The Iraqi High Tribunal said the defendants are charged with engaging in widespread or systematic attacks against the civilian population, and the evidence would include testimony from about 90 victims and witnesses.
Saddam's cousin and the former defense minister Ali Hassan al-Majid, who gained the nickname "Chemical Ali" after chemical attacks on Kurdish towns during the so-called Anfal campaign, entered the courtroom wearing his traditional white Arab robe and a red headdress.
The chief judge Mohammed Oreibi al-Khalifa told the men they were charged with crimes against humanity, which court officials said carries the maximum penalty of death by hanging.
In other recent developments:
ravaging Iraq. He and Syrian President Bashar Assad appeared
briefly before cameras before going into a closed meeting Tuesday.
Levin, D-Mich., said that while the military buildup has "produced some credible and positive results," the political outlook is darker. The senators said that during their visit to Iraq last week they told Iraqi leaders of American impatience with the lack of political progress, and "impressed upon them that time has run out in that regard."
The charges against Saddam's cousin stem from the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, in which the U.S. drove Saddam's forces from Kuwait.
Shiites in the south and Kurds in the north sought to take advantage of the defeat, launching uprisings and seizing control of 14 of the country's 18 provinces. U.S. troops created a safe haven for the Kurds in three northern provinces, preventing Saddam from attacking. But the late dictator's troops marched into the predominantly Shiite south and crushed the uprising, killing tens of thousands of people.
"The acts committed against the Iraqi people in 1991 by the security forces and by the defendants sitting were among one of the ugliest crimes ever committed against humanity in modern history," the prosecutor Mahdi Abdul-Amir said in opening remarks.
It was the third trial of former regime officials after the Dujail case, in which Saddam and three others were hanged for the 1982 killings of 148 Shiites, and the trial of those accused of killing more than 100,000 Kurds in a 1980s military campaign known as Anfal.
Al-Majid was sentenced to death in the Anfal case but was standing trial in the Shiite uprising case pending his appeal, the court said.
Two others sentenced to death for the Kurdish killings — Sultan Hashim Ahmad al-Tai, the former defense minister who led the Iraqi delegation at the cease-fire talks that ended the 1991 Gulf War, and Hussein Rashid Mohammed, a former deputy director of operations for the Iraqi armed forces — also were among the defendants.
Another high-profile defendant — Saddam's trusted personal secretary and bodyguard Abed Hameed Hmoud — referred to President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, when asked about his residence.
"I used to live in a house in Jadiriyah (a neighborhood in southeastern Baghdad) and now it is occupied by Jalal Talabani," Hmoud said, repeating the sentence twice. The judge ignored his remarks.
Officials in Saddam's regime still face trials for their alleged role in other crimes. These crimes include the slaying of members of political and religious parties, the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the forced emigration of thousands of Shiite Kurds from northern Iraq into Iran, the execution of 8,000 members of the Kurdish Barzani tribe, and the destruction of the marshes in southern Iraq.