Iraq's endless search for justice

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By Mike Wooldridge World affairs correspondent, BBC News, Baghdad

Saddam Hussein has been back in court in Baghdad this week for a new trial - his second - and now faces the gravest charge of genocide. But with all the problems in today's Iraq, how is this new trial being viewed in the country?

Saddam Hussein faces charges over the 1987-1988 Anfal campaign

With the new Saddam Hussein trial now under way in what should be one of the world's best-protected courtrooms, I paid a visit to a much more nondescript building here in Baghdad, to an organisation called the Iraq Memory Foundation.

Walk into one of the rooms there and you immediately come face to face with some extraordinary works of art.

One shows a hand and arm, as if they are sticking out from a mass grave. Another a representation of someone before a firing squad... a figure in relief, hooded at the top, a shoe on the foot.

And another a large canvas covered with an impression of burnt trees and crops, with small hessian bomb-like objects on it, representing chemical and other bombs allegedly dropped on Kurdish villages by Iraqi planes.

Paper trail

On a table there are personal belongings of Kurdish victims during the Saddam Hussein era - particularly, I was told, victims of the gassing of an estimated 5,000 people in the town of Halabja, which is expected to be the subject of a future trial.

Saddam Hussein is on trial with six of his top officials, including 'Chemical Ali'

Among the items is a blue handkerchief made for a boy called Mohammed Hissien Ahmed by his mother, beautifully embroidered with red flowers in each corner.

Ahmed Naji, who works at the Memory Foundation, says he thinks most Iraqis who are not Kurdish do not know the truth about the Anfal campaign - the subject of this trial - though there were soldiers who returned to other parts of Iraq from taking part in the operation and told people what really happened.

That is why he sees this trial as so important.

One of the main tasks the foundation set itself is to work on the paper trail of documents that have been recovered from the former regime.

They have 2.4 million pages relating to northern Iraq alone.

Ahmed told me that some time back, one of their staff was kidnapped and the ransom demand was that documents be handed over - a demand that was not met.

The staff member was freed, though injured.

Being 'anfalised'

Over at the courtroom, the evidence given so far by Kurdish witnesses has focused on alleged chemical weapons attacks.

Some have looked Saddam Hussein and his co-defendants in the eye as they have told their stories. Some appear to have found it very difficult to do so.

They have talked of planes dropping bombs that made quieter explosions than usual, of a pervasive smell of rotten fruit or garlic, then of being blinded, of people around them vomiting blood.

The prosecution in Saddam Hussein's trial claim 182,000 people died in the Anfal campaign

Of their experiences in prison camps, one witness said: "During those nine days we saw the apocalypse. Even Hitler didn't do this."

The military operation in Anfal - which two of the defendants have said was directed at the Iranians, then at war with Iraq, and against Kurdish fighters collaborating with them - has now become a verb.

Witnesses have spoken of their relatives being "anfalised" to explain anything from dying in an alleged chemical weapons attack to disappearing, never to be seen again.

Najiba Kheder Ahmed told the court her three-year-old son had been taken away.

"They anfalised him," she said. "May God anfalise them."

Hope for resolution

One of the TV channels here covers every minute of the trial and in practically every court recess or interruption it shows a film of chemical weapons being used, of other kinds of attacks, and of people crying at the site of mass graves.

Some Iraqi newspapers have carried similar pictures alongside their reports on the trial.

Talk to people on the street and it seems many hope there will be one, swift outcome.

We don't need a long trial because everything is clear enough to convict him Karim Qasim

Twenty-two million people suffered because of Saddam Hussein, a 45-year-old Baghdad resident, Sa'ad Rahim, told us.

"Many women lost their husbands because of war or because they were killed by security people," he said.

"I am sure he is going to be executed and justice will be done."

Another man, Karim Qasim, in his mid-50s, said: "We don't need a long trial because everything is clear enough to convict him. The case must be finished so we can stabilise our country and the neighbouring countries."

Power in truth

So what of public appetite for the rule of law when so much lawlessness continues in Iraq, in a country with strongly tribal traditions and so used to summary justice?

At the Iraq Memory Foundation, Ahmed Naji told me: "If they kill him without proof they will end up just like him."

It is truth, they argue passionately there, that has the power to bring reconciliation in Iraq.

Ahmed knows some say this is the wrong time to have these trials, but he sees them as a part of the systematic steps towards, he hopes, a better Iraq - along with the elections and completing the constitution.

"I'm also concerned about the violence, the curfews, the electricity and fuel shortages," he said. "But what we are concerned about here are the years to come."

Accounting for the past is, of course, important for any country, as there is often a price to be paid for leaving the record incomplete.

But, with three defence lawyers murdered during Saddam Hussein's first trial over the killing of Shia in the village of Dujail, doing justice to events of two decades ago in the present climate in Iraq, is the challenge - and it is a tough one.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 26 August, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the <a HREF="">programme schedules </a> for World Service transmission times.