Fifteen former aides of late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein went on trial Tuesday in a U.S.-backed court in Baghdad for their alleged role in suppressing a Shia uprising after the 1991 Gulf War, but many Iraqi Shias still blame the Americans for the tens of thousands who were killed in the crackdown.
The defendants include Saddam's cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid, widely known as “Chemical Ali” and two other senior military officers - Sultan Hashim al-Tai, a former defence minister, and Hussein Rashid al-Tikriti, a former deputy chief of operations for the armed forces - who have already been sentenced to death in an earlier trial for the 1998 Anfal campaign against Iraq’s Kurdish population.
The 15 men on trial today are accused of committing crimes against humanity "for engaging in widespread or systematic attacks against a civilian population". The alleged crimes include the torture and execution of suspects as Saddam's forces sought to retake towns and cities that had been seized by Shia rebels. The court will hear about 90 witnesses. A background briefing note compiled by U.S. officials involved in the trial said evidence included "tapes and after-action reports but few actual orders due to regime-ordered destruction of records. Destruction of records came from Saddam Hussein himself."
According to an article on Reuters, the trial revives debate over former U.S. President George Bush’s decision not to invade Iraq after forcing Iraqi soldiers out of Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War.
Galvanised by a message by the former U.S. President to "take matters into their own hands, to force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside", the Shia strongholds of Najaf and Karbala rose in revolt in March 1991, just days after the February 28 ceasefire ended the Gulf War, in the Shia south and Kurdish north in an attempt to topple Saddam Hussein. Soon, thousands of rebel troops seized control of the major southern city of Basra and 14 of Iraq's provinces, and advanced to within 60 miles of Baghdad.
But the former Iraqi leader used his elite Republican Guard units to swiftly crush the uprising.
Many Shias still blame President Bush for the uprising's failure, as the United States came to a ceasefire agreement that allowed Saddam forces to suppress the rebellion by using helicopter gunships.
"Bush the father and his army were the main reason for the death of Iraqi people in 1991. Bush the father must be the first one who must be put on trial for what happened," said Basra school teacher Nahla Razzaq.
Saddam Hussein was eventually toppled in the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. President George W. Bush finished his father’s mission and occupied the country, not to save the Iraqis, but to find Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, which have never been found. Justifications for invading Iraq have since shifted from protecting the United States (another pretext as there was no evidence of any links between Saddam and al-Qaeda) to bringing democracy to the Middle East.
"I just want to laugh when I hear American politicians talk about spreading democracy in the Middle East. I ask them: "Why then did you allow Saddam to kill women and children when the Iraqi people revolted against his dictatorship?" said Mohammed al-Jawahiry, 32, a doctor in the southern city of Basra.
Many Iraqis also view the American involvement in the trial with cynicism.
"It is an American trick. Yesterday they allow the tyrant's forces to hit central and southern Iraq and today prosecute them for these genocides," Dhiya Hussein, 44, a resident of Najaf, said angrily.
Even the Americans now admit that turning a blind eye to Saddam’s crimes against his own people wasn’t the right decision. In a farewell speech in March, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said: "I feel we did not do the right thing after the war for the liberation of Kuwait and I felt we did the wrong thing in terms of leaving Iraq with sanctions and Saddam."