SEWSENAN (Reuters) â€” Saddam Hussein and six former commanders will go today on trial in Baghdad on charges of killing tens of thousands of Kurdish villagers in a genocidal campaign that devastated northern Iraq 18 years ago.
Also on trial is Saddam’s cousin, Ali Hassan Majid, known as “Chemical Ali” for allegedly ordering poison gas attacks. The case has reopened old wounds in villages tucked below the Kurdish mountains and raised hopes among ethnic Kurds that the former president will hang for what they say were over 100,000 deaths in the Anfal, or Spoils of War, campaign of 1988.
Merely uttering Saddam’s name in villages attacked by chemicals or where scores of men, women and children were rounded up and shot in mass graves elicits calls for revenge.
“After what he did to us he doesn’t deserve a trial. I will only be happy once he is hanged,” said 52-year-old Atiya Rada in Sewsenan, where Saddam’s forces ordered villagers to come out from their homes before opening fire with chemical weapons.
Sitting in her mud-and-brick house as hens pecked around in the yard, Rada recalled that March 22, when the odour of mustard gas wafted over her village, south of the city of Sulaimaniya.
“It was a pleasant smell, like the cooking of apples. Then people shouted it was a chemical attack. We hid in the cellar and when we came out there were bodies everywhere, women and children,” said Rada, two of whose young sons died that day.
When it was over, she put a wet cloth over her baby son’s face and ran off for the mountains with her five daughters and another son. She said 15 of her relatives were killed: “Trial or no trial, our children died. We will always live with that.” As in a separate ongoing trial, Saddam is likely to plead not guilty and say the deaths were a legitimate state response to attack by Kurdish guerrillas allied with Iran.
Judges are considering their verdict in the other case involving the killing of 148 Shiite Muslim men following a 1982 assassination attempt on him in the town of Dujail.
In the new trial Saddam and six others are charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity during the Anfal campaign, from February to August 1988. Saddam and Majid also face the additional graver charge of genocide. The 69-year-old former leader faces a dozen or so trials, including a separate case over the deaths of some 5,000 Kurds in one specific gas attack on the town of Halabja in March 1988.
The start of proceedings last year against Saddam, captured after his overthrow by US forces, delighted Iraqis, especially the long-oppressed Shiite Muslim majority and the Kurds.
But this year’s descent deeper into sectarian and ethnic bloodletting has diverted attention from Saddam’s blustering televised defiance and his criticism of the court as a tool of Washington and Shiite leaders against his Sunni minority.
The killings of three defence lawyers have prompted concern among international monitors and given the defence grounds to disrupt proceedings. One defence counsel, Badia Aref, said on Sunday some lawyers might not be present in court on Monday. If convicted of crimes against humanity in the Dujail case, Saddam can appeal. Given the scheduling of other trials, that could delay any execution for years, raising the possibility that Saddam, who staged a two-week hunger strike last month, might die in jail.
Kurdish Iraqi television has run special programmes showing footage from Anfal superimposed with images of Nazi gas chambers and the dropping of the US atom bomb on Hiroshima.
“Anfal is the darkest moment in our history,” said Kurdish regional government official Mansur Karim. “Every Kurd in the world will be watching Saddam face the judge.” As with the Dujail case, the US-sponsored high tribunal will hear evidence from victims. But prosecutors also expect for the first time to make use of forensic data from mass graves.