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Kurdish City Is Riveted by Trial

October 09, 2006|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

SULAYMANIYA, Iraq — Most mornings these days, it's hard to get a seat in the Shaab Cafe.

Several hundred men scoot together on the long wooden benches and haul rickety wooden chairs closer to the two big TV sets on either end of the room. The ubiquitous click of the backgammon pieces falls silent.

Then the face of the young Iraqi judge appears on the screen, followed soon by the sight that almost no one here tires of seeing: former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, seated in a courtroom cage like the man-eating lion that villagers peer at through the bamboo walls of a trap.

"On the first day, when the trial started, everyone was silent," said Omar Sharif, owner of this cavernous, clamorous cafe frequented by many of this city's artists and writers.

"Then the judge appeared, and announced he will start the trial of Saddam and his assistants. And everyone responded to the judge's announcement in their own way. There were people who were shouting, there were people who were crying. For everyone, it was something unbelievable."

Almost everyone remembers the oversized banner headline in that day's edition of Kurdistan Nwea: "The Day of Justice."

The events related in witness testimony in a Baghdad courtroom happened here, in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. They happened 18 years ago, but to many here watching the trial, which resumes today after a recess called late last month, it is as if they took place last week.

As many as 100,000 died during the Hussein government's 1988 campaign dubbed Anfal, or "spoils of war," which attempted to relocate -- and in many cases, exterminate -- Kurds living along the mutinous borderlands near Turkey.

In the former leader's second trial, Hussein and his six codefendants, charged variously with war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, are accused of directing a campaign in which tens of thousands of men were shot and pushed into mass graves, and women and children were rounded up and killed, or forced into camps that were no more than fenced-off areas of sand. Thousands of civilians were attacked with poisonous gas and left, blinded, burned and vomiting, to die. Wells were filled with dirt, houses demolished, farm animals seized, villages marked with signposts reading "forbidden zone."

Hussein has refused to enter a plea, but he and his lawyers appear to be painting the 6 1/2 -month campaign as a legitimate counterinsurgency operation against a secessionist region that was allied with Iraq's enemy, Iran, during the war that lasted through most of the 1980s.

The trial has special resonance here because almost no family in the north is without victims.

Posters tacked up on walls all over this city about 30 miles from the Iranian border show a photograph of Hussein as he looked just after he was captured by U.S. forces, grizzled and dazed, his hair like a caveman's. The image is often half scratched-out or otherwise mutilated. "Now YOU are under the mercy of Anfal," the posters say.

Dozens, including elderly peasant women and tough Kurdish peshmerga fighters, have boarded planes to Baghdad to sit at the witness table, stare Hussein in the face and provide testimony of what happened.

"When I entered the court, it was somehow horrible," said former peshmerga Akarwat Abdullah Tawfik, who testified about leading 700 civilians and 400 fellow fighters through the mountains during a deadly snowstorm to escape their villages, only to face a gas attack in the village of Shanakhsea, northeast of Sulaymaniya, on March 22, 1988.

"You see, he was so weak, but he still had a powerful presence," Tawfik said. "When you see him, you feel frightened. He was looking at me. I felt that he was expressing his sorrow that he did not kill all of us so that nobody would be eyewitness to his atrocities."

He told his story for 75 minutes, and then for the next 110 the defendants and their lawyers countered with questions.

Through it all, the citizens of Sulaymaniya have cheered the witnesses and booed the defendants. The Shaab Cafe erupted into a storm of whistles and hoots each time the presiding judge, Mohammed Orabi Khalefa, ejected Hussein from the courtroom for refusing to keep silent. Khalefa has kept a lid on verbal outbursts since replacing the trial's original judge, whom Iraqi authorities deemed to be partial to the defendants.

"People get so much pleasure from seeing that dictator and his company with such long faces. And not the previous face of the president, that handsome president of Iraq. No. Sitting in a cage.... And now you see a young judge warning him, and making him sit down, and making him shut up," said Tawfik Ahmed Abdul, chief of vital statistics for the city Health Department.

Sipping their glasses of sweet tea, the patrons at Shaab complain that the trial is taking too long. They recall how trials in the Hussein era often took half an hour. A few, such as Akarwat Tawfik, even argue that public execution would be too merciful a punishment for Hussein.

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