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Iraqis thirsting for truth, revenge

High hopes rest on Hussein trial

BAGHDAD -- The surging crowd leaving prayer services pelted a cast-iron head of Saddam Hussein with rocks, then whacked it to the ground with their shoes.

 

The enraged Shi'ite Muslims wanted to exact revenge for the religious leaders killed under Hussein's regime and for their torture scars, which they proudly displayed during their eruption of anger Friday in Sadr City, a sprawling Baghdad slum.

Along with their thirst for vengeance comes a desire to learn the truth about the crimes of Hussein's regime, no matter how long it takes. "He has killed too many of us," said Najim Abed, a car salesman, grinning as he stood before the stone-pocked bust. "One by one, each story must be told."

But that urge for a comprehensive, open accounting of atrocities under Hussein places Iraqi public opinion squarely in opposition to the architects of the tribunal being set up to try the former dictator and other senior Ba'athists.

The Iraqi and American lawyers establishing the special court want a neat, conclusive proceeding that will efficiently bring about justice. They do not believe that the courtroom is the right place to exhume and document every crime committed by the Ba'ath Party regime, and they do not see Hussein's trial as the primary vehicle for national reconciliation, said Salem Chalabi, an American-trained Iraqi lawyer who helped design the court.

"We don't want this tribunal to be the primary way of bringing out the history of the last 35 years," said Chalabi, nephew of Ahmed Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress. "We want it to be about justice, about people who committed crimes being held accountable."

Many residents in Iraq, from the Shi'ite center of Najaf to Baghdad's poorest quarters, see the trial as an opportunity to catalog Hussein's crimes and to expose the complicity of their fellow citizens and of foreign governments.

"If Americans want to win the hearts of the Iraqis, they need to expose all the secrets of this man and how he came to power," said Amir Nayef Toma, 52, an English teacher browsing Friday in the outdoor book market on Mutanabi Street, where Iraqi intellectuals sip tea in the afternoons.

A short or limited trial will reinforce Iraqis' belief that US officials want to suppress details about the decades of support Hussein received from the United States and Arab countries, Toma said. "They will ask: `Why so swift? What is America hiding?' "

According to a poll taken since Hussein's capture, the vast majority of Iraqis surveyed said they want a trial that airs Hussein's "criminal" policies, from gassing Kurds in northern Iraq to suppressing a Shi'ite rebellion in 1991. Sadoun al-Dulame, a political scientist who heads the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies, supervised the random survey of 1,000 Iraqis in a dozen towns around the country, although his pollsters were afraid to enter Ba'athist strongholds like Tikrit and Samarra.

More than 80 percent of those polled said they thought the mass killings and forced deportations of Shi'ites, Kurds, and Marsh Arabs under Hussein were crimes, but 84 percent said it was crucial to give the former leader a fair trial. And 56 percent of respondents said Hussein deserved to be executed, 25 percent said he should imprisoned, and 19 percent said he should be pardoned.

"Most Iraqis are interested to learn the truth and background of Saddam's policies," said Mohammed Salim Nabil, a political science professor at Baghdad University. "This is what is most important. They want to ask him, at least, why he did all these things."

Mona Samour, 25, a teacher in Sadr City, said she wants to know how much money Hussein gained from his crimes. Waleed Khalaf, 34, a shopkeeper in the capital, wants to know exactly how Hussein killed Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr, a revered Shi'ite cleric executed in 1999. Khalaf's nephew, Alaa Wahid, 20, wants to ask Hussein how he could have had people buried alive inside their cars. Television footage has shown human remains inside vehicles that were recently unearthed.

But lawyers planning the tribunal say they want to limit the charges to about a dozen of Hussein's worst crimes, Chalabi said. They want to prevent him from using the courtroom to justify Iraq's wars with Iran and its invasion of Kuwait.

The US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council has not selected the judges and prosecutors. Ideally, Chalabi said, investigators and prosecutors would spend nearly a year sorting through documents to prepare an indictment against Hussein. But, he said, "political pressure will probably make it sooner."

Chalabi thinks the trial's most important impact could be to deliver a credible verdict and pave the way to a better judiciary.

"This tribunal is going to set the new standard for the whole Iraqi justice system," he said. "It's crucial to demonstrate that Iraq can apply standards of due process of law."

Some Iraqis echoed the worries of US officials and international specialists, who fear that a long trial would deepen Iraq's religious and political divisions by airing grudges between those who benefited under Hussein and those who did not.

"It's important, but it's not the time for it," said Hassan Ali, 56, a schoolteacher smoking a water pipe at a cafe on Mutanabi Street. "People are in a state of tension." Passions over Hussein were on display across Baghdad on Friday. Nearly 5,000 people gathered for prayers at Mohsen Mosque in Sadr City, where residents suffered disproportionately under Hussein's rule. Outside, hundreds of men and women wept and beat themselves in ritualistic mourning for their leaders murdered under Hussein.

They swarmed the Hussein bust, which had been placed atop a pole like the head of a scarecrow.

Amar Ali cast a handful of stones. "Let the lawyers see what we're doing to Saddam here," he shouted.

In Khalaf's shop in the Alawi district, home to a mix of Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, the mention of Hussein's trial set off a 45-minute argument. A customer, Falah al Bayati, 35, a former Iraqi Army colonel, said Hussein was innocent.

"You're defending a criminal," shouted the cashier, Alaa Wahid, who like his uncle, Khalaf, is a Shi'ite from the southern city of Nasiriyah.

"When Saddam's statue fell, it was like my father's funeral," Bayati said.

"When Saddam's statue fell, it was like my wedding day," Khalaf retorted.

Unprompted, the men ran down a list of all the Pandora's boxes of history a trial could open: Who benefited under Hussein, who carried out his orders, how did he conduct his wars? Bayati said the mass graves that have been discovered in several areas were created when soldiers rushed to bury their dead during the 1991 Gulf War.

Wahid challenged Bayati to a forensic test: "Let's look and see the numbers of human bodies. How many civilians are there? We'll judge by what they're wearing." He said Iraqis must catalog all of Hussein's crimes to heal the country and hold people accountable. Khalaf said: "We used to witness executions and we couldn't talk about it. Excuse us if we get a little excited."

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