BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Saddam Hussein returned to a Baghdad courtroom on Monday to face genocide charges for the killing of tens of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in 1988.
The ousted Iraqi president and his six co-defendants were present in the court, situated in Saddam’s former palace complex in Baghdad.
The resumption of the case on the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States came after a U.S. Senate report last week said there were no links between Saddam and al Qaeda, despite claims by President Bush.
Bush administration officials pointed to supposed links between Saddam and al Qaeda to help justify their case for war before the March 2003 invasion.
In the latest hearing for the Anfal case — Spoils of War — three weeks ago, Kurdish villagers told the court how families had perished in each other’s arms after aircraft bombed mountain villages with chemical weapons in a military campaign prosecutors called “barbarous.”
Saddam, his cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as “Chemical Ali,” and five former commanders face charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for their role in Anfal, which the chief prosecutor said left 182,000 people dead or missing.
Saddam, who is awaiting a possible death sentence verdict for a separate case involving the killing of Shi’ites, and Majid face the additional, graver charge of genocide.
All the main charges in Anfal carry the death penalty.
Defendants have argued the attacks were legitimate military strikes against Iraqi Kurds fighting with Shi’ite Iran against Saddam’s Sunni-led government.
The case takes place against a backdrop of growing tension between Iraq’s warring sects and communities.
In a call unlikely to find favor with many Iraqis, nor with the U.S.-sponsored judicial authorities, a Sunni tribal leader in northern Iraq called on Sunday for Saddam to be freed so that he could join in efforts to avert civil war.
“We call for the release of the ousted President Saddam Hussein so he can be part of the political process and national reconciliation,” said Wasfi al-Aasi, chief of the Obeid tribe, one of Iraq’s biggest such groupings.
Badia Aref, a lawyer for one of the defendants, told Reuters that one of his legal assistants had been kidnapped and killed in Baghdad’s Shi’ite district of Kadhimiya last week. Many on the defense team are Sunnis like Saddam.
Three defense counsel in the Dujail trial have been killed, prompting critics to say a fair trial is impossible amid the sectarian and ethnic bloodshed ravaging Iraq.
A verdict in the Dujail trial was expected in October.