washingtonpost.com
Survivors Describe '87 Chemical Attack
At Hussein Trial, Kurds Recount Bombing of Village, Roundup of Men by Iraqi Forces

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 23, 2006

BAGHDAD, Aug. 22 -- After Iraqi warplanes dropped poison chemicals that blinded and killed the people of her Kurdish village, after Iraqi ground troops came the next day to burn their homes and level the scorched stones, Najeebah Khudir Ahmed watched the Iraqi military's buses come to take away the men who survived.

Ahmed's brother was among those being rounded up in the village of Baselan that day in late April 1987, Ahmed said Tuesday during the first day of testimony in the trial of former president Saddam Hussein and six others for alleged genocide in the Iraqi military's scorched-earth campaign against the Kurds of northern Iraq.

In a courtroom in Baghdad's U.S.-held Green Zone, Hussein looked on from the defendants' dock as Ahmed, now 41, described how her brother clung to his wife and fought to pull himself from the grasp of the soldiers loading the village men into the bus.

"Don't let go of my hand, Fatima!" her brother shouted. As Ahmed watched, the soldiers kicked her brother, beat him and forced him onto the bus.

What happened next to the people of Baselan introduced a new word into the Kurdish vocabulary. "They separated the men from us," Ahmed told the robed lawyers and judges and a keenly watching Hussein, "and they were all anfalized ."

Ahmed and another Kurd testified Tuesday about the opening days of what would come to be known as the Anfal campaign. Designated with an Arabic word for "spoils of war," the Iraqi military offensive emptied hundreds of villages in the Kurdish-populated north and killed as many as 180,000 Kurds, according to the estimates of some court officials. Hussein at the time accused Kurdish rebels in the north of abetting enemy forces in the war then raging with neighboring Iran. Many of the Kurdish victims simply disappeared, presumed killed. Some were buried in countless mass graves.

Abdullah al-Amiri, the chief judge in Hussein's trial, rebuked one of the Kurdish witnesses Tuesday for repeatedly using the made-up word, anfalized. Then he defined the term, instructing the court recorder to "write that as 'those whose destiny is not known.' "

The trial in the offensive against the Kurds almost two decades ago is playing out against the continuing battle over control of Iraq following Hussein's 2003 overthrow, as the U.S. military and a fragile Iraqi government struggle to spread security beyond the concrete walls of the Green Zone. On Tuesday, at least 22 people were killed in bombings and other attacks, while Iraqi authorities arrested the first of at least five recent government ministers sought in corruption cases involving billions of dollars.

Hussein and six aides face capital charges before the Iraqi High Tribunal, an Iraqi court organized, supported and closely overseen by the U.S. government. Hussein, who is awaiting a verdict in an earlier trial stemming from the killings of 148 men and boys from the Shiite village of Dujail in the 1980s, is the second former head of state to be tried for genocide, after the late Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic.

Among Hussein's co-defendants is his cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majeed, who became known as "Chemical Ali" for his alleged use of chemical weapons in the Anfal campaign.

Most of the testimony Tuesday addressed offensives conducted by the Iraqi military before the start of the 1988 Anfal campaign. Ahmed and Ali Mostafa Hama, both plainly dressed goat farmers from Baselan who acknowledged they could not read, described an attack on their isolated village.

It was dusk on April 16, 1987, said Hama, a thin, worn man in his late fifties who wore the coiled, flat turban and rough clothes of a poor Kurdish farmer. Shepherds were taking home their sheep and goats -- "birds returning to their nests," Hama said -- when villagers suddenly saw at least eight Iraqi planes overhead.

Villagers had endured bombing runs by Iraqi warplanes before, but the explosions from these bombs were comparatively quiet, and quickly followed by a strange smell, "like rotting apples, or garlic," Hama testified.

"Minutes later, a lot of people, their eyes became sore and they started crying," he said. Villagers fled to caves and mountains beyond the village. "On the way I saw a number of people who were lying down in the street," Hama testified. "Our bodies were burning us, and we lost the ability to see. The echo of our screams was coming from wherever we were, and we had nothing other than God."

A pregnant woman hiding near him went into labor after her escape, Hama recalled. She delivered a boy, who died as he drew his first breaths, Hama said. The woman named her dead son Kimyawi, or Chemical, he testified.

Ahmed, who lived nearby, described weeks of shuttling among camps where Iraqi forces imprisoned Kurdish villagers, and months afterward in flight from Iraqi forces.

One after another, Ahmed named six males of her family who were "anfalized," including her 3 1/2 -year-old son, Aram Mustafa Rasul.

"They anfalized us," said Ahmed, who was dressed in a black head scarf and cloak and occasionally shook her fist. She choked on her tears, coughing. "May God anfalize him," she said, referring to Hussein.

"Saddam Hussein used to say we were his people," she cried. "If we were his people, why did he strike us with all those weapons?"

Commanders in the Anfal campaign who are on trial with Hussein argued Tuesday that they were waging a battle for the survival of Iraq against Iranian forces and Kurdish rebels. The Kurdish man who testified Tuesday acknowledged that armed Kurdish rebels frequently came to his village to receive food and blankets from residents.

Sabir Aba al-Aziz al-Duri, a senior intelligence official at the time and a defendant, alleged that Iran was plotting to seize the northern Iraqi cities of Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk and destroy two northern dams to flood Baghdad. Anfal, he said, "was not directed against Kurdish civilians." Hussein's commanders "had no option but to repel Iran."

Duri recounted a story clearly meant to resonate with the people of present-day Iraq, which is dominated by the religious parties and militias of Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim groups. " 'Do you think we'll be punished one day for our attacks on Iraq?' " Duri said a military colleague asked him one day, at the time of Anfal. " 'On one condition,' I said: 'if Iran is ever victorious and occupies Iraq.' "

In other developments, Iraqi authorities on Tuesday arrested Ayham al-Samaraie, the former electricity minister in a transitional government appointed by the United States soon after Hussein's overthrow. Samaraie is accused in a $1 billion-plus corruption case involving the alleged purchase of faulty generators and parts, said Radhi al-Radhi, head of Iraq's Public Integrity Commission. Samaraie was arrested after walking into Iraq's Central Criminal Court to surrender in the case, Radhi said.

Arrest warrants are pending for four other former ministers -- of defense, labor, transportation and housing -- who are accused in corruption cases that jointly amount to billions of dollars. Massive amounts of U.S. and Iraqi funds intended for development and reconstruction disappeared in poorly supervised projects in the years after Hussein's overthrow, and electricity and many other essential services remain below prewar levels.

In separate incidents Tuesday, a bomb apparently targeting street vendors killed four people in central Baghdad, gunmen killed two police officers and a male nurse in the northern city of Baqubah, the body of a Shiite religious official was found in Baghdad, and a Sunni religious official was kidnapped in the capital.

The Reuters news agency reported at least 14 other people killed, including eight fruit traders found with their throats slit along a road south of Baghdad.

Special correspondent K.I. Ibrahim and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company