BAGHDAD, Iraq – Survivors described a chemical weapons attack on their villages in testimony Tuesday at the trial of Saddam Hussein, telling of poisonous clouds of gas that killed children and blinded residents during a military offensive against Kurds in 1987.
Saddam's co-defendants insisted that the Anfal campaign, in which tens of thousands of Kurds were killed, was directed only at Kurdish guerrillas and Iranian troops in northern Iraq during the bloody Iran-Iraq war.
Saddam faces charges of genocide in the trial, which completed its second day Tuesday. Six co-defendants are in the dock with him over the 1987-1988 Anfal campaign, in which troops swept across parts of northern Iraq, destroying villages.
Two survivors told the court about an April 16, 1987 attack on the Kurdish villages of Basilan and Sheik Wasan — believed to be the first time Saddam's regime used chemical weapons on Iraqi citizens.
"The villagers were blinded and they were vomiting — only God knows what it was like that night," said Najiba Khider Ahmed, a 41-year-old woman from Sheik Wasan. She described being held in a detention camp for nine days, where her brother and niece disappeared.
"During those nine days, it was like the apocalypse. Even Hitler didn't do this," she said, breaking down into tears repeatedly. "Saddam Hussein used to shout about 'the Iraqi People.' If we were his people, why did he bomb us with all sorts of weapons?"
She said she had two pregnancies after the attack — the baby in the first was born with skin peeling off, and the second miscarried, born with malformed limbs, which she blamed on the gas attacks.
Another survivor, Ali Mostafa Hama, said the chemical bombs let off "greenish smoke. It was if there was a rotten apple or garlic smell minutes later. People were vomiting ... we were blind and screaming. There was no one to rescue us. Just God."
Hama, wearing a traditional Kurdish headdress, said he saw a newborn die during the bombardment.
"The infant was trying to smell life, but he breathed in the chemicals and died," he said, speaking in Kurdish with an Arabic translator.
Throughout the testimony, Saddam and the defense lawyers insisted the two had been coached in their testimony — with one lawyer asking how Ahmed, who said she was illiterate, could specify that Russian-made Sukhoi warplanes carried out the bombardment.
"Who told you to say these things?" Saddam asked Hama at one point.
Two of the defendants addressed the court and insisted Anfal was targeted at Iranian troops and allied Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq.
"The goal was to fight an organized, armed army ... the goal was not civilians," said Sultan Hashim al-Tai, who was the commander of Task Force Anfal and head of the Iraqi army 1st Corps.
He said civilians in the areas where Anfal took place were "safely transported" to other areas, including the northern city of Kirkuk.
The orders in the campaign were "to prevent the Iranian army from occupying Iraq at whatever price," al-Tai said. "I implemented them precisely and sincerely without adding anything or exceeding my powers."
"I never turned a blind eye to any violation," said al-Tai, who later served as Saddam's last defense minister, up until the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that toppled the regime.
Sabir al-Douri, the director of military intelligence at the time of Anfal, said "the Iranian army and Kurdish rebels were fighting together" against the Iraqi army and that Anfal aimed to clear northern Iraq of Iranian troops.
He insisted the Iraqi government faced a "tough situation" and had to act because the area where the Iranian-allied guerrillas were located had dams that, if destroyed, would flood Baghdad. He said civilians in the Anfal region had already been removed.
"You will see that we are not guilty and that we defended our country honorably and sincerely," al-Douri said.
Saddam and the six co-defendants face possible execution by hanging if convicted in the Anfal case, which is the second trial the former Iraqi leader has faced over alleged atrocities by his regime.
After Ahmed's testimony, chief judge Abdullah al-Amiri adjourned the session until Wednesday, when more survivors were to speak.
A verdict is due Oct. 16 in the first trial, which concerned a crackdown on Shiites in the town of Dujail in the 1980s. If Saddam is sentenced to death in the Dujail case and the verdict stands on appeal, Iraqi law provides for him to be taken off the second case for the sentence to be carried out, though Iraqi officials have been unclear on whether they would do so or continue with the Anfal case.