ARBIL – As Saddam Hussein faces his second trial, this one over the killing of an estimated 180,000 Kurds in the late 1980s, people in Kurdistan are taking a particular interest whether the death sentence in the first case will be carried out before there can be a verdict in the second.
Former dictator of Iraq Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death by an Iraqi court Nov. 5 for ordering the killing of 148 people in Dujail, north of Baghdad, following an assassination attempt. Those killed were mostly Shia Muslims. Shias are the second largest denomination among Muslims.
Two days after the Nov. 5 verdict, another trial began over the killing of the Kurds in the late 1980s. Kurds are an ethnically distinct Iraqi people who live in the north of the country in a region that has strong autonomy as Kurdistan. Many Kurdish leaders seek independence for the region.
The trial in the second case would bring the spotlight on Kurds, given the nature of the charges and the fact that key witnesses would be Kurds. It was a Kurdish group that reportedly gave U.S. authorities vital information on Saddam’s hideout, leading to his capture Dec. 13, 2003.
As the second case begins, a nine-judge panel is examining the death penalty announced for Saddam in the first case on automatic appeal. There is no time limit for this bench to take a decision, but if the panel confirms execution, the death sentence must be carried out within 30 days.
Many Kurds would like to see the sentence carried out soon. Kurds suffered continued persecution under the regime of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Muslim. Shias, an estimated 60 percent of a population of 25 million, were also persecuted severely under Saddam. Kurds are believed to number 5-6 million.
Anger suppressed through 35 years of Saddam’s rule until the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 is now surfacing after the death sentence was announced.
Thirty-nine-year-old Kurd Nasih Ramzan is not particularly keen to wait for the trial of Saddam in the Kurdish case. He wants to see Saddam Hussein "getting a dose of the medicine he gave others," he told IPS. Ramzan, who lost a brother and a cousin during Saddam’s reign, believes "the dictator only deserves death."
"One has to be one of his victims to understand he is not a man worthy of mercy," he said. "I still believe this is the least of justice applied to him."
That seems the general Kurdish view, given the jubilation that followed the verdict. Thousands came dancing into the streets. In Arbil, large crowds gathered around the city’s ancient citadel. Some distributed sweets.
Complaints went round only that death is not sufficient punishment for Saddam, whatever the views of human rights groups and of states that oppose execution on policy. "It was absolutely a just verdict," Salih Omar Issa, dean of the political science college in Arbil, told IPS. "Iraqi laws allow execution for a murderer who kills a single individual. So why should Saddam not be hanged, when he has killed thousands of people?"
But the jubilation is not unmixed. There are some concerns in Kurdistan that an execution could provoke violence directed at Kurds and deepen sectarian violence between ethnic groups, particularly between Shias and Sunnis, and between Kurds and Sunnis. Many Kurds are also Sunni Muslims, but they are seen as primarily Kurdish in their opposition to Saddam. Strong Sunni opposition to the U.S.-led occupation has made Saddam a hero to many Sunnis.
Hiwa Mirza Sabir, head of the moderate Kurdistan Islamic Union politburo, whose party holds five seats in the 275-member Iraqi parliament and nine seats in the 111-member Kurdistan parliament, believes "Saddam’s death would mean a big loss to his supporters."
But the execution of Saddam would not end problems, he said. "As far as the current problems in Iraq are concerned, Saddam is only part of them. The execution of Saddam will not reverse all the current equations in the country. The problem is too deep to be eliminated with Saddam’s death."
Sabir does not believe that members of the Ba’ath party that Saddam headed will target Kurds over the execution. "If they could do so, they would have done it by now."