Hussein's first trial to begin

Iraqi ex-dictator, seven codefendants charged with murder in 1982 massacre of 143


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein will enter a bulletproof cage in the center of an Iraqi courtroom tomorrow for the start of his trial on murder charges.

Unlike the trial in The Hague, Netherlands, of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, Hussein will be tried by a court of his countrymen, not an international tribunal.

Hussein - along with seven codefendants - will be placed in a cage in the middle of the courtroom. To their right will be the defense counsel's table; to the left, the prosecution. In front of the cage will be the bench, a panel of five judges.

It will be a televised national - and international - spectacle, before a public that has thrilled to see the fallen dictator called to account for his alleged crimes but mournful to be reminded of the toll his rule took.

It also promises to be a cathartic moment for American viewers. The United States has fought two wars against Hussein, losing nearly 2,000 soldiers in the current conflict and nearly 300 in the first Persian Gulf war.

For Iraqis, the trial will be a demarcation line between the old regime and the new, and will assuage lingering fears that the dictator might rule again. U.S. and Iraqi officials hope the trial will weaken the insurgency, made up in part of former members of Hussein's Baath Party who remain loyal to him.

Many also hope that the trial will give Iraqis a sense of justice.

Unlike in U.S. courts, all defendants associated with a crime will be tried together. Hussein and his codefendants are charged with the 1982 killings of 143 people in Dujail. Hussein is accused of ordering the killings shortly after an assassination attempt against him in the small northern Iraqi city.

If convicted, he could be executed before being tried on other charges.

In Dujail, a city small enough for nearly everyone to be touched by the deaths of 143 people, life is still largely defined by the assassination attempt. The mayor went to jail for his alleged role in the plot, where he was tortured, he said.

Residents said yesterday that they were sad about what had happened to them and that the assassination attempt failed.

Hussein is charged with ordering the killings of men who had been seen in the area when the shots were fired or who had been implicated in the attempt.

Faris Jassim al-Ameen said he was part of the assassination attempt. He said the mission failed because the assailants had only small handguns and rifles.

"It was just a lack of planning," al-Ameen said.

Mohammed Hassan Mahmoud, the mayor, said the town wanted to kill Hussein not to create a new government but to avenge the 1980 killing of a revered local sheik.

"I am still suffering from the traces of torture on my body, and I am still not feeling well. My shoulder was dislocated and my hand was broken. I have rheumatism in my joints because of the torture," Mahmoud said. "The court will give us the hope that we have been waiting for a long time for. We don't want the court to exact revenge. We want the court to apply justice."

The case is one of more than a dozen that the Iraqi Special Tribunal plans to bring against the former dictator. Officials said they haven't decided which will be next.

The chief prosecutor - who for security reasons didn't want his name released until the trial started - said the Dujail case against the former dictator hinges largely on documents Hussein wrote and signed that ordered the killings.

The documents were salvaged from palaces and government buildings shortly after Hussein was overthrown in 2003. The prosecutor said he also would rely on about 30 witnesses, most of whom will be shielded in the courtroom during their testimony.

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