Saddam Hussein and the Executions of Dujail

Judith Yaphe of the National Defense University discusses one of the incidents for which Saddam Hussein will be tried. In 1982, Saddam ordered the execution of at least 50 Iraqis in the northern, Shiite village of Dujail after his convoy was attacked. His response during this time of regime crisis foreshadowed his order to gas 5,000 Iraqi Kurds six years later in Halabja.

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When Saddam Hussein is put on trial, the list of crimes against him will stretch back decades. Iraq's special tribunal has prepared a list of war crimes and that list includes one specific case from 1982. Saddam is accused of ordering the execution of at least 50 people in a Shiite village north of Baghdad. The killings took place in a year that, according to Judith Yaphe, a senior analyst at the National Defense University, was a pivotal year for Saddam. Iraq was losing ground in its war against Iran, and at home, Shia opposition to Saddam's regime was growing.

Ms. JUDITH YAPHE (Senior Analyst, National Defense University): He's faced with the Iranians on his territory, he's taking losses, he's faced with the possibility of these disloyal Shiites. So Saddam is in a convoy, many cars, you know, the eight or 10 black big foreign cars, and they were attacked and they were ambushed outside this small village. He was trapped for several hours till help could reach him. So he was at high risk, probably one of the few times when he really was at high risk from any kind of attack. He, as a retaliation, destroys the whole village.

INSKEEP: How was the village destroyed? Do you know any details of...

Ms. YAPHE: We don't know many details. The killings probably took place outside the village. You force the people out someplace else and then you destroy the village, all the houses and everything that's in it. This is a village, but the lesson to be learned, I think for Iraq, at least, if you fast forward to the late 1980s when Saddam has to figure out how to deal with the Kurdish incipient rebellion, his solution was to attack the villages. And we've all heard about the chemical weapons attack on Anfal, the gassing of the villages, where 5,000 at least were killed in one village alone.

INSKEEP: What about some of the other incidents on this list? You mentioned the attacks on the Kurds.

Ms. YAPHE: Yes.

INSKEEP: Did the Iraqis openly acknowledge that--I mean, it seems like if you're sending a message to people not to resist you, you'd want these things to get known.

Ms. YAPHE: It was known. The word would have gotten around, whether it was on the Iraqi-controlled media. It wouldn't have been certainly in the foreign language media the Iraqis produced, but the point is that these were meant to be examples of what happens if you think of, let alone participate in, opposition to the regime. That along with mass arrests, mass killings, the message would have been fairly clear.

INSKEEP: As you look over this partial list, we don't know a full list, but a partial list of things for which Saddam may well be prosecuted, why do you think of all the things that Saddam Hussein did that prosecutors would choose to focus on the destruction of this particular village in going after Saddam?

Ms. YAPHE: Probably two reasons: well-documented and also it's a Shia government in power. It would seem appropriate probably to the prosecutors to start with an incident that involved Shia victims since there were so many more. But my guess is, in part, the documentation is there. For example, the Kurdish--we know a lot about what they did in Kurdistan because the Iraqis documented, photographed, kept records of everything. My guess is that they have very good documentation from the Iraqi security files that can be used as good evidence in court.

INSKEEP: It makes you wonder if--and we haven't heard of how Saddam's defense might shape up, but it makes you wonder if some of the circumstances you mentioned...

Ms. YAPHE: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...country was at war, assassination attempt on the head of state, if some of those things might well be used as justification for what followed.

Ms. YAPHE: If I understand any kind of international law or human rights law or even Geneva conventions, it is illegal to punish a whole village. Isn't this what the Nazis did in Germany, in Austria, in Eastern Europe, wherever they occupied? Saddam was very interested in the history of Stalin's Russia and of Hitler's Germany. I don't think the lessons would have been lost on him but I also don't think he had to look to them for examples as to how to deal with these kinds of situations properly.

INSKEEP: Judith Yaphe is a senior fellow at the National Defense University. Thanks very much.

Ms. YAPHE: You're very welcome.

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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