Fifteen former Iraqi officials and military commanders went on trial on Tuesday on charges related to the suppression of a 1991 Shia uprising in which tens of thousands were killed.
It is the third in a series of “regime crimes” trials related to acts carried out during the presidency of Saddam Hussein, the deposed Iraqi leader, and the first to deal with the uprising touched off by Iraq’s defeat in the 1991 Gulf war.
Defendants include Saddam’s cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as “Chemical Ali” for his alleged use of poison gas, who has already been sentenced to death for his involvement in the killing of Kurdish civilians in the 1988 “Anfal” campaign.
Two other defendants in the current trial – Sultan Hashem Ahmed al-Taie, former defence minister, and Hussein Rashid Mohammed, former armed forces deputy director of operations – were also sentenced to death in the Anfal trial.
The court heard on Tuesday from the first of an estimated 90 witnesses: a retired military officer who related how his brother and cousin were killed when Iraqi forces shelled his village near the southern city of Basra after residents stormed the local police station.
However, it is unclear whether the prosecution will be able to prove the bloodshed was on the scale claimed by many Shia. The prosecutor described the incident as one of the “ugliest crimes ever committed against humanity in modern history”.
According to human rights groups, government tanks, artillery and helicopters fired indiscriminately on civilian areas and government troops rounded up and executed fighting-aged men.
Estimates of the death toll vary widely, however. Conservative estimates put the number of victims in the tens of thousands, while Iraqi court officials have said that up to 180,000 died and some Shia groups claim the figure exceeds 300,000.
Many Shia see the oppression as an indictment of the Sunni-dominated military establishment, particularly elite units such as the Republican Guard.
Some Sunni on the other hand see the putting down of the 1991 uprising as a legitimate response to a rebellion which they claim was backed by Iran.
“Iran used its agents to destroy Iraq. I am surprised that words of praise are not used to describe the events of 1991,” said Sabawi Ibrahim, one of the defendants.
Iraqi officials had hoped the trials could advance national reconciliation by demonstrating to those who might look fondly on the deposed regime just how much their compatriots had suffered.
However, many Sunni Arabs in particular appear to see the trials as a form of victors’ justice.
Ryan Crocker, US ambassador to Baghdad, on Tuesday said political progress in Iraq had been “extremely disappointing”, although he added that sectarian violence had declined despite the continuation of “spectacular car bomb attacks”. The remarks are likely to be a preview of what Mr Crocker and General David Petraeus, top commander in Iraq, will say in a report to the US Congress scheduled for mid-September.