Baghdad, Iraq Saddam Hussein's trial entered a new phase Sunday as three of his co-defendants testified for the first time, denying they had any role in the killings and arrests of Shiite Muslims in the 1980s.
All eight defendants are to be brought before the court, one by one, for direct questioning. The ousted leader was expected to go last, possibly today, though it was up to chief judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman to decide when to call him.
Saddam and the other defendants have spoken up often during the five-month trial, casting doubt on witness testimony or making speeches, but those were isolated outbursts.
The direct questioning by the judge and prosecutors will give the court the chance to try to draw Saddam out on the crux of the trial: How much he knew of and directed the crackdown in the Shiite town of Dujail, launched in the wake of a 1982 assassination attempt against him.
Saddam and seven former members of his regime are on trial for the deaths of 148 Shiites in the crackdown, as well as the illegal imprisonment and torture of Dujail residents. They face possible execution by hanging if convicted.
In the last session, on March 1, Saddam stood and boldly confessed that he sent the 148 Shiites to trial before his Revolutionary Court, which eventually sentenced them to death. But he insisted it was his right to do so, since they were suspected of trying to kill him.
The prosecution has argued the Revolutionary Court trial was "imaginary" and the defendants didn't even appear before the court. They say the crackdown was punitive against Dujail's civilian population, with entire families - including children - arrested, and men and women tortured in Saddam's prisons.
On Sunday, three men who were local Dujail officials in Saddam's ruling Baath party stood before the chief judge and testified. Saddam and the other defendants did not appear during the four-hour session.
Mizhar Abdullah Ruwayyid, his father Abdullah Ruwayyid and Ali Dayih Ali were accused of being informants and directing the feared Mukharbat intelligence agency to Dujail residents, some of whom were later killed.
The proceedings were adjourned until today, when the court will start to hear the remaining defendants: Saddam, Ibrahim, Ramadan, former Revolutionary Court chief Awad Hamed al-Bandar and another lower-level Baath official Mohammed Azawi Ali.
Court spokesman Raid Juhi said it was up to Abdel-Rahman when to call Saddam.
Since proceedings began Oct. 19, the prosecution has been calling witnesses and presenting documents they say prove the defendants' role in the crackdown. Last month, the court was shown a memo allegedly signed by Saddam approving the death sentences against the 148 Shiites from Dujail.
After the defendants testify, their attorneys can produce witnesses and documentation.
Under the Iraqi justice system, that will end the first portion of the trial, when the broad complaint against the defendants is outlined.
The five-judge panel will call a recess and draw up exact charges against the defendants, Juhi said. The court will then reconvene and the prosecution and defense will each have their turn to address the charges, he said.