Monday, July 04, 2005

A Shiite Town That Bled Under Hussein Hails His Trial

DUJAIL, Iraq - The scars of what happened after an assassination attempt on Saddam Hussein, on July 8, 1982, are painfully evident in this mainly Shiite town 35 miles north of Baghdad.

People lower their voices when they speak of fathers, brothers and sons who went to the gallows, their fates unknown until Mr. Hussein's overthrow 21 years later set off the ransacking of a secret police headquarters in Baghdad that uncovered records of the executions. The landscape around Dujail is mostly barren scrubland, stark testament to the bulldozing of thousands of acres of date palms and fruit orchards after plotters fired on Mr. Hussein's convoy from thickets on the edge of town.

Now, the events at Dujail have come full cycle for Mr. Hussein.

Officials at the Iraqi Special Tribunal set up to try the former dictator and his top aides have said they expect to put him on trial by the end of the year in the deaths of nearly 160 men and boys from Dujail, all Shiites, some in their early teens. Some were shot dead in the immediate aftermath of the assassination attempt, but 143 - 9 of them ages 13 through 15 - were executed three years later by Mr. Hussein's revolutionary court. Townspeople say that many others remain missing - at least 200, by some counts - and that they hope the trial will reveal at least something of their fate.

For now, their families have only fading photographs of their lost menfolk at weddings, school graduations and summer outings, and tales of the moments they disappeared, seized on the streets or pulled from their homes by secret police squads that descended on Dujail in the days that followed the attack on Mr. Hussein.

Along the sun-blasted streets and alleyways of the town, a nondescript, impoverished sprawl of single- and double-storied concrete structures and makeshift, domeless mosques beside the main highway to Iraq's oil-rich north, the prospect of seeing Mr. Hussein, 68, facing a possible death sentence has brought relief - at least to the three-quarters of the population who are Shiites, though not to many in the Sunni Arab minority in the town, where there are still fierce loyalties to Mr. Hussein.

"Having Saddam on trial for what he did here will be good for Dujail, and for all of Iraq, because many people in this country, and in Dujail, still think of him as some kind of a god," said Ali Haj Hussein, a 37-year-old Shiite who lost seven brothers in the executions that followed the assassination attempt, including one, Hussein, 19, who confessed to his father before he died that he was one of those who had shot at the Iraqi ruler.

The visit to Dujail amounted to a venture into enemy territory for Saddam Hussein. In 1982, he was in his third year as president, still consolidating his power, and many in this town, with a population of about 75,000, despised him for starting a war with Iran, Iraq's Shiite neighbor, two years earlier. Shiites here say that Mr. Hussein had long distrusted the presence of a large Shiite enclave, including Dujail and the nearby town of Balad, deep inside Iraq's Sunni Arab heartland - and beside the main highway from Baghdad to Tikrit, Mr. Hussein's hometown.

A conservative Shiite religious party, Dawa, with an armed wing that had mounted terrorist attacks against Mr. Hussein's government, had strong support in Dujail, and saw in his visit a chance to avenge the government's killings of hundreds of Dawa leaders and sympathizers. The plotters named the mission Operation Bint Huda, after the sister of Dawa's founder, Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Sadr, a prominent Shiite cleric. The two were executed in 1980.

Other crimes for which Mr. Hussein is likely to face eventual prosecution, in separate trials, include the Anfal campaign - the Arabic word means spoils - of the late 1980's, in which as many as 150,000 Kurds were killed, many shot and dumped into mass graves, others killed in poison-gas attacks; the chemical weapons attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja in March 1988 that killed about 5,000, which is likely to be treated as a separate case, like Dujail; and the repression of a Shiite rebellion in southern Iraq in 1991, in which 150,000 people are believed to have been killed. Also under investigation by the tribunal are the executions of more than 200 Baath Party leaders after Mr. Hussein seized power in 1979.

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