By MARK MACKINNON
Toronto Globe and Mail
October 20, 2005
On the morning of July 8, 1982, during one of the bloodier stretches of the Iran-Iraq war, a group of Shia militiamen staged a daring attack on the dictator's convoy as it left Dujayl, a farming town north of Baghdad.
The assassination attempt, which had the potential to radically change the course of recent history in the Middle East, failed. Instead, it sparked a brutal clampdown, the details of which most of the world is only learning now as Hussein and seven co-defendants went on trial Wednesday in Baghdad, facing charges of crimes against humanity stemming from the massacre.
The Dujayl massacre is just one of many atrocities the former dictator is accused of committing during his 24 blood-soaked years in power. Prosecutors say they chose the case - which carries a death sentence - because it is straightforward and the evidence is strong.
So while other groups, most vocally the country's Kurdish community, have pressed for a judicial accounting of other alleged crimes, it is a morning in Dujayl that was once almost ignored that Hussein and his lawyers will have to try to explain first. It was Hussein's custom to occasionally parade through Iraq's cities and towns in grand style, with his Baath Party minions forcing residents to come out and line the route. Video of that day taken by the dictator's personal television cameraman show there was initially little different about July 8.
Frames lifted from the footage show a cheering crowd running out to greet the president and throwing candies at his motorcade as it entered Dujayl. Later, Hussein, visibly slimmer than in later years, gave a speech from the roof of a building to thank Dujayl for its contributions to the war effort.
The town had long been a hotbed of political activism. Two years earlier, 30 members of al-Dawa, a banned Shia Muslim political movement deeply opposed to Hussein and his Sunni Muslim-dominated regime, were rounded up. They were never seen again by their families.
As Hussein's motorcade was leaving town, gunfire erupted from the groves of palm trees that lined the road.
The dictator survived the ensuing battle between the would-be assassins and Baathist security forces, and images that will be presented as evidence during the trial show him personally questioning suspects on the side of the road.
He then returned to Dujayl to give a speech blaming "agents of foreigners" for the attack. He promised to pursue the "small number of traitors" in the area.
Retribution, though, was swift and widespread. Iraqi prosecutors say that an enraged Hussein decided to take his revenge on the entire, predominantly Shia, town.
The next day, the elite Republican Guard of the Iraqi army descended on Dujayl, backed by tanks and helicopter gunships. Baath Party officials went house to house, dragging away anyone believed to have links to al-Dawa.
According to prosecutors, 15 people were executed on the spot, while another 143 were hanged after rapid show trials. About 1,500 men, women and children were arrested, hundreds of whom were to spend years in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison without being charged.
The purge was allegedly carried out by Hussein's half-brother, Barzan al-Tikriti, one of the co-defendants. Among those executed were an 11-year-old boy and two soldiers who weren't even in Dujayl when the assassination attempt occurred, having been away fighting at the front against Iran.
When the arrests and killings were finished, the regime decided to leave a lasting scar on the town. Bulldozers were brought in to cleave through the date trees and gardens that provided many of the townspeople with their livelihoods. The small river running through town was filled with dirt and eventually paved over with asphalt. Former deputy prime minister Taha Yasin Ramadan, another co-defendant, is accused of overseeing the destruction.
Hussein and his cohorts almost got away with it. There was almost no reporting in the Western press at the time about what happened to Dujayl. Iraq's state-controlled Thawra newspaper said only that the town was being "redeveloped."
However, after the ouster of Hussein's regime by U.S.-led forces in 2003, witnesses and residents of Dujayl rushed forward to tell what happened.
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