When Saddam Hussein was sentenced on Nov. 5 to death by hanging—just days before our mid-term elections—for ordering the 1982 massacre of hundreds of citizens of a small Shiite town near Baghdad, US voters took little notice to what could have been seen as a success in the war effort in Iraq. Americans expressed their displeasure with their Republican congress with their vote, Iraqi courts expressed their displeasure with their despotic former-ruler with a death sentence, and opposition forces in Iraq continue to express their displeasure with Saddam’s conviction with violence.
On June 8, 1982, in Dujail, a Shiite town in the heart of the Sunni triangle and approximately 45 miles north of Baghdad, a few gunmen ambushed Saddam’s motorcade as it drove through town. These men were members of the Iranian-supported Dawa party. The assassination attempt failed, and hours later tanks sealed off the roads in and out of town, helicopters strafed farmers, and the Special Republican Guard came to round up anyone suspected of being in the Dawa party. This included anyone associated with anyone suspected of being in the Dawa party, anyone related to anyone suspected, anyone who had ever said anything against Saddam or the Baath party, and whoever else they felt like punishing to make an example of. What resulted was the murder of approximately 450 people, mostly men and boys, 148 of whom were documented well enough to be presented in Saddam’s trial.
I spent most of 2004 in Dujail as an infantryman with the US Army and the case against Saddam was built largely in part from the work my company did while we were there. By working with mayor Haji Mohammed Hassan and city council chief Jossem Mohammed Mahmood, many of the citizens of Dujail who were present for the horrors of 1982 were convinced to come forward and allow us to collect from them witness statements with regard to the events.
The resulting stories were harrowing. Men were killed in front of their families, living people were put into meat grinders. And the violence was not limited to the time period immediately following the botched assassination. In 1991, a sheik who had lost a son in 1982 during the killings was called to his sister’s house where he found the body of five women, ranging in age from teen to grandmother, all of whom had been raped and beheaded.
I’d like to believe that it was better for the psyche of the Iraqi people, and for the principle of rule of law in general, to see Saddam tried and convicted for his crimes against humanity, rather than for a couple hand grenade to have been tossed into the spider hole where he was found hiding. But the satisfaction of seeing this tyrant tried in an Iraqi court (as opposed to an international court—an important distinction), comes at a cost. For the citizens of Dujail, the nightmare of 1982 has continued.
Ahmed Hassan Mohammed al-Dujaili was witness no.1 in Saddam’s trial. In his testimony he recounted that he and his eleven brothers were detained in 1982. Eventually, Ahmed and three of brothers were released, but six of his brothers were later executed and one died during interrogation.
In July, two of Ahmed’s cousins disappeared. On August 6, Ahmed’s brother, Ali, another witness, was attacked in Dujail and Ahmed’s nephew Husam was killed while protecting Ali. Later that day when Ahmed’s younger brother Jaafer came to recover the body of Husam, Jaafer was shot in the legs repeatedly by a sniper who had been lying in wait. Jaafer lived, but he now walks with a severe limp.
This is only one story in what resulted from a witness’s testimony. Since the beginning of the trial, mayor Mohammed Hassan claims that 180 people from Dujail have been murdered. According to Basam Ridha, the advisor to the prime minister for the trial, the number is closer to 200. Additionally, 80 people have disappeared, mainly while traveling between Dujail and Baghdad, on a stretch of highway that current city council chief Mahmood Hussein describes as being like the "Bermuda Triangle". But the worst could come from the return of the witnesses from the Green Zone where they have been staying during the trial. Abu Hamid, the commander of a nationalist cell north of Dujail, stated that if any of the witnesses return to town, "We will destroy all of Dujail".
It pleases me to see Saddam brought to justice, even if it’s in a trial that Human Rights Watch described as having "serious procedural flaws". It’s just all the loss of civilian life that I’m not sure I have the stomach for. But Ahmed Hassan said, "I’ll give up my own life and the lives of my family if it means I have helped send Saddam to the gallows." I suppose if he’s okay with all the killing, maybe I should learn to warm up to it too.