Video: Iraqi government in turmoil

updated 8/21/2007 9:54:23 AM ET 2007-08-21T13:54:23

Saddam Hussein’s cousin, known as “Chemical Ali,” and 14 others went on trial Tuesday on charges of crimes against humanity in the brutal suppression of a Shiite uprising that killed tens of thousands after the 1991 Gulf War.

Iraq’s third trial against former regime officials opened with three of the defendants already sentenced to death in another case.

The Iraqi High Tribunal said the defendants faced the capital charge of crimes against humanity for allegedly engaging in widespread or systematic attacks against civilians, and the evidence would include testimony from about 90 victims and witnesses.

'Chemical Ali'
Saddam’s cousin and the former defense minister Ali Hassan al-Majid, who gained the nickname “Chemical Ali” after chemical attacks on Kurdish towns during the so-called Anfal campaign, entered the courtroom wearing his traditional white Arab robe and a red and white checkered headdress. He sat subdued for most of the trial, only standing once to question the first witness.

Chief judge Mohammed Oreibi al-Khalifa told the men they were charged with crimes against humanity, which court officials said included murder, torture, persecution and random detentions, and carry the maximum penalty of death by hanging.

The charges stem from the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, in which the U.S. drove Saddam’s forces from Kuwait.

Shiites in the south and Kurds in the north sought to take advantage of the defeat, launching uprisings and seizing control of 14 of the country’s 18 provinces. U.S. troops created a safe haven for the Kurds in three northern provinces, preventing Saddam from attacking. But the late dictator’s troops marched into the predominantly Shiite south and crushed the uprising, killing tens of thousands of people.

“The acts committed against the Iraqi people in 1991 by the security forces and by the defendants sitting were among one of the ugliest crimes ever committed against humanity in modern history,” prosecutor Mahdi Abdul-Amir said in opening remarks.

Sabir al-Douri, former director of military intelligence, told the judge he was in Baghdad during the 1991 uprising and did not visit the south during this period.

Kuwait invasion 'historic right'
Sabawi Ibrahim, who was one of Saddam’s half brothers and head of the feared Mukhabarat intelligence agency at the time of the uprising, defended the regime’s invasion of Kuwait as Iraq’s “historic right” and said the court was illegal because it was backed by the United States.

“This court was established by the occupiers who ignored the international law and invaded Iraq without the permission of the United Nations,” he said.

Ibrahim, who was a presidential adviser when Saddam was ousted in 2003, said the Shiite uprising had been orchestrated by Iran and militant Iraqi exiles sponsored by Tehran.

“Iran failed to achieve its goal in the 1980-1988 war, but it seized the chance in 1991 to kill Iraqis and loot Iraq,” he said. “Iran used its elements and agents to destroy Iraq. I am surprised that praising words are used to describe 1991 events.”

A 65-year-old retired army officer, the first witness called to the stand, said the army had shelled his village of Hawyer near Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, after villagers attacked and burned the police station at the start of the uprising.

Reibit Jabar Risan said his cousin and nephew were killed in the army assault and he was forced to flee the area with his family. He returned four months later after receiving a presidential pardon but found that his house and clothes store had been damaged and looted by Iraqi soldiers, he said.

Third trial
It was the third trial of former regime officials after the Dujail case, in which Saddam and three others were hanged for the 1982 killings of 148 Shiites, and the trial of those accused of killing more than 100,000 Kurds in a 1980s military campaign known as Anfal.

Al-Majid was sentenced to death in the Anfal case but was standing trial in the Shiite uprising case pending his appeal, the court said.

Two others sentenced to death for the Kurdish killings — Sultan Hashim Ahmad al-Tai, the former defense minister who led the Iraqi delegation at the cease-fire talks that ended the Gulf War, and Hussein Rashid Mohammed, a former deputy director of operations for the Iraqi armed forces — also were among the defendants.

Another high-profile defendant — Saddam’s trusted personal secretary and bodyguard Abed Hameed Hmoud — referred to President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, when asked about his residence.

“I used to live in a house in Jadiriyah (a neighborhood in southeastern Baghdad) and now it is occupied by Jalal Talabani,” Hmoud said, repeating the sentence twice. The judge ignored his remarks.

Talabani’s office disputed the claim, saying Hmoud’s former house is now being used by the water resources ministry, not the president.

Officials in Saddam’s regime still face trials for their alleged role in other crimes. These include the killing of members of political and religious parties, the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the forced emigration of thousands of Shiite Kurds from northern Iraq into Iran, the execution of 8,000 members of the Kurdish Barzani tribe, and the destruction of the marshes in southern Iraq.

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