were minors. Prosecutors have said an 11-year-old boy was among those killed.
''I sentence an underage Iraqi to death? I wouldn't do it even if you were to carve my eyes out," Hussein said.