Dujail, Iraq The sitting room was as Sheik Mahmood Majid left it in November 1980. Copper swords hung on the white walls, and large red carpets, mattresses and plush pillows covered the floor. An Arabian coffee pot occupied one corner of the room, where the powerful tribal leader once held court, talking politics to fellow tribesmen.
Twenty-five years later, as the sheik's son, Hassan Majid, opened the door to show the room, his voiced dropped to a whisper. "We used to sit in this room next to our father," said Majid, 45, a balding, gray-haired man in a white robe who is now mayor of this town 35 miles north of Baghdad. "I lost five of my brothers."
The brothers were executed in a roundup of Dujail's men, women and children after a failed attempt to kill Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on July 8, 1982. In the days that followed, more than 1,500 people in the predominantly Shiite Muslim town were arrested and sent to detention facilities. Three years later, 143 men, some of them teenagers, five of them sons of Mahmood Majid, were hanged in the execution chamber at Abu Ghraib prison.
On Wednesday, Saddam will go on trial for the deaths of those 143 residents of Dujail, the first case against him and his Baath Party dictatorship since the U.S.-led offensive in 2003 toppled the government. Seven others, including the senior Baath Party official accused of rounding up the residents and the head of Iraqi intelligence in 1982, will be tried at the same time for their alleged involvement in the Dujail killings.
A source close to the special Iraqi tribunal that will hear the case has said that although the trial will start this week, it will likely be delayed after a day or two of hearing motions and resolving technical issues that surround the historic and yet untested legal proceedings. It is not clear when the court would reconvene.
The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described the proceedings this week as "the beginning of an ongoing process." But the source added, "I don't think this will be a process dragged out by technicalities."
Saddam will be tried by a five-judge panel under a mixture of international law and Iraqi criminal law. If convicted, he could face the same fate as the 143 men from Dujail.
In a report released Sunday, Human Rights Watch raised questions about whether the Iraqi Special Tribunal, the court set up to hear cases against former officials in Saddam's government, could be fair and impartial. Among the U.S.-based monitoring group's concerns are the application of the death penalty without any possibility of clemency and the requirement that a sentence be carried out within 30 days after a final appeal is heard and concluded.
The Dujail trial "will be commencing in a political context of considerable instability and uncertainty," the group's report said. "In such a context, it is essential that the trials be fair and be seen to be fair so that accusations that the trials amount to 'victors' justice' do not gain credence."
According to witness accounts, Saddam was passing through Dujail on his return to Baghdad from a trip to his home area of Tikrit when his convoy was fired on. His bodyguards returned fire, killing the men who shot at the convoy. Saddam climbed to the roof of the town's Baath Party headquarters and assured residents he would not punish them. The next day, the secret police and bulldozers came. Between them, they wiped out the town, rounding up people, destroying buildings and razing fields of dates and oranges.