- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 6, 2004

HALABJA, Iraq — Hama Kerim, a 51-year-old notary in this town where Saddam Hussein gassed 5,000 Kurds to death in 1988, describes seeing the deposed dictator in a courtroom last week as the second-best day of his life.

“Nothing can beat the sight of Saddam being dragged out of his hole by U.S. troops” in December, he said in an interview yesterday.

Mr. Kerim described the carnival atmosphere that descended on the town when the trial began last week. Despite warnings from security forces, young men fired rifles into the air. Others drove through the town hooting their horns, as if at a wedding.

“I rushed out and bought two dozen chocolate bars and gave them to children in the street,” Mr. Kerim said. “I wanted this day to stick in their minds. This is the birth of a new Iraq.”

Despite Saddam’s dramatic appearance in a courtroom last week, a trial is considered to be months away, and Iraq’s ambassador to Washington, Rend Rahim, has said some of Saddam’s former henchmen may be tried before the former dictator.

Of all the charges facing Saddam, none is more serious than the gassing of Halabja, a provincial town in the southeast corner of Iraqi Kurdistan.

In the center of the town stands a vast building in whose marble-clad interior are etched the names of all 5,000 men, women and children who died around midday on March 16, 1988, suffocated by the poison bombs of Saddam’s air force.

On a billboard outside the entrance, in huge letters, are the words, “No Ba’athists here.”

“All Kurds suffered under the former Iraqi regime, but Halabja suffered the most,” said Ferhang Dara, 21, a local guide. “Nowhere else in Iraq have people been following the trial of Saddam and his henchmen so closely.”

Indeed, when patchy coverage of the trial in Baghdad appears on local TV screens, the normally bustling streets empty out as tradesmen and farmers cram into teahouses to watch.

At a vegetable stall on the main road, conversation centers on the punishment that should be meted out to the former dictator and to Ali Hasan Majid, the man who ordered the 1988 gas attacks.

Like the notary, stall operator Jelal Hama, 41, feels the accused should be handed over to the town of Halabja for trial.

“We are kindhearted people,” he said. “It wouldn’t be a question of execution, merely of getting these men to look into the eyes of those whose lives they have destroyed.”

“They should be beheaded,” interrupted Abdulrahman Hussein, 27, to murmurs of agreement.

“This trial is just play acting,” said Abbas Ahmed, 41, a local farmer who lost 16 members of his family during the attacks. He escaped by chance, when the wind carrying the gas clouds toward him shifted direction.

“If the democracy the Americans have promised us means treating these men humanely, we want nothing to do with it. Revenge plays an important part of Kurdish culture, and we want revenge.”

The bloodthirsty talk is not just the result of the passions raised by Saddam’s appearance in the dock. It is tinged with a new wave of anti-American feeling in a region that until barely a month ago was Washington’s unconditional ally.

“The Bush government is big on grand gestures: first pulling down Saddam’s statue in Baghdad, then stage-managing his trial,” said Jelal Hama. “They told us they came to Iraq to bring us security and wealth. Why not help build Halabja up to the way it was before 1988?”

“The U.S. helped this man to power and said nothing while he gassed us,” sneered Shamal Khalaf, 34, a taxi driver. “And they expect us to applaud when they pull him down again?”

Mohamed Mustafa said he has no time for such controversy. The memories raised by the trial are too painful. Working as an apprentice barber at age 21 in his father’s salon in 1988, he remembers getting home shortly before the bombing started to find his mother preparing lunch.

“We heard the planes and rushed down to the basement, me, my parents, my six brothers and two sisters-in-law,” he said. “But these didn’t sound like normal bombs.”

His elder brother went up to the street to see what was happening. When he came down again, he was white. “He told us to run for our lives.”

The whole family set off for their home village, two miles outside the town. Within 200 yards, his mother and three brothers were dead.

“I was carrying my nephew, Awdir Jamal, who was only 6,” he recalled, tears rolling down his cheeks.

“He was crying, and I thought he might be hungry, so I handed him to my sister-in-law. Seconds later, she fell down, clawed the ground and stopped moving.

“Of my entire family, only me and one brother survived. How can anything that happens today possibly make up for what I have seen?”

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