Hussein faces first charges in '82 incident

158 people were executed in crackdown on Shiites

Trial could begin in September

Death toll from bombings over weekend is over 130

July 18, 2005|By Liz Sly | Liz Sly,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- As the weekend death toll from a blitz of suicide bombings rose to more than 130, the first criminal charges against Saddam Hussein were filed yesterday, raising the prospect that his much-awaited trial could begin in September.

For many Iraqis it will not be a moment too soon to bring to justice the man whose supporters are blamed for at least some of the relentless insurgent violence, which appears to have spiked yet again with a sustained onslaught over the past week.

Announcing the charges, Judge Raid Juhi said a court date will be disclosed within days for Hussein and three of his associates to stand trial for a crackdown in 1982 against Shiites in the village of Dujail, north of Baghdad, during which 158 people were executed.

In addition to the killings of the villagers, "scores of Iraqi families and hundreds of people, including women, children and elderly, were unjustifiably detained ... and scores of households were demolished and thousands of acres of cultivated land and orchards were destroyed," Juhi said in a statement.

The earliest date would be in September because of a mandatory 45-day waiting period between the filing of charges and the trial for the defense to prepare its case.

But it is unlikely that the trial will begin before the middle of the autumn. The court must first hear motions from Hussein's lawyers, who have had little access to their client -- one of many complaints they are likely to present. Hearings and rulings on those motions could take several months.

The Dujail case is the first of several that might be brought against Hussein, who was linked to human rights abuses throughout his 25-year rule, some of them far bloodier than the 1982 crackdown.

Amid frustrations with the slow pace of the proceedings, however, and concerns that further delays would encourage more violence, the tribunal has shelved plans to hold one mammoth trial and instead aims to try Hussein and former members of his Baath Party regime on a case-by-case basis.

"People want closure and justice. There are still a lot of people who believe the Baath Party is going to come back," said a Western diplomat who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.

There are worries that the trial of Hussein, a Sunni, may exacerbate tensions between the majority Shiites, who dominate the government, and the minority Sunnis, whose power is extremely limited in the new democracy.

But the Western diplomat said the delay in bringing charges against Hussein, who has been in custody for 19 months, emboldened the insurgency and eroded confidence in the new government.

The insurgency's resilience has been demonstrated by suicide bombings that have killed more than 240 people in the past eight days. The resurgence of violence undermines claims by U.S. commanders that several high-profile military operations in recent months have reduced the insurgency's capacity to mount attacks.

The death toll in the worst incident, a suicide bombing Saturday near a mosque in the mostly Shiite town of Mussayib, rose to more than 90, making it the bloodiest bombing since the new government took office in April and the second-deadliest insurgent attack since the U.S. invasion.

At least 22 people died in four suicide bombings around Baghdad yesterday, including one targeting an office of Iraq's election commission that killed five election workers. Iraq is to hold a referendum in October on the constitution being drafted by the country's politicians, and plans elections in December.

Former Baathists are believed to be behind at least some of the violence, though U.S. and Iraqi officials attribute the vast majority of suicide attacks to the Sunni extremist al-Qaida-affiliated group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which has a declared policy of targeting Shiite Muslims. The extent to which al-Zarqawi's group is cooperating with the Baathists is not clear, though U.S. officials believe there is some coordination.

Many ordinary Iraqis nonetheless remain suspicious that the failure to bring Hussein to justice leaves open the possibility that the insurgency will win and that his regime will be restored.

"There are a lot of people who think Saddam will come back," said Ali Kadhim, who runs the Teeba Supermarket in Baghdad's Saidiyah district and who said he was eager to see the trial begin. "There are lots of different parties working in his name. They are holding meetings in Syria. The police services are infiltrated, and that's why the government can't stop the violence."

One of his customers, overhearing the conversation, disputed the assertion that Baathists are responsible for the violence and insisted that life for ordinary Iraqis was better under Hussein's rule.

"I wish that Saddam would come back," said Omar Qassim, a cell phone company employee, who was shopping for groceries in the store. "Under Saddam we only saw car bombs on the television.

"I have no love for Saddam, but there are people in charge now who are worse than Saddam, and we have no security and no services," he said.

Kadhim conceded that he had a point about the electricity. "I don't want Saddam to come back, but, frankly, the services under Saddam were great," he said.

Whether the trial will go ahead soon remains uncertain. Past promises that trials are imminent have not materialized, though U.S. and Iraqi government officials are hoping the proceedings will start before the next round of voting.

Charged along with Hussein were three of his leading associates; Barzan al-Tikriti, his half brother; Taha Yassin Ramadan, his vice president; and Awadh Hamad al Bandar, the Revolutionary Court judge who conducted the secret trials at which most of the Dujail victims were sentenced to death.

The Los Angeles Times and Zaid Sabah of the Chicago Tribune contributed to this article. The Tribune and the Times are Tribune Publishing newspapers.

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