Iraq's Kurds get moment of closure on eve of Hussein trial

A mass burial lays to rest 512 of the 8,000 men taken away by Iraqi forces in 1983.

One by one, they came. And they came. The flag-draped coffins kept coming for more than an hour Monday as Iraqi Kurds for the first time held a mass burial for victims of Saddam Hussein's regime.

The 512 coffins - each carried by an honor guard of Kurdish soldiers - represent a fraction of the estimated 8,000 Kurds reported slaughtered by the Iraqi government in August 1983. That infamous event was followed by a government campaign in the late 1980s that wiped out 4,000 Kurdish villages.

The funeral, held two days before the opening of Mr. Hussein's trial in Baghdad, marks a rare moment of collective closure for Iraq's Kurds. But some here would like to take that process a step further - to see Hussein convicted of his government's crimes against Kurds, who bore the brunt of the regime's cruelty.

The Iraqi Special Tribunal will begin by examining the 1982 killing of some 140 Shiite men from Dujail after Hussein survived an assassination attempt in the same town. While the Dujail case alone may yield the death penalty, the Kurds of northern Iraq say they wish the first case to be tried could be a Kurdish one.

"My father, I am sure he is there," says Rebwar Ramazan Abdullah, motioning to the rows of coffins, unmarked except for the Kurdish flag. Mr. Abdullah was a toddler when Iraqi troops sealed off his village and burst in the house. His father, a medical student, only had time to put on one sock before he was taken away - along with every male of the Barzani clan older than 10.

He says his mother still wears black. "We eat grief instead of bread," says Abdullah.

Hussein's trial is a "good thing" that "should be a lesson to all dictators," he says, but Kurds "feel shock when we see him not convicted of our cases. It is unfair."

Investigators have found evidence of 270 mass graves across Iraq, which are suspected to hold the remains of tens of the thousands of people, including Kurds, Shiites, and other political opponents of the Hussein regime.

"The Barzani clan were the first to be killed in this genocide, and the carnage of the Barzanis showed how brutal this regime was in dealing with the Kurds," Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, himself a veteran Kurdish leader, told those assembled for the funeral. "The central government was very cruel, and put them alive in mass graves."

The Barzanis may have been targets of revenge during the Iran-Iraq war, Kurds say, because the Barzani-led Kurdistan Democratic Party, according to one account, "spearheaded an Iranian thrust into northern Iraq" earlier in 1983.

The remains in the 512 coffins were unearthed from a mass grave in southern Iraq, in the remote desert triangle formed by Iraq's borders with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Large photos of the forensic work show skulls with bullet holes, and many wearing Kurdish headdress typical of the Barzani clan.

"Without dealing with our unjust past, we can't have a just future," says Mohammed Ihsan, the human rights minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, who was instrumental in the examination of the grave.

"It's very significant for the families, because they have been waiting for 23 years, and while there is deep sadness, there will also be relief," says Mr. Ihsan. He is handling 17,230 cases of Kurds reported missing or killed, and is drawing up a request for compensation for the victims' families.

"This is a good time for the international community to know what happened in Iraq," says Ihsan. "The healing will take a long time, and not be easy."

Besides claiming that the "freedom of the Kurds today is the fruit of this sacrifice," part of the ceremony included a verse from the Koran, which voiced a need for retribution: "Don't kill a soul, which God does not allow, except in revenge."

Sozan Subhi, who lost 32 relatives in 1983, says she understands that sentiment and expects Hussein to be tried and executed.

"Now we know they are dead, and that is closure. All that remains is the trial of Saddam," says Ms. Subhi, tearfully carrying a portrait of her uncle Iskandar Mahmoud. "I hope I will see [Hussein] dead, but I hope he will be shot by one who was oppressed by him."

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