A defiant Saddam Hussein refused to enter a plea on genocide charges and dismissed the court as illegitimate as his second trial began Monday in a case prosecutors said will expose the widescale killings of tens of thousands of Kurds nearly two decades ago.
Prosecutors showed the court photos of women and children found in mass graves left from a 1987-1988 scorched-earth military assault known as Operation Anfal. One showed a dead infant who still had his milk bottle with him.
“It’s time for humanity to know ... the magnitude and scale of the crimes committed against the people of Kurdistan,” lead prosecutor Munqith al-Faroon said in his opening statement.
“Entire villages were razed to the ground, as if killing the people wasn’t enough,” he said. “Wives waited for their husbands, families waited for their children to return — but to no avail.”
The trial is the second for Saddam in connection with alleged atrocities during his regime, and it comes with the verdict from the first not expected until Oct. 16 — the killings of 148 Shiites in the town of Dujail in the 1980s after an assassination attempt. Saddam faces execution by hanging if convicted in either case.
Kurds wait for ‘justice,’ or vengeance
Iraqi Kurds were transfixed, seeing the Anfal case as a chance for vengeance against a leader whose regime persecuted their community.
“Today I will have my justice,” Khadhija Salih, a Kurdish housewife in Sulaimaniyah who lost five brothers and sisters in the Anfal campaign and herself was imprisoned.
“If I could, I would have killed him myself with great pleasure,” she said.
More than 1,000 survivors and relatives of the Anfal victims held a demonstration in the northern city, demanding death for Saddam. Some wept as they recalled the tragedy; others expressed happiness that he was being tried.
Saddam wore the same black suit and white shirt that he wore throughout the nine month Dujail trial — and sat in the same courtroom, located in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone.
New judge in case
But around him, the cast of characters had largely changed, including a new chief judge, Abdullah al-Amiri — a 54-year-old Shiite who was a judge under Saddam’s regime for 25 years.
In contrast to the chief judge in the Dujail case, Raouf Abdul-Rahman — a Kurd who frequently barked at defendants and sneered during arguments — al-Amiri was soft-spoken and shouted only once to tell two defendants to sit down when they stood in respect for Saddam.
Saddam also had six new co-defendants who were almost all former military figures, in contrast to the seven former intelligence and Baath Party officials on trial with him in the Dujail case.
Chief among them was his cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid, 64, who allegedly led the operation and became known as “Chemical Ali” for the use of poison gas. Al-Majid looked haggard as he entered the court, using a cane and wearing a red Arab headdress.
Saddam showed the same challenge to the tribunal that he displayed throughout the Dujail proceedings and his lawyers raised motions that the court was illegitimate, although the session was generally calmer than those held in the previous case.
‘You know me’
Asked to give his name for the record, the 69-year-old Saddam replied, “You know me” — then he denounced the court as following “the law of the occupation.”
Finally, he identified himself as “the president of the republic and commander in chief of the armed forces,” maintaining his insistence that he is still Iraq’s leader, despite his overthrow by U.S.-led forces in April 2004.
Asked for his plea on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, he said, “That would require volumes of books.” Al-Amiri ordered a plea of innocent entered into the record.
Genocide hard to prove
The genocide charge — which Saddam did not face in the Dujail trial — is considered difficult to prove. Under the statute of the special tribunal trying regime crimes, it requires showing that the defendant aimed to “abolish, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”
Al-Faroon and the tribunal’s chief prosecutor Jaafar al-Moussawi outlined their case that Saddam was trying to wipe out the Kurds.
Prosecutors said one government decree ordered the execution of all people between the ages of 15 and 70 in Kurdish areas. Thousands of villages were leveled to the ground, their inhabitants either killed or herded into prisons or collective villages, they said.
“The goal of the operations was clear — to target the people of Kurdistan with killing, forced migration, persecution,” al-Moussawi said. “There are many other crimes that would make one cringe, such as the rapes the young girls were subjected to by the guards.”
Saddam in fury
In one of the few outbursts, Saddam became furious over the rape allegations.
“I can never accept the claim that an Iraqi woman was raped while Saddam is president,” he shouted, banging on a podium in front of him and pointing a finger at the prosecutors.
“Anfal” is Arabic for “spoils of war.” It also is the name of one of the chapters of the Quran. Saddam’s regime launched the offensive in an attempt to stamp out Kurdish guerrillas who had ties to Iran. The two neighboring countries fought an eight-year war that ended in 1988.
According to a 1993 Human Rights Watch investigation of Anfal, the military swept across a wide swath of northeastern Iraq, often bombing villages with chemical weapons before sending in ground forces to kill and clear out residents.
A large map of northern Iraq in the courtroom was dotted with stickers showing villages allegedly hit with mustard gas and nerve agents, although the most notorious gassing — the March 1988 attack on Halabja that killed an estimated 5,000 Kurds — was being treated as a separate case.
Estimates of the death toll from Anfal have ranged widely. Human Rights Watch put the low estimate at 50,000, while prosecutors said Monday that there were more than 180,000 victims.
Saddam’s senior defense lawyer, Khalil al-Dulaimi, however, claimed the court had been illegally established “by occupation authorities.” The defense also said the presidential order creating the tribunal was void because it was not signed by Talabani but by his vice president, Adil Abdul-Mahdi. The chief judge dismissed that argument.
If Saddam is sentenced to death for the Dujail killings and the verdict stands up on appeal, Iraqi law provides for him to be taken off the second case for the sentence to be carried out. Officials have not said how they would deal with the possibility
Iraqis, meanwhile, were glued to the television sets at homes, offices and coffee shops nationwide as the trial was broadcast on all local channels with a 20-minute delay to ensure that sensitive portions with security implications could be censored.
“I’m happy to see justice taking its course today,” said Haider Kadhim, 28, the owner of an electronics shop in Baghdad, a city that suffers from chronic power shortage. Kadhim said he bought five gallons of gas for his generator to ensure electricity so he could watch the trial.
Mohammed Amin, 86, whose three sons were killed during the Anfal operations, joined a crowd watching the trial on TV at a coffee shop in Sulaimaniyah.
“My dream came true today as I’m sitting in front of these criminals,” he said. “I’ll be watching this trial until its end to convey the good news to my sons in heaven.”
Some expressed sympathy with Saddam.
“We all agree that there was genocide and crimes against humanity, but there are other parties who are involved in this or backed it then,” said Salman Dawood, 45, a Sunni who owns a real estate business in Baghdad.