ARBIL – Polishing the picture of her husband hanging on a wall, Samira Jabbar, 44, was euphoric after an Iraqi judge handed the death sentence to several men for the massacre of tens of thousands of Kurds in the late 1980s.
Samira lost her husband and four other close relatives in April 1988 when Iraqi army units raided their village Qafade, east of Kirkuk, as part of a large-scale offensive against the Kurdish population.
"Our men asked the women and children to leave the village so that we wouldn’t fall into the hands of the army," said Samira. "We ran away and never saw them again. My baby never saw his father."
Sentiments run high among Kurds over the sentencing.
"They deserve to be hanged," said Samira, who still wears black clothes 19 years after her husband disappeared. "I feel like my unhappy life has ended today. I would love to dance out of joy."
Samira and other survivors are now looking for compensation.
After 61 sessions starting last August, Iraq’s special tribunal sentenced to death three of Saddam Hussein’s former aides, including his cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, better known as "Chemical Ali" for his use of poisonous gas against Kurds.
Former defense minister Sultan Hashem Ahmad and former deputy chief of military staff Hussein Rashid were also sentenced to hang. Two other co-defendants were sentenced to serve life imprisonment, and one was released for lack of evidence.
The defendants were convicted for their involvement in the Anfal operations carried out in eight stages from February to September 1988.
Anfal is a Koranic term meaning "spoils of wars," and was picked to inspire Iraqi army forces in an offensive that killed up to 180,000 people, mostly civilians. More than 3,000 villages were razed, orchards were burnt down, and even animals were killed.
The defendants said in court that they were targeting Kurdish insurgents who were fighting the Iraqi government during the 1980s.
International rights groups criticized the course of the trial, saying that basic standards had not been met.
But in the eyes of Kurds the verdicts were fair enough. Public celebrations were held in many towns across Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region. People danced on the streets and cars drove around carrying Kurdish flags.
But the extent of jubilation was less than expected. This was noticeable particularly in Halabja town, southeast of regional capital Arbil, where around 5,000 people were killed by chemical gases. "Chemical Ali" got his nickname mainly for gassing this town.
"People were happy that ‘Chemical Ali’ was sentenced to hang," said Omar Halabjayi, 28, a schoolteacher from Halabja. "But because ‘Chemical Ali’ was not sentenced over the Halabja gassing and because our city is neglected in terms of public services, people didn’t show that much enthusiasm."
The Halabja trial will be run separately, and al-Majid will be one of the main defendants in that case as well unless he is executed first. The verdicts will be sent automatically for appeal within a month before a panel of judges.
The court ruled unanimously that the convicted defendants were involved in genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. The verdict appeared a significant gain for Iraqi Kurds.
But despite the rulings Sunday, the Anfal case has not ended, and there is a long list of people accused of complicity in the operations who will be called for investigations by the tribunal.
Among these are Kurdish collaborators, known as Mustashar, who were heading paramilitary forces at the time and closely assisting the Iraqi army in carrying out the operations.
Many in Kurdistan insist that justice will not be done unless these people are put on trial.
"It was not only these six people in the dock that carried out Anfal," Shwan Mahmoud, 29, a university graduate from Arbil told IPS. "The verdicts today are only part of the justice, and whoever was involved has to face the families of the victims in the court."