BAGHDAD, Iraq – Appearing haggard and feeble, a former Iraqi general known as Chemical Ali appeared before a tribunal Saturday at the start of judicial proceedings against former President Saddam Hussein and 11 deputies in U.S. custody.
Ali Hassan Majeed was one of two former officials brought before the hearing in a sparsely decorated room, bare but for a chair and a desk with a green-wrapped Koran on it. He was joined by Sultan Hashem Ahmed, the former defense minister. Ahmed’s testimony is expected to help build the case against Majeed, Saddam’s first cousin and the man accused of instigating some of the former government’s bloodiest episodes over two decades.
The hearing was closed to the public. In brief comments, the tribunal’s chief judge, Raed Jouhi, said that the proceedings would cover the Baath Party’s 35-year reign in Iraq. Despite criticism by some human rights groups that the trials are being rushed, Jouhi promised a methodical investigation and due process for the defendants.
“Speed in the legal process is the plague of the judicial system,” he said.
The actual trials will not begin until next year in a process likely to be dramatic and lengthy, rekindling memories of Saddam’s long and brutal rule. Jouhi stressed that the hearing Saturday was part of a grand-jury-like investigation of the men, who are expected to eventually face charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
There was no word on when Saddam would come before the tribunal for a hearing.
“What happened today was an ordinary investigative hearing for the accused,” Jouhi told reporters afterward. “It could be repeated many times.”
In video without sound that was released by the tribunal, Majeed, using a cane, was shown being escorted into the hearing room by Iraqi policemen.
Wearing a dark suit with a white shirt and no tie, Majeed was helped to a chair and his handcuffs were removed. His hair was noticeably grayer than when he last appeared in court in July.
Ahmed, the defense minister during the U.S. invasion in 2003, was shown standing in the room. At times, he looked down at the floor and seemed to be smiling.
Ahmed surrendered to U.S. forces in September 2003.
Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih has said that Ahmed is expected to testify against Majeed, who was taken into U.S. custody in August 2003. Majeed’s career mirrored the rise and fall of the man he served so loyally for 24 years.
Accused of executions
A former motorcycle messenger in the Iraqi military, Majeed was said to have taken part in the arrests and executions of 66 people accused of plotting a coup just days after Saddam’s 1979 inauguration.
At times interior and defense minister, he was appointed governor of Kuwait soon after Iraq invaded the neighboring emirate in 1990.
After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, he was instrumental in the brutal repression of the Shiite Muslim uprising, and he personally reoccupied Basra, the country’s second-largest city.
Famous video footage shows a chain-smoking Majeed, paunch stretching his uniform, kicking prisoners on the ground and, as was his habit, hurling insults.
His role in crushing Kurdish resistance during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war earned him his greatest notoriety, and Jouhi said the episode was the focus of the investigation.
In March 1987, Saddam appointed Majeed, by then a general, head of his forces in northern Iraq. Majeed soon used chemical weapons in two Kurdish cities, which was how he came by his nickname.
In the ensuing months, he launched a scorched-earth campaign known as Anfal. In all, 100,000 Kurds – perhaps many more – were killed. Iraqi forces destroyed 2,000 villages, with mass transfers of residents, to create a cordon sanitaire.
In the most notorious episode, in March 1988, his forces used mustard gas and nerve agents against Halabja, a town near the Iranian border, killing an estimated 5,000 people.
U.S. forces, then tacitly backing Iraq in the war, initially blamed Iran, although the Bush administration later used the episode as part of its justification for the invasion.
Vote set for Jan. 30
The proceedings come just six weeks before Iraq’s Jan. 30 elections for a parliament, and some critics of the interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, have accused him of speeding up the process to gain political capital during the campaign. In Baghdad, sentiments varied: Some people cited still painful memories of Saddam’s rule, while others spoke of the crushing fuel crisis that had fed disenchantment with the interim government and its U.S. allies.
“This is all for the elections,” said Abdel-Amir Muhsin, 38, a schoolteacher waiting in a two-mile line for gasoline. “Did they know that while they were inside the court I was waiting here in the cold weather for fuel?”
Nureddin Ali, 54, a carpet merchant, said that dealing with today’s crime and insecurity was more important than the trial, even though his memories remain painful. “They must execute him,” he said of Majeed, sitting inside his store. “We must never forget Halabja.”
The insecurity he referred to continued to plague northern Iraq, where the insurgency has gathered momentum after the U.S. assault last month on Fallujah, in the west.
Carrying out a pledge to attack polling stations, insurgents fired eight mortars at a voter registration center in Dujail, 50 miles north of Baghdad, killing one Iraqi and wounding eight, said Master Sgt. Robert Cowens, a military spokesman.
Farther north, in Mosul, a teenager was killed and at least six were wounded. The military said a roadside bomb missed a U.S. convoy and struck a school bus in which the teenager and others were passengers. Witnesses and a doctor at Salam Hospital in Mosul, Ahmed Ismail, said U.S. soldiers began firing after the bomb detonated, hitting the bus.
“The soldiers started shooting everywhere,” said Maher Saeed, a witness.
Near Samarra, about 65 miles north of Baghdad, insurgents attacked a U.S. convoy with rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire, wounding three soldiers, the military said.
In Baiji, about 125 miles north of Baghdad, a suicide bomber struck a car carrying four U.S. civilians working for Florida-based Cochise Security Inc., which is disposing of Saddam-era munitions. The four were wounded, the military said.