War Crimes Trial Starts in Iraq

Saddam Hussein's cousin known as "Chemical Ali" and 14 others face charges of crimes against humanity for the brutal crushing of a Shiite uprising after the 1991 Gulf War in Iraq's third trial against former regime officials. Three defendants were sentenced to death in another case.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie sitting in for Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Another war crimes trial began today in Baghdad. It's one that could revive memories of a time when many Iraqis felt the U.S. had abandoned them to the revenge of former dictator Saddam Hussein. The charges in the trial date from 1991, when Saddam's forces crushed a Shiite rebellion in Iraq's southern provinces. They're alleged to have tortured and killed thousands of Shiites in reprisal.

NPR's Corey Flintoff joins us now from Baghdad. And, Corey, Saddam Hussein has already been executed for other crimes. With the main villain, if you could put it that way, out of the way, is this trial attracting as much attention as the earlier ones?

COREY FLINTOFF: Well, I think it might have gotten as much attention. The best-known defendant here is Ali Hassan al-Majid. He's Saddam's cousin. You know, he's known as Chemical Ali for his use of chemical weapons against Saddam's enemies. He's already been sentenced to death for his role in the Anfal campaign, the campaign that killed tens of thousands of Kurds back in the late 1980s. But he had a very significant role in the repression of this Shiite rebellion, as well. And that really affected a lot more people than the Kurdish attacks. This rebellions spread very fast across the south, and rebels seized control of a lot of key cities, including Basra and also the Shiite holy cities in Najaf and Karbala.

MONTAGNE: And back when Saddam Hussein and several of his associates were tried, we - of course, it was watched by everybody on television there. We saw some of that film. The government has banned cameras and recordings from this trial. Why is that?

FLINTOFF: Well, we're not sure why. You know, in those previous trials that were televised, you know, you could see the witnesses recounting stories of atrocities. You could see Saddam and hear him and the other defendants blustering back. This time, for the first day at least, cameras haven't been allowed in the courtroom. Some government officials are saying that this is being done to keep from reviving the pain that a lot of Iraqis felt during the earlier trials. But it could also be an effort to keep from reviving the anger, you know, sectarian anger between the Shiites and Sunnis at a time when the government is trying for reconciliation.

MONTAGNE: Well, certainly, it would seem like this would, as you say, revive memories of the U.S. failure to support the Shiite rebellion back in 1991.

FLINTOFF: Yeah. That's certainly - it's a possibility that, you know, the attempt might be to keep from reviving too much of that. Remember, all this took place right after the U.S. and its allies pushed Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. The first President Bush decided not to pursue Saddam's army into Iraq. But he made a broadcast speech in which he called on the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to, in his words, take matters into their own hands and force Saddam to step aside.

A lot of Shiites now say that they took that as an assurance that the U.S. and its allies would support them. Of course that support never came so Saddam was able to use his Republican Guard to smash the rebellion in a matter of just a few weeks. So there's a perception among many Iraqis who were involved in the rebellion that the U.S. and that Bush the father, as they call the first President Bush, that he promised to help them and then hung them up to dry.

MONTAGNE: Now the rebellion was smashed, as you say, but there was an extra ordinary level of brutality, as well.

FLINTOFF: Yes. Witnesses say that there were massive executions. And, in fact, in Basra just yesterday, officials found the bodies of at least 15 or so people who had been apparently summarily shot in the street. The bodies were found during a repaving project, and they say that all the bodies were found shot in the head. They were the bodies, apparently, of young men who were involved in the rebellion and were simply killed. So that's the kind of incident that was allegedly repeated all over the cities of southern Iraq at that time. It may be that it will be harder to show responsibility for atrocities in this case than it was in the case of the Kurdish campaign. U.S. officials who have been involved in preparing the case say that Saddam made true to the story records of most of the orders that were given.

MONTAGNE: And, Corey, it's expected to go on for how long?

FLINTOFF: That is also unclear. One thing that could limit it is the fact that Chemical Ali has already been sentenced to death in regards to that Kurdish campaign. His appeals could run out in the matter of a month or two, and after that, of course, Iraqi law says that he must be quickly executed. So his part in the trial would be over.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much.

FLINTOFF: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Corey Flintoff reporting from Baghdad where another war crimes trial has begun.

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