BAGHDAD, Iraq – A Kurdish villager testified Tuesday that he fled an attack by Saddam Hussein's forces 18 years ago, leaving behind his mother and two sisters. Years later, their identity cards were discovered in a mass grave, he said.
"Congratulations! you are in a cage, Saddam," witness Ghafour Hassan Abdullah said as he stared at the ousted president. Saddam later lashed out at "agents of Iran and Zionism" in the courtroom and vowed to "crush your heads."
Abdullah, 29, gave the chilling account during the trial of Saddam and six others for their roles in Operation Anfal, the 1987-88 campaign to suppress a Kurdish revolt in northern Iraq during the final stages of the war with Iran.
Saddam has insisted that the crackdown was directed against Kurdish guerrillas who were allied with Iran in the 1980-88 war. If convicted, he and the other defendants could face death by hanging.
The trial was adjourned until Wednesday after the court heard four witnesses who implicated Saddam and his forces in gassing the Kurds and conducting mass arrests and killings of civilians.
Abdullah told the court the attack was launched in February 1988 against his village near the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah. Iraqi planes gave cover to advancing ground troops, who shelled Kurdish communities with artillery, he said.
"At night, I heard the screaming of women and children," he said. He said he fled to neighboring Iran, but that his mother and two sisters went missing. Years later, their ID cards were found in a mass grave near Hatra, he said.
Abdullah asked rhetorically why the Kurds, a non-Arab minority, was suppressed under the ousted regime.
"Why? Because we are Kurds. Why did all disasters befall on us? Because we are Kurds."
He turned to Saddam and said: "Congratulations, Saddam. You are in a cage." He demanded compensation for the loss of his family.
Saddam listened silently to the witness. But he lost his temper when one of the lawyers described Kurdish guerrillas, known here as peshmargas, as freedom fighters.
"You are agents of Iran and Zionism. We will crush your heads," Saddam shouted.
Before the judge cut off his microphone, Saddam demanded that the word peshmarga, Kurdish for sacrifice, be stricken from the trial record. He said the Kurdish guerrillas were rebels and "in any country in the world where there is rebellion, the authorities ask the army to defeat it."
The prosecution demanded that Saddam's statement be considered a confession. The presiding judge initially rejected, but took note of the request when the prosecution threatened to walk out.
During the session, Saddam also demanded "neutral" experts who were not American examine the identities of the witnesses and the bodies of people allegedly found in mass graves.
Another witness, Kurdish farmer Mahmoud Hama Aziz, said he lost a brother in fighting with Iraqi forces in 1987, months before their village was razed.
"They (Iraqi forces) stole everything in the village, then burned it down," he said in Kurdish, through an Arabic translator.
He said he fled with two friends to the Iranian border, leaving behind a sister-in-law and her five children who later went missing. In 2004, he identified bodies of four of them found in a mass grave in northern Iraq.
The witness also demanded unspecified "compensation" and to be allowed to retrieve the remains of his relatives.
A third witness, Omar Khudhir Mohammed Amin, 53, said he lost 19 members of his family — including his four brothers and sisters and their children — in the offensive.
"The court in Sulaimaniyah asked for me. I went there and was shown their IDs. They showed me six IDs that belonged to my relatives. I told them I want to visit them, but court officials told me they are in a mass grave in Hatra," he said.
Tuesday's session is the fifth since Saddam's trial on genocide charges against Kurds opened on Aug. 21.
On Monday, Saddam accused Kurdish witnesses of trying to create ethnic divisions by alleging chemical attacks and mass arrests in their villages during the Anfal crackdown that the prosecution says claimed up to 180,000 lives.
Saddam is awaiting 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.