Sarchanar Mahmoud struggled to articulate the swell of emotions that washed over her when news of Saddam Hussein’s death flashed across her television screen.
“There was an indescribable silence and conflicting feelings that I can’t explain,” said the pale, veiled woman, who still lives in the remote mountain town in northern Iraq where half her family died in a 1988 poison gas attack. “After this we came to and started talking.”
Family members felt joy that they were finally rid of the fearsome dictator who had cast a long shadow over their lives. But there also was a sense of disappointment that Hussein would never face justice for what he had done to them.
In Hussein’s final hours, calls for a stay of execution came from an unexpected source: survivors of some of the worst atrocities of his blood-soaked regime.
“We are happy that this tyrant’s end has come,” said Mahmoud, a 31-year-old court investigator in the Kurdish town of Halabja, where the gas attack took place. But “not in this sudden manner. We wished that the remaining cases would be settled first.”
Hundreds of thousands were believed to have been tortured in Hussein’s notorious jails, disappeared into mass graves or died in his wars and chemical attacks. But when Hussein was hanged at dawn in the capital on Saturday, it was for just one case: the killing of at least 148 men and boys in retribution for a 1982 assassination attempt in the Shiite Muslim town of Dujayl.
Officials with the special court convened to pass judgment on the former Iraqi president’s decades-long regime say an ongoing trial dealing with a much wider case, the so-called Anfal campaign against Iraq’s ethnic Kurdish minority that resulted in as many as 100,000 deaths, is due to resume Jan. 8. But without the chief defendant, many fear that interest will dwindle and that countless victims of other atrocities will never receive their day in court.
Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said the rush to execute Hussein days after an Iraqi appeals panel upheld the sentence “signifies justice denied for countless victims who endured unspeakable suffering during his regime.”
“It will doubtless have a devastating impact on other related trials, as the key witness who could most compellingly shed light on the chain of command will have been silenced,” he said in a statement.
Hussein had sat impassively through hours of dramatic witness accounts, detailed forensic presentations and startling reenactment in the Anfal case, but was executed before taking the stand in his defense.
Mahmoud was 13 when Iraqi warplanes attacked the town where she lived with eight family members in a two-room home belonging to an elder brother.
For three days, she recalled, the members of the family cowered in the basement. When they emerged, they stepped into pandemonium.
“We went out to the streets and found the people shouting and screaming that there was chemical bombing going on and that we had to leave,” she said. Homes were smashed and bloodied bodies lay in the streets.
The family was separated in the panic. Mahmoud, her mother and two younger siblings fled to a sister’s home in a nearby village. There they were advised to douse themselves in water and climb onto the roof to avoid the heavy gas that gave them painful headaches and stomachaches and made them vomit.
“We remained on the roof until dawn, wet, frightened, with the airplanes hovering over our heads,” she said. “Each time we kids heard a plane, we’d close our eyes thinking that if we did so, they wouldn’t find us.”
They eventually fled to neighboring Iran, where Mahmoud learned from other refugees that the elder brother whom they had lived with had died with his wife and three children in the gas attack.
The Halabja warfare featured prominently in Hussein’s second trial, where he faced charges of genocide for his Anfal, or “spoils of war,” campaign against Kurds living in the northern reaches of Iraq.
Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish lawmaker, had urged the government to delay executing Hussein and top members of his regime at least until the conclusion of the Anfal trial. He wanted them to identify those responsible for the chemical weapons unleashed on Kurdish villagers, including the foreign companies and countries that supplied the parts to make them.
“A lot of secrets will go to the grave with Saddam and his group,” he predicted. “If these trials continue without those people, what is the use?”
Under Iraqi law, all pending charges against Hussein will be dropped, and he will not be tried posthumously. But this does not affect charges against six others: Ali Hassan Majid, the northern military commander at the time; Sultan Hashim Ahmad Jabburi Tai, the campaign’s military commander; Sabir Abdul Aziz Douri, director of military intelligence; Hussein Rashid Mohammed, another senior military officer; Taher Tawfiq Ani, governor of Nineveh province; and Farhan Mutlaq Jubouri, head of military intelligence in the region.
Raed Juhi, an investigative judge and spokesman for the Iraqi High Tribunal, said the Anfal trial and other cases, about a dozen in all, would continue.
The next scheduled to begin concerns the brutal crackdown that took place when Shiite Muslims and Kurdish fighters rebelled at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, anticipating that the U.S. would support them.
Some survivors of the sweeping arrests and killings doubt the case will now make it to trial.
“Who is going to be tried now that there is no Saddam?” asked Mohammed Mousawi, a 58-year-old retired teacher in the southern Shiite city of Najaf.
Mousawi’s brother went out to buy bread one day 15 years ago and never returned. Three other relatives disappeared about the same time. “We have no idea what happened to them,” he said. “I suspect they are in one of the mass graves.”
Human rights groups that have monitored Hussein’s cases before the Iraqi High Tribunal say there is ample reason to fear that Iraq’s government leaders might abandon the process.
“My sense from the start is that the whole undertaking seemed unnecessary to them, a waste of time and resources,” said Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice Program at New York-based Human Rights Watch.
He cited the replacement of judges who appeared too lenient or sympathetic to Hussein, and a failure to provide sufficient security to defense attorneys, two of whom were killed.
The cursory way in which the court dispensed with Hussein’s appeal and the speed with which he was sent to the gallows raised concern about political interference in the judicial system.
“It looks like the trial is buckling to the political process,” said Hanny Megally, who heads the International Center for Transitional Justice’s Middle East and North Africa program.
“The fear is that after [the next trial], which focuses on Shia, they may say: ‘Look, this is expensive, this is taking a long time, let’s call it a day.’
“On the other side of the coin,” he said, “maybe without the big shot in the courtroom, people will start to focus more on the violations and the complaints and those stories will come out more.”
For some in the ongoing Kurdish case, it was enough to see Hussein hang.
Aisha, a 51-year-old Kurdish villager who gave only one name, will never forget the day she recently faced the late dictator in court and told him about her husband, who disappeared when their village was razed during the Anfal campaign.
“I thought that I would be able to face neither him nor this whole experience,” she recalled from a small home in Irbil, “yet I found myself very strong and I faced him fiercely.”
It does not matter to Aisha that Hussein was executed for crimes from the previous trial.
“We got our revenge against a criminal today,” she said.
Special correspondent Abdulsalam Madani in Irbil contributed to this report.