DUJAIL, Iraq -- The people of this grape-growing town 35 miles north of Baghdad live surrounded by reminders of the time they tangled with Saddam Hussein. Dust blows where date palms once stood, scores of families still mourn, and a makeshift memorial displays photographs of the dead.
When Hussein's long-awaited trial opens tomorrow, Iraqi prosecutors plan to charge him first with ordering the killing of more than 140 men from Dujail and exiling their families to a desert camp in 1982 after a band of gunmen tried to assassinate him on a visit to the town. To the families of the alleged victims, and hundreds of thousands more across Iraq, the trial offers tantalizing hope that they will see Hussein punished at last.
''We want to eat him alive," said Salimah Majeed Al-Haidari, 60, who spent more than four years in detention, then waited 17 more to learn that her husband and two sons, hauled off by security officers, had been executed. ''We wish they would cut him to pieces and hand them out to us and families like us."
Hussein's trial opens at a precarious time for Iraq. The former president, still a symbol of national pride and identity to some of the disaffected Sunni minority, goes on trial four days after a referendum in which voters appear to have approved a new constitution over strong Sunni objections.
The trial is a crucial step for Iraq after 2 1/2 years of uncertainty under US occupation and 26 years of Hussein's dictatorship. But the major political players in Iraq have differing stakes in the outcome of the trial.
The US-backed Iraqi government, catapulted to power by the Shi'ite and Kurdish communities that bore the brunt of Hussein's repression, faces fresh elections in December and wants to show that it has delivered justice by bringing Hussein to trial; top officials have already called for his execution.
The Bush administration wants to lay out evidence of Hussein's abuses to counter widespread discontent amid a relentless and bloody Sunni-led insurgency that has sparked nostalgia among some Iraqis for the relative stability of his iron-handed reign.
And international human rights advocates want the trial to build a precedent for holding rulers responsible for crimes against humanity, both by thoroughly documenting abuses and by adhering to high standards of defendants' rights -- goals that specialists have said the trial may not achieve because of confusing rules, politicization, and time pressure.
Some observers question whether the Dujail charges are the right place to start, because Hussein is accused of ordering crimes on a much large scale -- such as killing more than 5,000 Kurds in a chemical weapons attack in 1988 and slaughtering tens of thousands of Shi'ites in southern Iraq after an uprising that followed the 1991 Gulf War. Court officials say they are starting with a smaller case precisely because it is simpler to document.
But in Dujail, the niceties of due process aren't foremost in people's minds.
''I only wish him death," said Thikra Abbas al-Haidari, who was 15 when she was sent to the desert camp with her mother, Salimah. ''When I see him being interrogated on TV wearing a suit and shoes, I would like to break the TV."
''His execution will represent the triumph of right over wrong," said Kadhim Deham al-Salami, who went to jail as a 10-year-old boy in the roundup that he said killed his father and four of his brothers.
Mahmoud al-Hattow, who lost four brothers, is in a minority that wants Hussein kept alive to atone.
''I would rather see him in prison and humiliated," he said, sitting with his father, Jassem, who suffered cranial bleeding and lost consciousness for 10 days when documents unearthed after Hussein's overthrow revealed that his sons, missing for decades, had been executed by Hussein's secret police.
Others in Dujail say they won't feel safe until Hussein is dead and are too frightened to testify against him.
On July 8, 1982, while Hussein's war against Iran was raging, the president landed in a helicopter in the mostly Shi'ite town of about 40,000. The town was prosperous then, with vast date palm orchards.
Boys in white dishdashas and women in black head-to-toe abbayas jumped and cheered for Hussein in the required frenzy of loyalty that typically met his public appearances, captured in a presidential archive video unearthed by Britain's Channel 4 after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Hattow, now 78, recalls listening as Hussein praised the town for its war morale, then watched him drive off in a white bulletproof Mercedes with a convoy of bodyguards.
Half an hour later, he heard shooting. Soon, the streets were full of soldiers, and the town was surrounded.
The footage shows Hussein addressing the crowds again, vowing to find the attackers. ''They will be three, four, or five people. . . agents of foreign powers," Hussein said on the video. But the president said he knew the rest of Dujail was loyal -- a remark the townspeople still recall and contrast with what came next.
The next day a carload of security officers took Hattow to the Ba'ath Party headquarters and showed him nine dead bodies. One was his 23-year-old son, Abbas, shot with high-caliber bullets. Later, Hattow found out that a group of Islamic Dawa party members had fired rifles at Hussein's car from among the date palms, and Abbas had been with a second group that arrived too late to join the attack.
More than 140 fighting-age men were taken away and never seen again. Hattow and nine family members -- the youngest was his 6-year-old daughter -- were taken to the Baghdad headquarters of the feared Mukhabarat the intelligence service, along with the Haidaris, Salamis, and many others.
Ahmed al-Salami, now 35, recalled that as the detainees walked back from meals down a narrow corridor, guards beat them with electrified batons that removed chunks of flesh. The women and boys said they were moved to Abu Ghraib prison, and about a year later to a deserted Bedouin encampment in the southern desert, near the border with Saudi Arabia. Each family lived in one room of a small house without running water. ''We slept on the floor with the desert scorpions," Salimah al-Haidari said.
It ended as arbitrarily as it began, Salimah al-Haidari said. ''One day they gathered us and said, 'Saddam has forgiven you and you will go home.' "
They found Dujail changed. The government had razed the palm groves and diverted the nearby river so they could not be replanted. Houses had been bulldozed. The Haidaris' furniture, jewelry, cars, and water pumps were gone, their house sold.
But they were too afraid to protest, until Hussein fell in 2003. As Baghdad smoked from the war, the Salamis went there to look for their relatives. But their fate surfaced in a box of files found in a looted shopping center. They had all been executed.
But the families contend with a new world of chaos. An island of Shi'ites in the Sunni Triangle, Dujail has sent many men to serve in Iraq's armed forces or work for the US military.
''The Americans are occupiers, but it's better than Saddam," Thikra al-Haidari said.
Jassem al-Hattow said he stayed alive this long just to see what happens to Saddam Hussein.
''If the countries of the world have a conscience," he said, ''such a person should stand trial and be punished."
Al-Izzi reported from Dujail; Barnard from Baghdad.