BAGHDAD, Iraq – A 56-year-old Kurdish-American woman told of seeing people sickened and dying during an alleged chemical attack carried out by Saddam Hussein's forces, as the genocide trial of the ex-president resumed Monday. The feisty former leader told his countrymen they should not feel guilty for crushing the Kurdish insurgency in the late 1980s.
"My message to the Iraqi people is that they should not suffer from the guilt that they killed Kurds," Saddam said shortly before the trail was adjourned for the day. It had just resumed after a three-week break.
The ousted president accused Kurdish witnesses against him of stirring sectarianism and racism and insisted he treated loyal Iraqi Kurds fairly.
"All the witnesses said in the courtroom that they were oppressed because they were Kurds," Saddam shouted. "They're trying to create strife between the people of Iraq. They're trying to create division between Kurds and Arabs and this is what I want the people of Iraq to know."
The prosecution alleges that about 180,000 people were killed during the Anfal campaign in 1987-88 to crush a Kurdish insurgency during the later stages of a war with Iran.
Addressing Iraqis, Saddam said passionately that the Kurds enjoyed rights under his regime and that he clamped down on insurgents among them.
He said before Iraq fought in the 2003 war against the United States, "I formed two brigades in the Republican Guards composed completely of Kurds. This is a proof that the Iraqi government then did not discriminate against Kurds."
"The other proof is that when I was in Kut following the victory against Iran (in 1988), I said in front of everyone, including the media and television stations, that I prohibit the security to arrest any Kurd," he said.
"I told them that anyone who has a complaint against a Kurd has to come to me first."
"I didn't offer the same, and God is my witnesses, to the people of Basra or my family in Tikrit, but only to the Kurds," he asserted.
The trial resumed on the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks by Al Qaeda on the United States. A recent U.S. Senate committee report found no link between Saddam and the terror network, despite carefully crafted White House statements that implied a role for the former Iraqi leader. That was used in part to justify the 2003 invasion that toppled him.
Proceedings adjourned until Tuesday after the court heard three witnesses testify on the alleged chemical attack on northern Iraq.
During the morning session, Katreen Elias Mikhail, a Kurdish Christian and former militia fighter, said four Iraqi planes unleashed a wave of bombs on the evening of June 5, 1987 on the town of Qalizewa, sending people fleeing for shelter.
"I smelled something dirty and strange," she told the court.
Mikhail said she was stranded in an underground shelter with her friend Umm Ali and dozens of other people.
"Then, I heard comrade Abu Elias shout 'is there a doctor here?"' said the dignified-looking woman, her left hand trembling.
"People were falling to the ground. They vomited and their eyes were blinded. We couldn't see anything."
"We were all afraid," she said, her voice cracking. "It was our first time seeing bombs falling on our heads."
Sitting in the witness stand, she said that her friend, Nashme, told her that "the whole town was hit with chemical weapons."
When the smoke subsided, Mikhail said she saw some people with "burn wounds and they were blind; I was able to see just a little."
Mikhail appeared to lodge a complaint against Saddam and his cousin Ali "Chemical Ali" al-Majid, who are among the seven defendants charged in Operation Anfal, a campaign to drive Kurds from sensitive areas near the Iranian border in the 1980s.
Another witness, Ahmed Abdul-Rahman, said he was jailed and tortured for four months in connection with the crackdown.
Fellow Kurd, Sardar Ali Salih, said he lost two brothers, his village was burned and his cattle were stolen in an elite Iraqi forces crackdown in 1987.
He also said that he along with 125 people were detained. About half of that group was never heard from again; the rest were released.
"While in prison, they beat and tortured us. I stayed there for three months," Salih said in Kurdish which was translated into Arabic.
During the proceedings, a defiant Saddam clutched the Quran, Islam's holy book, and insisted that the judge address him as the "president of Iraq."
Saddam's chief lawyer, Iraqi Khalil al-Dulaimi, was not present, but attorneys for other defendants were on hand.
Monday's hearing began with an argument between chief judge Abdullah al-Amiri and Saddam's Tunisian lawyer, Ahmed Saddiq. The judge asked Saddiq not to speak on behalf of his client, but to consult the Iraqi attorney who heads Saddam's defense. The lawyer rejected that and left the courtroom in protest.
Saddam is still waiting a verdict on Oct. 16 in the first case against him — the nine-month-long trial over the killings of 148 Shiites in Dujail after a 1982 assassination attempt against him there. In that case as well, he and seven other co-defendants could face the death penalty.
The Anfal trial, which began in August, is likely to take months. The campaign was on a far greater scale than the Dujail crackdown.
Late Sunday, about 300 demonstrators in northern Iraq demanded a swift trial for Saddam, and also called for trials for Kurdish military commanders who they said had worked with Saddam during the Anfal campaign. The protesters, in the Kifri region of Iraq, about 170 kilometers (105 miles) southwest of Sulaimaniyah, carried banners and headed toward the town's city council.
The U.S. administration had argued that a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was needed to unseat Saddam because he possessed weapons of mass destruction and had ties to Al Qaeda.
As recently as an Aug. 21 news conference, President George W. Bush said people should "imagine a world in which you had Saddam Hussein" with the capacity to make weapons of mass destruction and "who had relations with al-Zarqawi," referring to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in June.
Saddam's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction was debunked after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, when none could be found.
Yet the Anfal case points to Saddam's alleged use of poison gas against Iraqi citizens, a charge often leveled by the U.S. administration.
Since the trial opened on Aug. 21, witnesses have offered grim testimony of entire families dying in chemical weapons attacks against their villages. They said survivors plunged their faces into milk to end the pain from the blinding gas or fled into the hills on mules as military helicopters fired on them.
The 1987-88 crackdown was aimed at crushing independence-minded Kurdish militias and clearing all Kurds from the northern region along the border with Iran. Saddam accused the Kurds of helping Iran in its war with Iraq.
Kurdish survivors say many villages were razed and countless young men disappeared.
They also accuse the army of using prohibited mustard gas and nerve agents. But the trial does not deal with the most notorious gassing — the March 1988 attack on Halabja that killed an estimated 5,000 Kurds. That incident will be part of a separate investigation by the Iraqi High Tribunal.