January 8, 2007
BAGHDAD, Iraq (Reuters) -- Saddam Hussein and his cousin "Chemical Ali" discussed killing thousands with chemical weapons before unleashing them on Kurds in 1988, according to tapes played on Monday in a trial of former Iraqi officials.
Nine days after Hussein's hanging, his front-row seat in the dock was conspicuously empty, but Ali Hassan al-Majeed and five other Baath party officials remained on trial for their roles in the 1988 Anfal, or Spoils of War, campaign in northern Iraq.
"I will strike them with chemical weapons and kill them all," a voice identified by prosecutors as that of Majeed, Hussein's cousin and a senior aide, is heard saying.
"Who is going to say anything? The international community? Curse the international community," the voice continued.
"Yes, it's effective, especially on those who don't wear a mask immediately, as we understand," another voice, identified as Hussein, is heard saying on another tape.
"Sir, does it exterminate thousands?" a voice asks back.
"Yes, it exterminates thousands and forces them not to eat or drink and they will have to evacuate their homes without taking anything with them, until we can finally purge them," the voice identified as Hussein answers.
Prosecutors did not explain who ordered the recordings or when or why they were made and court officials could not elaborate. Audiotapes have been introduced in the court before and Hussein is believed to have recorded some of his meetings.
Prosecutors said 180,000 people were killed, many of them gassed, in the Anfal campaign.
Many Kurds regret the chief suspect can no longer face justice for his role in the campaign against them, but they hope others share his fate on the gallows.
Hussein was hanged on December 30 after being convicted in an earlier trial for his role in killing 148 Shiites in the 1980s.
Majeed, who faces charges of genocide, is considered the main enforcer of the Anfal campaign.
Defendants have said Anfal was a legitimate military operation targeting Kurdish guerrillas who had sided with Shiite Iran during the last stages of the Iraq-Iran war.
Chief Prosecutor Munqith Faroon also played on Monday video showing women and children lying dead on village streets and mountain slopes after what he said was a chemical attack ordered by Hussein.
"These are the honorable battles they claimed to have launched against the enemy," he told the court.
Judge Mohammed al-Ureybi, in his first order of business, formally dropped charges of genocide and crimes against humanity against Hussein.
He cut off the microphones when Majeed stood up and started to read the Quran in tribute to his former chief.
"In virtue of the confirmation of the death of defendant Saddam Hussein, the court decided to finally stop legal procedures against defendant Saddam Hussein according to the Iraqi Penal Procedures Law," Ureybi told the court.
Looking tired and sporting an uncharacteristic white stubble, Majeed refused to take his chair and insisted on reading a line from the Quran as he stood behind Hussein's empty chair.
"Make him sit down, make him sit down," Ureybi ordered the bailiffs.
For supporters of the U.S.-sponsored High Tribunal, Monday was a day to return the focus to sober judicial process after the undoubted embarrassment that illicit video of Hussein's execution has brought to a court judging Iraq's former rulers while its current government is struggling to avert civil war.
Yet controversy over Hussein's last minutes and the sectarian taunts he faced from Shiite officials on the scaffold goes on.
Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government in Iraq has yet to complete an investigation into the jeers and the video -- one court officer has accused a senior official of filming the event -- and al-Maliki has offered a robust defense of the execution.
But his government has found itself on the receiving end of one of the first public appeals by the new United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, whose chief of staff has written to Baghdad urging "restraint" in the use of the death penalty.
British Finance Minister Gordon Brown, the likely next prime minister of Washington's main ally in occupying Iraq, called the execution "deplorable." A spokeswoman for outgoing leader Tony Blair has said he believes the way the hanging was done was "completely wrong."
Two of Hussein's aides, his half-brother Barzan al-Tikriti and former judge Awad al-Bander, are likely to be hanged any day now after being convicted along with Hussein for killing Shi'ites.