Wide Iraqi support for Hussein trial

Thursday Saddam Hussein and 11 of his lieutenants will be paraded before cameras and charged with war crimes in Iraq.

Everyone's hand shoots up in Majid's Barbershop when asked if Saddam Hussein should be convicted of crimes against humanity.

All 10 men in the Baghdad shop - three barbers, those getting a trim, and a bunch of friends and neighbors - are united in their pleasure that the case against Mr. Hussein is finally getting under way.

"This man is one of history's great war criminals,'' says Nihad Malika, shaving the head of a 6-year-old boy. "This is a great day for us, though his sentence won't come soon enough."

In a nation facing ethnic and religious fissures, a rampant insurgency, and dissatisfaction over the pace of reconstruction, Hussein's fate is one of the few issues Iraqis agree upon. Some remain loyal to Hussein's regime in the Sunni communities he favored. But most of the country still views his reign with loathing and horror. As such, his trial is likely to bolster the new interim Iraqi government as the most popular public act since the US drove him from power last year.

Wednesday, the US signed papers granting Iraq's government legal authority over Hussein and 11 other senior officials from his regime, though they will physically remain in US custody. Thursday, Hussein and his lieutenants are scheduled to be brought before an Iraqi court and, while the cameras role, are expected to be charged with genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

Whether it's the largely Shiite areas in the south that had tens of thousands executed for opposing the regime in the 1990s, the Kurdish north that remembers the use of nerve gas to kill some 5,000 residents of Halabja in 1988, or the many Sunnis who were murdered by the regime, Iraq's court of public opinion is unwavering in its condemnation of his rule.

Here in Sadr City - which Hussein called Saddam City to emphasize his victory over his Shiite political opponents - evidence of the regime's abuses are thick on the ground. Four of the men at Majid's Barbershop had a brother or cousin executed by the regime, without trial or charges, for belonging to outlawed Shiite political parties.

Concerns about whether a man so deeply reviled can receive a fair trial draw derisive snorts. "The ground, the marshes of this country were witnesses to what he did,'' says Mr. Malika.

Ham Zemadi, a 28-year-old sociology student at Baghdad University, remembers the day in 1999 when Iraqi security officers surrounded a crowd at the Mohsen Mosque. They were protesting the regime's murder of Ayatollah Mohammed Sadek al-Sadr and fired volley after volley into the crowd, killing about 60 people. "There was blood everywhere,'' he says. "Those people didn't get a trial."

This poor and almost completely Shiite district of 1 million people in north Baghdad was systematically deprived of basic government services for more than 20 years. Infant mortality is higher here than in the rest of Baghdad, and its pitted roads and pools of raw sewage a testament to the area's treatment by the regime. Iraq's Shiites, about 60 percent of the population, were a constant source of insurrection against Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime and he responded with a heavy hand.

"Your pen will run out of ink before you've recorded all the crimes just the people in this shop could tell you about," says Rahim Hussein, whose brother Hasan was taken away by the regime in 1982 for belonging to a Shiite political party and never seen again. "Saddam is going to try to claim he wasn't responsible, but he ruled this country completely. All of these murders are on his hands."

Justice, if it comes, won't be swift. Iraq's appointed interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi, appealed for "patience" from Iraq's people and said it will probably be some months before trials begin. Hussein, Allawi said, should receive "a just trial, a fair trial.... We would like to show the world that the Iraqi government means business."

But the trials are unlikely to drag on in the same way as the war crimes trial for Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic. That international tribunal, run under United Nation's auspices, has bent over backward to give a chance to the defense, and Mr. Milosevic has taken the opportunity to lash out at his critics.

The Iraqi trial, by contrast, will have international technical assistance but is set up as an entirely Iraqi affair. The 12 men's status as prisoners of war and their Geneva Convention protections ended with the sign-over of legal authority. Iraq is free to deal with them according to its own laws.

The trial will be run by a special tribunal led by Salem Chalabi, a former exile and nephew of Ahmad Chalabi, a once-close American ally who has fallen out of favor with the US. The tribunal was set up last December to investigate and prosecute crimes against humanity committed between 1968, when the Baath Party seized power, and 2003. Salem Chalabi told CNN that the trials are unlikely to start before 2005.

Iraqi officials say Hussein probably won't be the first of the 12 to go on trial. Among the others charged will be Hussein's cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, the former internal-security chief known as "Chemical Ali" for leading the campaign against the Kurds in the late 1980s that included the Halabja incident and other uses of nerve gas on civilians, and Tariq Aziz, a former deputy prime minister and close associate of Hussein's since the 1950s.

Prime Minister Allawi and the US know how important this trial is to the Iraqi people, and the role it could play in bolstering popular support for his interim rule. The US is helping to pay for a media effort that will ensure that most of the trial is broadcast around the country. Mr. Hussein's arraignment Thursday will also be broadcast.

At Majid's Barbershop, the men are licking their lips at the prospect of seeing Hussein in the dock.

"I hope they show him in chains" when the charges are read against him, says Methun al-Khalifa, a former conscript who says he emerged from the Iran-Iraq war (waged by Hussein in the 1980s with US support) with a mild limp from a gunshot wound to his leg. After the war, he says his brother Harith was "disappeared" by the regime. "Once we start to see this [trial], we'll really believe [that justice is being done]."

The trials will probably not be for the faint of heart, since the regime showed particular ingenuity when it came to brutality and efforts to terrorize its opponents. A former special forces officer, who asked not to be identified, recalls being asked to guard and transport 16 Shiite political prisoners from the south of the country after their failed uprising against the regime.

In Baghdad, more trusted officers boarded their bus, and blindfolded him to prevent him from knowing where they were going. After about 10 minutes, he and the prisoners were in a large room, and a gas mask was thrust at him to protect him from the fumes of a pool of acid at one end of the room.

Nearly in tears, he says he watched in horror as one by one the men were pushed into the pool and disappeared from sight. "There was just a brief scream and they were gone,'' he says. "Other bus loads got different punishment. Some were buried in sand up to their necks and then run-over with a steamroller."

Back at Majid's, the men show similar ingenuity when imagining Hussein's punishment. Iraqi officials say they expect to soon reinstate the death penalty, but most of the men want something more. "He should be tortured and humiliated, and then killed,'' says Mr. Khalifa.

Another man, forced to serve in the Army for a decade with hardly any pay, says he prefers another idea that's been buzzing around Baghdad. "Death is too merciful. They should put him in a cage in the zoo, so that anyone who wants to can go and spit at him."

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