Defendants in the second Saddam Hussein trial insisted on Tuesday that Iraq’s military was attacking Iranian troops and Kurdish rebels only when it launched the Anfal campaign in the 1980s in which tens of thousands of Kurds were killed.
Their comments came on the second day of the trial, in which Saddam is charged with genocide over the 1987-88 Operation Anfal, during which troops swept across parts of northern Iraq, destroying villages. The trial adjourned in the afternoon and will resume on Wednesday.
The court heard a survivor of the campaign testify how his village of Balisan was bombed by chemical weapons.
“I saw eight to 12 jets ... . There was greenish smoke from the bombs. It was if there was a rotten apple or garlic smell minutes later. People were vomiting ... we were blind and screaming. There was no one to rescue us, just God,” Ali Mostafa Hama told the court.
Hama, wearing a traditional Kurdish headdress, said he saw a newborn infant die during the bombardment. “The infant was trying to smell life, but he breathed in the chemicals and died,” he said.
Along with Saddam, six co-defendants — mostly military figures — are on trial in the case. One of them, Saddam’s cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, who led the Anfal campaign, also faces genocide charges, while the others are charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Iran the real target?
Two of the defendants addressed the court and insisted Anfal was targeted at Iranian troops and allied Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq at a time when Iraq and Iran were locked in a bloody war.
“The goal was to fight an organized, armed army ... the goal was not civilians,” said Sultan Hashim al-Tai, who was the commander of Task Force Anfal and head of the Iraqi army 1st Corps.
He said civilians in the areas where Anfal took place were “safely transported” to other areas, including the northern city of Kirkuk.
The orders in the campaign were “to prevent the Iranian army from occupying Iraq at whatever price,” al-Tai said. “I implemented them precisely and sincerely without adding anything or exceeding my powers.”
“I never turned a blind eye to any violation,” said al-Tai, who later served as Saddam’s last defense minister, up until the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that toppled the regime.
Sabir al-Douri, the director of military intelligence at the time of Anfal, said “the Iranian army and Kurdish rebels were fighting together” against the Iraqi army and that Anfal aimed to clear northern Iraq of Iranian troops.
He insisted the Iraqi government faced a “tough situation” and had to act because the area where the Iranian-allied guerrillas were located had dams that, if destroyed, would flood Baghdad. He said civilians in the Anfal region had already been removed.
“You will see that we are not guilty and that we defended our country honorably and sincerely,” al-Douri said.
Saddam and the six co-defendants face possible execution by hanging if convicted in the Anfal case, which is the second trial the former Iraqi leader has faced over alleged atrocities by his regime.
A verdict is due Oct. 16 in the first trial, which concerned a crackdown on Shiites in the town of Dujail in the 1980s. If Saddam is sentenced to death in the Dujail case and the verdict stands on appeal, Iraqi law provides for him to be taken off the second case for the sentence to be carried out, though Iraqi officials have been unclear on whether they would do so or continue with the Anfal case.
Through most of Tuesday’s session, Saddam sat silently in the defendants pen, while al-Majid sat behind him, taking notes.
Hama was the first plaintiff to testify in the Anfal case. Under Iraqi law, the prosecution can bring forth plaintiffs to level complaints at the defendants ahead of actual witness testimony.
Hama described an April 16, 1987, poison gas attack on Balisan and the neighboring village of Sheik Wasan — part of a series of attacks in northern Iraq that preceded the launch of the official Anfal campaign.
The attack is believed to be the first instance of the Iraqi government using chemical weapons against its own population, according to a Human Rights Watch report on Anfal. Warplanes bombed the villages, then troops moved in and razed the communities to the ground, moving out survivors. Between 225 and 400 people were killed in the assault, including 24 who were buried in a mass grave in Balisan, according the group.
'Our eyes were blind'
Hama said he was blinded by the gas and recalled being taken out of the village in a tractor. “We knew we were riding tractors, but our eyes were blind,” he said. “We were hearing artillery bombings.”
He was taken to a hospital and given eye drops and then imprisoned, he said.
On cross-examination, defense lawyers asked Hama how he knew the warplanes that bombed the village were Iraqi and not Iranian. “There was no problems with Iran, why would they bomb us?” he said, then added, “I am certain they were Iraqi airplanes because two days after the bombardment the Iraqi army came and burned down the villages.”
He said Kurdish guerrillas, known as peshmerga — including members of the main Kurdish group the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan — frequented Balisan, but suggested the area was not a base for them.
“They only came to have dinner, they came for food, sometimes blankets,” he said. “Sometimes three or five or 10 of them would come for a day or two.”
One defense lawyer accused Hama of being coached in his testimony, a charge repeated by Saddam, who stood and questioned Hama. “Who told you to say these things?” Saddam asked.
Estimates of the death toll from the Anfal campaign vary widely, from 50,000 to more than 180,000.