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Last Updated: Friday, 25 November 2005, 11:34 GMT
Seeking justice in Dujail
By James Menendez
BBC News

It is a sight that most Iraqis never thought they would see - the man who ruled over them for more than two decades standing trial, in an Iraqi court and before Iraqi judges.

Saddam Hussein kisses a woman in Dujail (1982 TV footage)
Saddam Hussein was filmed on a visit to the town of Dujail in 1982

But that is precisely what Iraqis and the rest of the world will see when Saddam Hussein's trial resumes in Baghdad.

Alongside him stand seven others, including the former Vice-President, Taha Yassin Ramadan, and Saddam Hussein's half-brother Barzan Al-Tikriti, a former security chief.

The charge sheet includes the killing of 5,000 Kurdish civilians in the chemical attack on Halabja in 1988 and the deaths of thousands of Shia and Kurdish civilians after the first Gulf War.

But it could be months before either of these cases is heard.

Instead, the first charge facing the former Iraqi president and his co-defendants is relatively unknown.

A crowd listens to Saddam Hussein in Dujail (1982 TV footage)

It concerns the killing of 143 people from Dujail, a mixed town of Sunni and Shia Arabs some 60km north of Baghdad, and a train of events that began one stifling hot day in 1982.

At that time, many of Dujail's men were away fighting in the war with Iran, which the Iraqi leader had started just 18 months before.

But already, the war was turning against Iraq and Saddam Hussein needed to drum up support.

So, on 8 July he decided to pay a visit: a visit that was filmed by one of his official cameramen.

In the footage - which has only recently emerged - the Iraqi president is seen visiting a family home, meeting people in the streets and addressing a cheering crowd outside the local Baath party headquarters, where he thanks the sons of Dujail for their courage in the war.

The visit appears to be carefully choreographed but then suddenly it all goes wrong.

Gunshots heard

As the presidential convoy heads out of town, there is an ambush. A small group of men, hiding in the palm groves, opens fire.

The camera is not rolling at this point but Jassim Mohammed Al-Hatuw remembers it all too clearly:

The response has to be swift and it has to be bloody to prove... that any attack on the president will be punished in brutal and horrific terms
Dr Toby Dodge
Queen Mary college, London

"When we heard gunshots, we started asking those who were coming back to town what had happened. Some people said the firing was in celebration of the president but other people said: 'No, the president has been shot!'"

But the president had not been shot. The gunmen had missed and most of them were killed by his bodyguards.

"My brother Karim fought a jihad against Baathism, but he was martyred in the operation against the damned Saddam Hussein, " says Saadi Kadhem Jaafar.

"When Karim and his group heard about Saddam coming, they wanted to kill him, but fate had other ideas."

Saddam's power

The Iraqi leader's reaction to the assassination attempt is also unexpected. Instead of speeding off to Baghdad, the convoy drives back into Dujail.

There, with the cameras rolling again, Saddam Hussein makes another speech promising to root out the "small number" of traitors in the town, "agents of foreigners" he says, meaning the Iranians. He is also seen questioning two suspects personally.

Saddam Hussein addresses a crowd in Dujail (1982 TV footage)
The visit was to rally Dujail in the early years of war with Iran

In the next few days, many more are rounded up and detained, in a full-scale military operation, involving tanks and planes.

"You have an assassination attempt on the president of Iraq, a president who's invaded Iran, the war isn't going well: this is a clear blow against his power," says Dr Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at Queen Mary college in London.

"The response has to be swift and it has to be bloody to prove to the population of the town, and the whole of Iraq, that any attack on the president will be punished in brutal and horrific terms."

As the father of the gunman Karim, Kadhem Jaafar was one of those arrested.

"They took my whole family," he says. "Seven girls, and their mother and me. Nearly 150 of us altogether. They took us to the intelligence headquarters for a month or so, then to Abu Ghraib for two years and then they sent us to the desert."

Question of evidence

But unlike Kadhem, some of those arrested never came back to Dujail. Instead they were killed, possibly as late as 1985.

The task now facing the prosecution is to show that Saddam Hussein was personally responsible.

"What they really want to do is prove that he gave the order," says Professor Michael Scharf, a lawyer who helped train many of the judges on the court.

"But that's going to be a little difficult because Saddam Hussein has a reputation for not putting anything in writing because he wanted to avoid this very thing."

Nevertheless, Prof Scharf believes that the reason the prosecution chose Dujail as their first case is because it is their strongest. Investigators have been gathering testimony as well as forensic and documentary evidence for months.

But only when that evidence is presented in court will it become clear just how strong it is.

And only then will the people of Dujail know for sure how their relatives died.

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