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N.Y. Prosecutor Aided Case Against Hussein

January 22, 2006|Borzou Daragahi and Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — Immersed in his own court docket of mob guys and criminal rackets, Vincent G. Heintz rarely keeps up with the big trial far away. But sometimes the Manhattan assistant district attorney gleans details of the case against Saddam Hussein and seven co-defendants from the paper on the way to work.

Amid the clatter and rumble of the No. 1 train from the Bronx, the witness accounts unleash a flood of memories: the dirt, the Tigris Valley salt marshes, the exhaust of the Humvees, the agony of the people of the Iraqi village where the New York Army National Guard captain was based last year, and a crime he helped dredge up from the dark depths of the past.

"I was interviewing this very old person who witnessed horrific atrocities in Dujayl in 1982 ... and he was hard of hearing, and to talk to this guy and get the story out was like a three-hour operation," recalled Heintz, 38. "I had to bring him back and ask him again what he said.

"At one point he started to break down and cry because he was talking about the death of one of his children, a teenager. I apologized to him for making him relive this again in this kind of detail.... He said: 'I'm not crying because I'm sad. I'm crying because I'm happy. For once, someone cares.' "

Today, Hussein stands accused of overseeing the collective punishment of Dujayl villagers for an attempt on his life, in what will probably be the first of multiple trials against the former Iraqi president. The trial, which has been beset by procedural delays, outbursts by Hussein, the resignation of the chief judge and the slaying of two lawyers, is set to resume Tuesday.

The Dujayl case came first at least in part because of Heintz's efforts.

In a series of interviews about his time in Iraq in 2004, Heintz described how he and his colleagues, many of them New York police officers and firefighters sent to help stabilize and secure the area around Dujayl, wound up helping unearth the crime.

"I went there as an infantry officer," said the stocky father of two, dressed in full military uniform for a police officer's funeral. "We went there to do raids and ambushes and train the Iraqi National Guard.... I did not go there to do [legal] work."

Before he arrived in Iraq, Heintz had little idea of what awaited him in Dujayl. As soon as the troops got their marching orders, his political advisor, Sgt. John Byrnes, did a Google search on the small town. He came up with an article that referred to the 1982 assassination attempt against Hussein and the retribution that followed. Heintz and his guys stored the information away.

Once they arrived, they found a poor, frightened town. Dujayl, a largely Shiite farming community smack-dab in the middle of the Sunni Triangle, had suffered immensely at the hands of the former government.

"Sewage, water, power, health and transportation facilities fell below international poverty standards," Heintz later wrote in a lengthy report on the mission.

The conditions shocked Heintz and his men. Nevertheless, they were touched by the villagers' kindness and welcoming attitude toward the troops. His men lovingly sang the Pogues song "Dirty Old Town" in homage to Dujayl. "I met my love by the gas works wall, dreamed a dream by the old canal," the lyrics go, "kissed a girl by the factory wall. Dirty old town. Dirty old town."

Heintz, a gung-ho soldier who signed up for the National Guard during his last year in college and was among the first troops to arrive at the site of the Sept. 11 attacks in Lower Manhattan, began making friends with his Iraqi counterparts.

From the beginning, Heintz and his men had noticed that some Dujayl residents lived better than others. The U.S. troops' understanding of the town's divisions was murky at first, but they slowly began to draw rough outlines of the area's tribal structure. Hussein, they learned, had built loyalty among certain clans by giving them land seized from others. One house in particular they kept an eye on was that of Sheik Abdullah Rawed, a leading member of the Meshake tribe.

On June 28, 2004, Heintz's men raided Rawed's house, hoping to arrest his son, Maher, who was suspected of taking part in insurgent attacks. A gunfight ensued as soldiers entered the house, but instead of taking down Maher, the soldiers found the sheik himself.

He was taken into custody, and that's when the Iraqis began telling Heintz that the sheik had been one of Hussein's henchmen and hinted at his involvement in ugly crimes decades ago. That same day, however, Rawed was released at the behest of other tribal leaders, who promised that the son would turn himself in.

The longtime prosecutor who had spent a career bringing down bad guys didn't like what villagers told him about Rawed.

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