Fifteen former aides of executed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, including the man known as "Chemical Ali," went on trial yesterday for crimes against humanity over their alleged role in crushing a 1991 Shiite rebellion.
Three of the accused, including Ali Hassan al-Majid, Saddam's cousin who is widely known as Chemical Ali, have already been sentenced to death in a previous trial for genocide and crimes against humanity.
Majid was among the first to enter the Iraqi High Tribunal, dressed in a cream-colored robe with a white headscarf and supported by a cane.
When Judge Mohammed al-Oreibi al-Khalifah asked him to introduce himself, he replied, "I am the fighter Ali Hassan al-Majid."
In his opening statement, the chief prosecutor accused Majid of cold-blooded executions while Saddam's southern army was killing tens of thousands of Shiites after they rose up in the wake of the first Gulf War.
"The helicopters were bombing the cities and houses of people. Prisoners captured were killed," said the prosecutor, who cannot be named for security reasons.
"Majid used to come to detention centers, tie the hands of the detainees and then shoot them dead with his weapon," the prosecutor said.
"The dead were then later buried in mass graves," he said. "Many mass graves have been found since the 2003 war ended. And we will find many more if we keep searching."
Prosecutors claim that up to 100,000 Shiites were killed when Saddam's loyalists put down the so-called 1991 rebellion, which was launched by local citizens and deserting soldiers retreating from their defeat in Kuwait.
The massacres occurred around the holy Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala and in the Hilla and Basra regions after the US-led coalition decided to halt its offensive just inside Iraq.
"[Saddam] ordered tanks and infantry withdrawn from Kuwait to attack Basra and Maysa," the prosecutor said.
"The convict Saddam made rash judgements. Majid was authorized to demolish anything and kill anyone who came in the way of the forces," he said.
The first witness, former Iraqi soldier Raybath Jabbar Risan, 65, said his village in Basra Province had been occupied by Saddam's elite Republican Guards.
"I worked in the army for 30 years and never imagined they would do this to me and my family," he said. "Between March 13 and 17 of 1991 the Republican Guards occupied our village in Basra and struck it with artillery and mortar fire."
"My cousin was killed and nephew wounded," he said. "My brother's house was burned. I escaped with my family."
One of the accused, Sabbawi al-Ibrahim, director of intelligence services during Saddam's reign, told the court that Iranian intelligence agents had stoked the uprising, "in order to kill and loot."
"I have never spent more than 30 minutes in [the town of] Amara in my entire life and here I am accused of killing people of Amara," Ibrahim said.
"Iran did not achieve in 1988 what it wanted. So it took a chance while Iraq was weak. Iranian intelligence operators were interfering [in the south]," he said.
Shiites, who form a minority in the Muslim world, make up 60 percent of Iraq's population and were ruled for decades by Saddam's Sunni-led regime.
Since the March 2003 US-led invasion, Iraqi and international experts have exhumed dozens of mass graves of victims killed in the uprising and their reports are expected to be the key evidence during the trial.