After waiting for more than three decades, Iraqis brutalized by Saddam Hussein and his regime will begin to see justice "in the next few weeks," according to Salem Chalabi, the director-general of the tribunal system established to try regime criminals. The court proceedings themselves are not likely to start until early next year, Chalabi says, but the investigations will be transparent and some of the interrogations will be shown on television.
"Under the civil law system, individual judges question defendants before their trial," says Chalabi, nephew of the head of the Iraqi National Congress, Ahmed Chalabi. "You can begin to show the atrocities. You can begin to show the shit that the old regime did and you'll see this in the next few weeks. We'll have meetings with the defendants and we'll show them on TV."
The current plan is to try low and mid-level Baathist functionaries first and work up to senior regime figures and Saddam Hussein. "It's easier to try people who are lower-ranking because it's easier to try someone for one crime than twenty," says Chalabi. Once investigative judges have established that crimes have been committed by specific individuals, they will begin to work their way up the chain of command.
The one known exception to this plan will be Ali Hassan al Majid, better known as "Chemical Ali." Majid's crimes are well known -- he was responsible for the chemical attacks on the Kurds in 1988 and for putting down the Shiite rebellion in southern Iraq after the Gulf War. Because the Kurds lived outside of the control of the regime -- in the northern no-fly zone -- since 1991, investigators already have at their disposal reams of evidence related to the attacks collected over the past decade.
Investigators are arrayed at five locations throughout Iraq, taking down eyewitness accounts of atrocities. One person they may want to talk to is Ali Mohamedawi, an Iraqi who helped lead the Shiite uprising in 1991, and who returned with U.S. troops last spring to help liberate Iraq. He told me his story as he waited in Kuwait to return to Iraq.
As he fled Republican Guard soldiers and local Baathists in March 1991, Mohamedawi was still wearing his Iraqi Army uniform to avoid suspicion. He encountered an elderly woman on the nearly-deserted streets of Basra. The woman offered him some food and some water.
"My son, why you walking by yourself?" she asked.
"I'm going to my unit," he answered, though it was clear from her expression that she didn't believe him.
"And she said, 'Okay I'll ask God to keep you.' And I said, 'You don't need to cry.' And she wants to bring some water and some food to her family.
"She saw the people at the corner laid down next to each other, and she told me some of them still move and they're bleeding. And she looks like she lost her mind. And she said, 'Be careful, maybe they going to kill you.' And she saw the disasters. And she saw also guys who belong to [Chemical Ali] force these guys to drink the gasoline, and then they shoot them. They had a special kind of bullet -- at the front it's red, and when it's shooted at the night, it's not going just the bullet, it's going with the fire. And when it takes the bodies of the people filled with gasoline it makes the people explode -- like a bomb. Each corner, goddamn it."
Officials working for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq predicted last fall that the preparations for the trials would take at least two years. But Bush administration officials, aware of the need for swift justice for Iraqis and almost certainly mindful of the presidential elections, insisted that the process be expedited. The Justice Department has dispatched several dozen lawyers, judges, and prosecutors to work alongside their Iraqi counterparts, but Chalabi maintains that Iraqis are in charge.
The trials will naturally concentrate on crimes the regime committed against Iraqis, but investigators are also working with Kuwaitis and Iranians to construct cases related to Saddam's persecution of his neighbors. "It will be a mix between Iraq and international crimes," says Chalabi, "but we'll place a large focus on Iraqi atrocities."
Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.