A Nov. 20 article on a war crimes hearing for a former Iraqi general in Denmark misquoted the general concerning orders creating "prohibited areas" for Kurdish civilians in northern Iraq. In fact, he said, "they never crossed my desk." (Published 11/25/02)
Danish authorities today brought war crimes charges against a former commander of Saddam Hussein's army who says he is planning to lead a military insurrection against the Iraqi president.
Nizar Khazraji, a former military chief of staff who fled Iraq in 1996 and has been living here as a political refugee since 1999, was charged just days before he planned to leave Denmark. In an interview, he said he wanted to reach the region of northern Iraq controlled by Kurdish rebels, hook up with Iraqi army dissidents and launch a coup against Hussein.
But Danish prosecutors, who for more than a year have been pursuing allegations that Khazraji helped spearhead Hussein's brutal campaign against Kurdish civilians in the late 1980s, learned of his application for travel documents and intervened to have him arrested. He was formally accused of murder, pillage and the wanton destruction of property in violation of the Geneva Conventions.
In a hearing in a small, wood-paneled municipal courtroom in Soroe -- the town where Khazraji lives, 45 miles southwest of Copenhagen -- a Danish prosecutor read stark accounts of wholesale killings, the razing of dozens of villages and the 1988 gassing of civilians in the town of Halabja. Birgitte Vestberg, chief prosecutor for special international crimes, said the statements were from some of the 100 witnesses that her unit interviewed in building the case against Khazraji.
Vestberg also read into the record orders issued in 1987 to Iraqi army commanders, including Khazraji, to kill all people and animals caught in prohibited areas and to execute wounded civilians.
Khazraji responded that forces under his command had no part in the alleged atrocities and that he had never received the written orders, issued in the name of Ali Hassan Majeed, a cousin of Hussein who ruled the area known informally as Kurdistan in the late 1980s and later served as defense minister.
Khazraji said the allegations were part of a campaign by Iraqi agents to discredit him and damage opposition to Hussein's government. "They're dancing to Saddam's music," he told reporters during a break in the six-hour proceedings.
But Municipal Judge Ove Dam ruled that the evidence was sufficient to hold Khazraji and placed him under house arrest until the investigation could be completed. The former general agreed to remain in Denmark but immediately launched an appeal of Dam's order.
The ruling could complicate U.S. efforts to build an effective internal opposition to Hussein. As the highest-ranking commander to defect from Iraq, Khazraji is considered by many analysts to be a possible successor to the Iraqi leader and a crucial link between exiled opposition groups and potential opponents inside the country.
He has gathered allies among Kurdish rebel groups and some elements in Iraq's Shiite Muslim community -- as well as hostility from such opposition groups as the Iraqi National Congress and Iraqi National Accord. Both have expressed concern that he would establish a dictatorship that might be less murderous but no more democratic than the current Iraqi government.
In an interview yesterday, Khazraji said he had avoided joining any of the established exile groups to maintain his credibility with forces inside Iraq. He said his only goal was to help free his country from Hussein's rule and establish democracy.
Khazraji, 64, said he planned to enter Iraq and link with dissident elements in the armed forces. He said it would take only a small rebellion among disaffected army commanders to cause a chain reaction that would topple Hussein without a full-scale U.S. invasion. "There are some very disciplined people prepared to do this, and I am ready to lead them," he said.
But his plans were short-circuited at 10 a.m. when police arrived at his small apartment. They searched it, seized files and a laptop computer, and ordered Khazraji to appear in court at 3 p.m.
There he listened through an Arabic interpreter as Vestberg detailed the atrocities of the Hussein government's Anfal campaign against Kurdish rebels and civilians in 1987 and 1988, during the final months of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. At the time, Khazraji was commander of the army's First Corps in northern Iraq. He later became chief of staff.
Vestberg read from Majeed's orders, contained in documents gathered by the human rights group Middle East Watch in the early 1990s. Didn't Khazraji know that parts of Kurdistan had been declared "prohibited areas?" she asked.
"Yes, in theory, these orders crossed my desk," he replied, but in fact, he said, he never saw them.
Kurdistan "was Majeed's problem," he told the court. "I was fighting the war against Iran."
He denied one unidentified witness's statement that he had shot a Kurdish civilian to death in 1989, after the campaign ended. "My enemies are trying to frame me," he said. "I was in Baghdad then."
But Vestberg pressed on with accounts of mass killings and demolition, including the use of poison gas that killed 5,000 civilians in Halabja. "He ordered these things or did nothing to prevent them," she told the court.
After the hearing, she said she decided to act because the police had informed her that Khazraji was planning to leave Denmark for Saudi Arabia. "If the bird had flown, there wouldn't have been much point in continuing," she said. She would not estimate how long it would take to complete the investigation, but added, "It's a very high-priority case."
Khazraji denied he had planned to go to Saudi Arabia but said he was seeking to go to any Arab country bordering Iraq that would accept him. He and his family said the investigation would damage the cause of overthrowing Hussein. "This is the time to strike," said his son and aide, Ahmed. "Frankly, we need to be there now."