Iraq's 'Chemical Ali' tribunal overshadowed by Shiite infighting

Clashes at a pilgrimage in Karbala distract from a tribunal for killings of Shiites in a 1991 uprising.

The trial of ex-agents of Saddam Hussein's regime is intended to be a watershed moment for a tormented nation. The accused face charges related to killing 100,000 people to suppress a Shiite uprising in southern Iraq that followed the 1991 Gulf War.

But the tribunal, which began last week as even more victims of the uprising were discovered in Basra, has so far done little to bring resolution to Iraqi Shiites, who are faced with a growing intrareligious struggle that threatens to erode some of the achievements of this long-oppressed community.

"Our politicians have squandered the sacrifices of our people," says Majid al-Sari.

Mr. Sari was among a group of rebels who tried to hold their ground in a building that had housed the Basra branch of the Mukhabarat (Iraqi intelligence agency) on March 17, 1991. They were eventually overrun by Iraqi Army enforcements sent to crush the uprising, which is known to Shiites as the Intifada Shaabaniya as it took place during the Muslim lunar month of Shaaban, a religiously significant time for Shiites because it's when they mark the birth of Imam Mahdi.

He later fled on foot with other rebels and ended up at the Kuwaiti border, where he was then transferred to a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia. "The reason the intifada failed was because of a lack of communication between the rebels, the feuding over leadership, and the conflicting agendas – precisely as is the case today," adds Sari.

Once again, those conflicting agendas are troubling Iraq's Shiite community. Over the past two days in Karbala, Shiite rivals – the Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization – clashed during the climax of a holy pilgrimage to mark Imam Mahdi's birth. At least 52 people were killed and 300 wounded.

In response, Moqtada al-Sadr issued a statement freezing the activities of his Mahdi Army militia, which has splintered into factions, for six months in order to "preserve its ideological label." An aide to Sadr said this included attacks on coalition forces.

"What happened was disgusting, and greatly hurts the cause of the Shiites," says Ramadan Muhalhal, who witnessed the bloody events in Karbala. He spoke by telephone Wednesday as he made his way back to Basra after a curfew was imposed in Karbala to allow the Iraqi Army to stabilize the situation.

Mr. Muhalhal said that the fighting, which started as a melee with stones and sticks and escalated into pitched fights with guns and grenades, has punctured a 3-foot-wide hole in one of the outer walls of the Imam Hussein mausoleum at the Bab al-Qibla entrance. He also saw at least three buildings on fire near the shrine.

Events in Karbala came on the heels of the assassination last week of Muhammad Ali al-Hassani, the governor of the southern Muthana province. He was considered one of the founders of the Badr Organization as an anti-Hussein paramilitary unit trained and nurtured by Iran. Many Badrists, as they are called, blamed Mr. Sadr's militiamen for the killing of Mr. Hassani, which happened Aug. 20, one day before the start of the trial.

Ali Hassan al-Majid – Hussein's cousin and the former defense minister who gained the nickname "Chemical Ali" after poison gas attacks on Kurdish towns in the 1980s – and 14 other former regime figures appeared in Baghdad for opening statements. The trial has been adjourned until Sept. 24.

The 1991 rebellion in the southern and mid-Euphrates provinces of Najaf and Karbala was crushed by Hussein's forces. And prosecutors say Mr. Majid personally killed many of the suspects.

In Basra, suspected rebels were typically rounded up for mass executions. Bodies were later dumped into mass graves.

At almost the same time the trial was unfolding in Baghdad, workers in Basra stumbled on a fresh grave while digging up a median in a busy street to plant trees. The remains of 28 people, including a 2-year-old infant, were laid out in open wooden coffins draped with Iraqi flags at a local office of the Ministry of Human Rights. Tearful men and women flocked to identify missing relatives.

Muhammad Ali Shabib and his sister Zuhour were able to identify their brother by his coat and sweat shirt. "Every time we would hear there was a new mass grave, my late mother, who died in her sorrow, and I would rush to look for my brother," says Mrs. Shabib, struggling to hold back tears. "But thank God finally we have some closure."

As for their opinion of the trial, Mr. Shabib says, "It's a charade. The people of the south have sacrificed a lot and till this day it's nothing but suffering and suffering and more suffering."

Mahdi al-Tamimi, a ministry official tasked with tracking mass graves in the south, estimates there are still hundreds of people buried in that same median but that exhuming them would not be worthwhile at this point. Iraqis do not have their own DNA laboratory and must rely on US expertise.

"The support we are getting is very weak," Mr. Tamimi says.

Many survivors of the uprising feel betrayed that the trial is taking place under such precarious conditions for the Shiite community and Iraq at large. "We Shiites just do not have luck," says Ali Hussein, who is one of the three people who appear in the famous footage in which they are being kicked by Majid.

He has refused to testify in the trial out of fear of retribution by former regime loyalists.

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