DUJAYL, Iraq — Once a torrent of water coursed through this central Iraq town, which takes its name from Nahr Dujayl, the Little Tigris River that for centuries nourished its lush palm groves and orchards.
Now, only raw sewage flows through open gutters along the city's unpaved alleyways.
Inside a mud-brick home, an old man chokes back tears as he recalls his three sons. They were killed, prosecutors say, as a result of then-President Saddam Hussein's vengeful fury following a 1982 assassination attempt.
"One by one, my sons were taken from me," said Ali Hossein Mussawi, a 68-year-old onetime farmer. His humble living room is filled with fading photographs of the three young men. "Saddam took away my sons, he took away half of my heart."
Hussein's Sunni Muslim-dominated regime unleashed a wave of retaliation within hours of the July 8, 1982, attack in the Shiite-majority city, Iraqi officials, prosecutors and witnesses say. At least 148 were rounded up and executed, an Iraqi prosecutor said. Some estimate three times that many were killed. Prosecutors allege that almost 400 men, women and even children were in custody for years.
The small river running through the town, which gave it life and prosperity, was cut off, plowed over and eventually turned into an asphalt road. The date palm groves and gardens where residents earned their livelihoods were bulldozed or left unwatered until they died too, according to prosecutors and townspeople.
Few Iraqis were brave enough to speak about events in Dujayl. Days after the botched assassination, the state-controlled newspaper Thawra sardonically hailed plans to "redevelop" and upgrade the town.
But as soon as Hussein fell in April 2003, people began speaking out. "If someone tries to kill the president, you should arrest the suspects," said Jawad Massoud, 38, a produce wholesaler and Dujayl native who lost relatives. "Why destroy everything? Why punish everybody?"
Wednesday, Hussein and seven other defendants are scheduled to face trial for alleged crimes committed by the former government in Dujayl. It is expected to be the first of a series of criminal proceedings against Iraq's leaders at the time.
The death toll in Dujayl pales next to the thousands of victims in Kurdistan and tens of thousands slain during a 1991 uprising in the Shiite Muslim south. Reaching a verdict on the regime's treatment of the little farming town 40 miles north of Baghdad is considered a test run by the Iraqi Special Tribunal.
Yet in many ways, the violence and environmental destruction wreaked on Dujayl, which occurred while the U.S. and other Western powers supported Hussein during his war with Iran, foreshadowed the bloodier campaigns against the Shiites and Kurds.
For Saddam, a Sunni, it was never enough to merely punish his opponents, observers of the regime often said. "The argument was that if you show excessive brutality, it was going to prevent anyone from challenging him," said Eric Davis, a Rutgers University scholar and author of a study of Hussein's ideology.
"When you talk about building political power, you can't just talk about violence in the narrow sense of the word," Davis said. "You have to have a sense of spectacle and theater."
Shiites Were Suspect
Dujayl was a hotbed of political activism dating back at least to the 1960s, when Shiites joined the Iraqi Communist Party in droves. The Baath Party, which consolidated power over Iraq in 1968, outlawed the Communists and all opposition parties and began hunting down members. One early victim was Mohammad Hussein Dujayli, a 27-year-old Communist Party leader. Dujayli was arrested and executed in 1972, said his nephew, produce wholesaler Massoud.
His black-and-white portrait hangs alongside those of Shiite clerics in Massoud's living room.
"The Communists were the first people in Iraq who said no to Saddam and to the party," Massoud said. "They used to hold their meetings in the orchards."
In the late 1970s, a new breed of Shiite activist emerged. Inspired by the Islamic fundamentalism of Iran's Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Najaf, Iraq-based Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq Sadr, young men aiming to create a Shiite-led Islamic state joined the Dawa Party.
Hussein, whose power rested on a pan-Arab nationalist ideology and hostility toward Shiite-dominated Iran, viewed Dawa with suspicion. After the Iran-Iraq war started in 1980, Dawa members were seen as enemy agents.
Hussein believed a Communist Party member begot a Communist and a Dawa Party member's son or brother was likely to join Dawa. Thus, any Iraqi who had a relative in an opposition group was a question mark.
The net of suspicion widened. Sadegh Ali Mussawi, one of the three slain brothers, was picked up by security officials after someone at the 19-year-old's night school had written "Long Live Khomeini" on a chalkboard, his father said.