Iraq divided as Saddam prepares to go on trial for mass murder

The attitude of Iraqis towards the trial is divided. Kurds and Shias almost all want to see the former dictator executed for mass murder while many Sunni Arabs believe the charges against him are exaggerated or faked.

Saddam Hussein will be brought by American guards from a US detention facility to the court in the capital's Green Zone near the palaces where he once lived. The US is eager for the trial to appear to be seen as an Iraqi affair though security will be in the hands of the US military.

The charges against Saddam Hussein have yet to be spelled out in court but Iraqi officials say they will focus on Dujail because the documentary evidence is clear linking the former leader to the killings. Beside him in the dock will sit six other defendants. These include his half-brother Barzan al-Tikriti, once head of the much-feared Mukhabarat intelligence organisation, and Taha Yassin Ramadan, a notoriously brutal lieutenant of Saddam. Also on trial will be a judge, Awad Hamed al-Bander, who sentenced to death many people from Dujail, and four local Baathist party officials.

Other more general charges against Saddam Hussein have been mentioned by Iraqi court officials, including the slaughter of Kurds in the Anfal campaign in 1987-88, the suppression of a Shia uprising in 1991, the murder of Shia religious leaders and the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. "It is not as if there is a shortage of evidence against him," said Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi Foreign Minister. "I could give evidence myself since he murdered three of my brothers."

The trial will take place behind the tightest security. US officials have been carrying out background checks on those attending which are so detailed that one of them said "it was like filling out a mortgage application. They asked if I had taken hard or soft drugs or smuggled them into the country."

The duration of the present phase of the trial is still unclear. It is likely but not certain that the court will grant the defence a delay of several weeks after initial proceedings. Questioned about this, the investigative judge Raed Jouhi would only say the judges will themselves decide if the full trial is to go ahead immediately.

The Iraqi government and the US are nervous that Saddam Hussein will be able to launch an effective counterattack against them, denouncing the court as a puppet of the occupation. He can point to the failure of the present Iraqi government to provide security, electricity or employment, accusations likely to resonate with many Iraqis.

The chief judge will question the former leader but five judges will decide on his guilt or innocence. Iraqi courts have no juries.

The court will also decide on how far the proceedings are to be televised. Officials at one point asked for a half-hour delay so they could make sure that the identity of witnesses would not be revealed, but Western television companies fear this may be an excuse to censor proceedings.

The attitude of Iraqis in Baghdad towards the trial depends on the community to which they belong. At the main gate leading to Baghdad University yesterday Shia students said Saddam Hussein should be executed while Sunnis generally said he should not be on trial.

Hassan Fahum, a Shia and a student of engineering, said: "All the Iraqi people hate him and want him dead." Abdullah Qassem Mustapha, a Sunni and another engineering student, said: "Saddam didn't commit any crimes against the Iraqi people. The bodies in the mass graves are all Iranian soldiers killed in battle. In the end, the Americans will decide even if the verdict comes from an Iraqi judge." Other Sunni students said that the trial was illegal under the occupation.

Maha Jaber Ali, a Shia woman working for the college of engineering, said: "We want our revenge and I believe the judge will order him executed."

As Baghdad was engulfed in a dust storm yesterday the war continued across Iraq. The US military said its planes had killed 70 "terrorists" in two attacks near Ramadi but locals said 39 were innocent civilians. Some 20 were killed as they stood near an American Humvee destroyed by a bomb. The US said they were planting a second bomb. Chiad Saad, a tribal leader, denied this, saying they were looking at the wreckage out of curiosity.

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