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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Two Witnesses at Hussein Trial Tell of Massacre

The men recount how they survived soldiers' gunfire and fled amid bodies and mass graves during 1988 anti-Kurd drive in northern Iraq.

October 19, 2006|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The men could hear the soldiers outside, firing away at the screaming prisoners. They knew they were next. Trapped inside the bus, they quickly hatched a desperate plan to escape. If all but one died in the attempt, it would still be worth it, they decided.

At least two survived to tell the tale, and on Wednesday, they told it from behind a curtain in a Baghdad courtroom, at the genocide trial of Saddam Hussein.

The pair recounted villagers' flight from attack by aircraft and ground forces April 9, 1988, as part of the so-called Anfal, or "spoils of war," campaign against Kurds in northern Iraq.

The former president and his six codefendants are charged in connection with the mass killing of as many as 100,000 Kurds over several months in 1988. If convicted, they could face the death penalty.

During dramatic testimony, one witness recounted how he fainted as guards began firing on the bus, and awoke to the sounds of gurgling blood in the throats of dying prisoners.

"It was a scary sound," said the man, who managed to escape the carnage on the bus only to fall into a ditch full of bodies as he ran away. "I fell on a body," he said, adding that he recognized the victim as an acquaintance. "He was still alive; it was his last breath."

The witness said he took off his clothes as he ran because "the skin has the same color as the sand" and he didn't want the guards to detect him. All around, he said, were mounds that he believed were graves.

The second witness described how he saw his village, Khani Khader, burn to the ground before he surrendered to government forces who had promised an amnesty. Instead, soldiers took the Kurds to a crowded prison where they were interrogated, beaten and starved.

After a few days, as many as 500 people were loaded onto windowless buses and driven for hours on unpaved roads over barren stretches of land. Finally, the convoy stopped in the Anbar desert.

"We felt we were going to die," the witness said. "They were going to kill us."

When the gunfire began, he said, "we knew it was the people in the other vehicles being shot and that we would be next."

The witness said he thought of his mother and 2-year-old son, and prepared to die. "We exchanged words of forgiveness, and we were weeping," said the man. But then their mood changed to defiance, he said.

As the guards came to open the doors of the bus, the prisoners attacked. "He struggled to lock the door, and we struggled to open it. And the guards outside the vehicle started to fire."

The hail of bullets killed many, and wounded both guards and prisoners, including the witness. Eyes bloodied by a head injury, he ran into the dark night through the killing fields, the witness said.

"I fled in the opposite direction of the mass graves," he said. "There was a stream of blood underneath my feet. I was running without shoes."

Eventually, he reached a house. He prayed that those living inside would not turn him over to the authorities. "I told them my story," he said. "I told them the truth, how the Iraqi government wanted to kill me and had killed my friend."

The family took him in. They gave him water, food and tea. "I'll never forget their favor," the man said.

During cross-examination, one of the defendants, Sabir Duri, the former head of military intelligence, talked about how Iran had infiltrated Iraq's Kurdish region during the 1980s, when the two nations were at war.

The defense team has argued that Anfal was a legitimate counterinsurgency against Kurdish rebels supported by Iran.

"Even if the report is true, does this give an excuse to arrest people, including women and children, using chemical weapons against them, or executing them in the desert like this?" Munqith Faroon, the lead prosecutor, responded in a passionate outburst.

The prosecutor's brother was shot dead earlier in the week.

Wednesday's proceedings took place despite the continued absence of defense attorneys, who walked out last month when the Iraqi government removed the then-sitting judge, Abdullah Amiri, for allegedly being too sympathetic to the defense.

A verdict in an earlier trial, charging Hussein with crimes against humanity for the killing of 148 Shiite villagers from Dujayl, is expected Nov. 5.

The current trial is scheduled to resume today.

*

roug@latimes.com

Times staff writer Saif Rasheed contributed to this report.

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