Saddam returns to court to face genocide charge

Case concerns Iraqi offensive against Kurds in northern region.

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A new legal chapter opens today for Saddam Hussein when the ousted Iraqi leader goes on trial for a second time, charged with genocide and war crimes from his scorched-earth offensive against Kurds nearly two decades ago.

The case against Saddam and six co-defendants is tied to the deaths of tens of thousands of people during the Iraqi army's "Operation Anfal" -- Arabic for "spoils of war" -- and prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

The 1987-1988 crackdown was aimed at crushing independence-minded Kurdish militias and clearing all Kurds from the northern region along the border with Iran. Saddam accused the Kurds of helping Iran in its war with Iraq.

Kurdish survivors say many villages were razed and countless young men disappeared.

They also accuse the army of using prohibited mustard gas and nerve agents, but the trial does not deal with the most notorious gassing -- the March 1988 attack on Halabja that killed an estimated 5,000 Kurds. That incident will be part of a separate investigation by the Iraqi High Tribunal.

Awaiting earlier verdict

The trial begins as Saddam and seven others await a verdict from a trial for their alleged involvement in the killings of more than 148 Shiite Muslims from Dujail as punishment for an assassination attempt on Saddam in the town in 1982.

Critics have decried the first trial's lengthy, sometimes chaotic proceedings.

Human Rights Watch charged Friday that the Iraqi High Tribunal is incapable of fairly and effectively trying Saddam and others on the Anfal charges "in accordance with international standards and current international criminal law."

The New York-based group said the nine-month Dujail trial showed the court's administration to be "chaotic and inadequate," and also complained that the trial relied too heavily on anonymous witnesses. It said the court must "improve its practices if it is to do justice."

The Dujail trial was marred by disorder, with Saddam repeatedly engaging in arguments with the judges and then boycotting the proceedings. Defense teams repeatedly walked out, prompting the appointment of replacements. Three defense lawyers also were assassinated.

A U.S. official close to the tribunal defended its fairness Sunday.

He said that while none of the judges in the Anfal case have practiced international human rights law, the panel has "an adviser experienced in working with international tribunals." The official would not specify the adviser's nationality but said the person is not an American.

Abdullah al-Amiri, a 54-year-old Shiite who was a judge under Saddam's regime for 25 years, heads the five-member panel as chief judge.

The U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the case, said he expected the trial to proceed faster than the Dujail case and added that more security was being provided for defense attorneys.

Saddam's co-defendants include his cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, who allegedly led Operation Anfal as secretary of the Baath Party's northern bureau. Al-Majid's alleged role in the operation earned him the name "Chemical Ali" for the use of poison gas.

Both Saddam and al-Majid are charged with genocide. They also are charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, as are the other five defendants.

Also on trial are Sabir al-Douri, former director of military intelligence; Sultan Hashim Ahmad al-Tai, who was head of the Iraqi army's 1st Corps, which executed the Anfal military operation; and Taher Tawfiq al-Ani, then the Mosul governor.

The two other defendants are Hussein Rashid Mohammed, who was deputy director of operations for the Iraqi military, and Farhan Mutlaq Saleh, then head of military intelligence's Eastern regional office.

Iraqi officials and rights groups say the precise death count resulting from Operation Anfal is difficult to determine because of the attacks' scale. Estimates range from around 50,000 to well over 100,000.

Kurdish legislator Mahmoud Othman, who participated in talks then between the Kurds and the former regime, said al-Majid in a way gave an estimate of around 100,000.

"I was asking them about the whereabouts of 182,000 missing people whom we didn't know if they were alive, dead or detained," Othman told The Associated Press. Al-Majid "got angry and said where did you get these numbers? They're about 100,000."

About 60 to 120 complainants and prosecution witnesses are expected to appear before the court. The judges also will review more than 9,000 documents.

Many Kurds say they expect retribution.

"We have been wishing for this for so long -- to see the dictator Saddam Hussein tried for these horrible crimes," said Othman Hajji Mahmoud, interior minister in the Krudish region's provincial government.

The trial will be held at the same heavily guarded courthouse in the Green Zone in Baghdad where the Dujail trial was held.

A verdict in the Dujail trial is expected when that court reconvenes Oct. 16 after an adjournment that began last month.

If Saddam should be convicted and sentenced to death in that case, it is expected that under Iraqi law he would be dropped from the Anfal case, which would continue against the other defendants.

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