The sitting room was as Sheik Mahmood Majid left it in November 1980. Copper swords hung on the white walls, and large red carpets, mattresses and plush pillows covered the floor. An Arabian coffee pot occupied one corner of the room, where the powerful tribal leader once held court, talking politics to fellow tribesmen.
Twenty-five years later, as the sheik's son, Hassan Majid, opened the door to show the room, his voiced dropped to a whisper. "We used to sit in this room next to our father," said Majid, 45, a balding, gray-haired man in a white robe who is now mayor of this town 35 miles north of Baghdad. "I lost five of my brothers."
The brothers were executed in a roundup of Dujail's men, women and children after a failed attempt to kill Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on July 8, 1982. In the days that followed, more than 1,500 people in the predominantly Shiite Muslim town were arrested and sent to detention facilities. Three years later, 143 men, some of them teenagers, five of them sons of Mahmood Majid, were hanged in the execution chamber at Abu Ghraib prison.
On Wednesday, Hussein will go on trial for the deaths of those 143 residents of Dujail, the first case against him and his Baath Party dictatorship since the U.S.-led offensive in 2003 toppled the government. Seven others, including the senior Baath Party official accused of rounding up the residents and the head of Iraqi intelligence in 1982, will be tried at the same time for their alleged involvement in the Dujail killings.
A source close to the special Iraqi tribunal that will hear the case has said that although the trial will start this week, it will likely be delayed after a day or two of hearing motions and resolving technical issues that surround the historic and yet untested legal proceedings. It is not clear when the court would reconvene.
The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described the start of proceedings this week as "the beginning of an ongoing process." But the source added, "I don't think this will be a process dragged out by technicalities."
Hussein will be tried by a five-judge panel under a mixture of international law and Iraqi criminal law. If convicted, he could face the same fate as the 143 men from Dujail.
In a report released Sunday, Human Rights Watch raised questions about whether the Iraqi Special Tribunal, the court set up to hear cases against former officials in Hussein's government, could be fair and impartial. Among the U.S.-based monitoring group's concerns are the application of the death penalty without any possibility of clemency and the requirement that a sentence be carried out within 30 days after a final appeal is heard and concluded.
The Dujail trial "will be commencing in a political context of considerable instability and uncertainty," the group's report said. "In such a context, it is essential that the trials be fair and be seen to be fair so that accusations that the trials amount to 'victors' justice' do not gain credence."
In 1980, two years before the attempt on Hussein's life, Mahmood Majid, his wife and five of his seven sons were arrested for alleged ties to the Dawa party, an outlawed Shiite organization, and taken to a desert prison in southern Iraq near the border with Saudi Arabia. Hassan Majid, who was in Hilla attending high school, soon joined them, arrested for being a Dawa member after having a glass of grape juice with a relative of a party official. "That glass of grape juice cost me seven years," said Majid, who was released in 1987. His father died in prison.
Majid said his relatives could not have participated in the assassination attempt because they were in prison. His brothers were executed nonetheless, he said, because Hussein's government used the Dujail attack as an excuse to get even with anyone from the Shiite town.
According to witness accounts, Hussein was passing through Dujail on his way back to Baghdad from a trip to his home area of Tikrit when his convoy was fired on. His bodyguards returned fire, killing the men who had shot at the convoy. Hussein then climbed to the roof of the town's Baath Party headquarters and assured the residents that he would not punish them. The next day, the secret police and the bulldozers came. Between them, they wiped out the town, rounding up people, destroying buildings and razing fields of dates and oranges.
Hussein Ali Baldawi, 60, lost two of his sons, who were 18 and 19 at the time. He said he is waiting for Hussein to see justice. And he wants the former leader to pay.
"If the government is not able to execute him," Baldawi said, "let them hand him over to us, and we can get the rights of our sons whom he executed."