Hussein's voice speaks in court in praise of atrocities
Ali Hassan al-Majid, one of six remaining defendants on trial.
The courtroom he dominated for 15 months seemed much smaller last
week without him there to mock the judges and assert his menacing place
But the thick, high-register voice of Saddam Hussein was
unmistakable. In audio recordings made years ago and played 10 days
after his hanging, Mr. Hussein was heard justifying the use of chemical
weapons against the Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s, predicting they would
kill "thousands" and saying he alone among Iraq's leaders had the
authority to order chemical attacks.
In the history of prosecutions against some of the last century's
grimmest men, there can rarely have been a moment that so starkly caught
a despot's unpitying nature. On one recording, Mr. Hussein presses the
merits of chemical weapons on Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, his
vice-president, and now, the Americans believe, the fugitive leader of
the Sunni insurgency that has tied down thousands of American troops.
Mr. Douri, a notorious hard-liner, asks whether chemical attacks will
be effective against civilian populations, and suggests that they might
stir an international outcry.
"Yes, they're very effective if people don't wear masks," Mr. Hussein
"You mean they will kill thousands?" Mr. Douri asks.
"Yes, they will kill thousands," Mr. Hussein says.
Before he was hanged Dec. 30 for offenses in another case, Mr.
Hussein had used the so-called Anfal trial, involving the massacre of as
many as 180,000 Iraqi Kurds, as a platform for arguing that the chemical
weapons attacks of the kind that devastated the town of Halabja on March
16, 1988, were carried out by Iranian forces then fighting Iraq in an
But the recordings told another story. Court officials gave no hint
as to how they obtained the recordings, which Iraqis familiar with Mr.
Hussein's voice said seemed to be authentic. But they appeared to have
been made during meetings of his Revolutionary Command Council and of
the Baath Party High Command, two groups that acted as rubber stamps for
his decisions. Mr. Hussein regularly ordered meetings to be recorded,
according to Iraqis who knew the inner workings of Mr. Hussein's
Mr. Hussein sounds matter of fact as he describes what chemical
weapons will do. "They will prevent people eating and drinking the local
water, and they won't be able to sleep in their beds," he says. "They
will force people to leave their homes and make them uninhabitable until
they have been decontaminated."
As for the concern about international reaction, he assures Mr. Douri
that only he will order the attacks. "I don't know if you know this,
Comrade Izzat, but chemical weapons are not used unless I personally
give the orders," he says.
When Iraq resumed the genocide trial of its former leaders on Monday,
Mr. Hussein's high-backed, black vinyl seat at the front of the dock was
left ominously empty. Something about the six remaining defendants,
including Ali Hassan al-Majid, Mr. Hussein's cousin, who was known among
Iraqis as Chemical Ali for his role in overseeing the attacks on the
Kurds, suggested that they felt orphaned without the commanding presence
of Mr. Hussein.
Gone were the cries of "Mr. President!" as Mr. Hussein entered the
court to join them in the dock, and gone, too, was the emboldened
posture they took from Mr. Hussein, with frequent challenges and insults
to witnesses, prosecutors and judges. Perhaps Mr. Hussein's hanging, and
the humiliating taunts he endured from witnesses and guards as he stood
with the noose around his neck, had broken the last illusions among
those surviving him that they could somehow evade a similar end.
When the chief judge, Muhammad Ureibi al-Khalifa, began the
proceedings by abruptly cutting the microphone as Mr. Majid stood to
intone a prayer in memory of Mr. Hussein, the former dictator seemed to
be judicially, as well as existentially, dead. But the anticlimactic
beginning swiftly gave way to the most astonishing day of testimony
since Mr. Hussein and his associates went on trial. Once more, it was
Mr. Hussein, this time in an involuntary orgy of self-incrimination, who
In the sequence of scratchy recordings ? some with the dialogue quite
clear, some barely decipherable ? Mr. Hussein repeatedly showed the
ready resort to brutality that seized Iraq with fear during his 24 years
in power. At one point, he is heard telling a general to summarily
execute field commanders who fail to adequately prepare their defenses
against Kurdish guerrilla raids.
He cites as a precedent "some commanders who abandoned their
positions when they found themselves in an awkward situation, who
deserved to have their necks cut, and did." At another point, he tells
subordinates to execute any internal security officials who fail to stop
Iraqi soldiers sneaking home from the Iranian front on fake passes.
"If you arrest any of them, cut off their heads," he says. "Show no
mercy. They only joined the security to avoid having to join the army
and fight Iran." The prosecutor, Munkith al-Faroun, came to court as
almost the only person who attended Mr. Hussein's execution on Dec. 30
to emerge with an unsullied reputation.
It was he, as he and others confirmed, who attempted to halt the
taunts hurled at Mr. Hussein as he stood with the noose around his neck,
moments before the trapdoor opened. Over the hubbub, an illicit camera
phone recording showed Mr. Faroun calling out for silence, "Please, no!"
"The man is about to be executed." But back in the courtroom, Mr.
Faroun became, again, the man holding Mr.
Hussein to account and, in one poignant moment, counselling restraint
among those who have expressed outrage over the manner of the former
ruler's execution. That moment came after the court watched television
images taken after the Halabja attack, which more than any other event
focused world attention on the atrocities committed under Mr. Hussein.