Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Dijail Attacks Linked to Saddam Trial

People targeted on the road to Baghdad believe abductions and killings are reprisals for the trial in which Saddam Hussein is accused of massacring Dijail residents.
By Nasir Kadhim
As former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein stands trial for a massacre he allegedly ordered in Dijail, residents of this largely Shia town claim they are being targeted in revenge attacks by former regime loyalists.



Dozens of residents of Dijail, about 65 kilometres north of Baghdad in the Salaheddin province, have been abducted or killed in the last two months while travelling along the road to the capital.



The attacks are widely believed to be connected to the case against Saddam and seven of his associates, who are charged with killing 148 people in the town in 1982 following a failed assassination attempt against the former dictator.



The kidnappings and murders began in late March at makeshift roadblocks set up by insurgents near al-Mishahida, a village about 45 kilometres away which is a known centre of the Sunni Arab insurgency.



The exact numbers of dead and missing are unknown. Some families are believed to have taken the bodies of relatives, found dumped on the road, straight to the Shia holy city of Najaf for burial, without registering the deaths with the town's police or coroner.



However, Ahmed Latif, a Dijail police officer, estimates that around 20 people have been killed and perhaps 20 more kidnapped.



Witnesses scheduled to give testimony at the trial received death threats before the trial opened began in February, and Dijail residents say the highway attacks are a continuation of the same policy of intimidation.



The town was relatively stable before the trial began, but now many people have horror stories to tell about the road south.



Fuad Jabbar, a 26-year-old barber, was coming back from the capital with his friend Ahmad Salman in a minibus carrying several passengers, when the traffic slowed to a crawl near al-Mishahida. They thought they were approaching a police checkpoint, but as they got closer they saw about six men wearing masks and carrying weapons.



"We were worried and scared, especially the women," he said.



An insurgent in a red scarf and wielding a Kalashnikov asked for his identity papers, which show where an Iraqi national was born.



Jabbar was born in Baghdad, but the militants were searching specifically for people from Dijail. He watched in terror as they ordered his friend Ahmed, a 20-year-old student whose ID notes Dijail as his place of birth, to get out of the minibus.



"You're one of the ones who wants Saddam Hussein executed?" the insurgent asked, according to Jabbar.



The insurgent then ordered the minibus to drive off without Ahmed, and Jabbar has not seen his friend since.



"I still can't believe what happened and how it happened," Jabbar said. "He's a victim of terrorism. I hope he will return safely."



Latif said the police patrol the roads every day looking for the insurgent highwaymen, but so far without success. He believes the militants usually set up their roadblocks for less than 10 minutes at a time, and then move on.



"We don't know who they are … but we will take our revenge either as security forces or as Dijail residents," he said.



Many travellers are now using a detour which takes them through Diyala province, even though that takes at least twice as long.



"It's a long way round and not a good option, but we don’t have an alternative considering that death awaits us at al-Mishahida," said Majid Hasan, an engineer from Dijail who works for a private company in Baghdad.



Others like Kamal Hamadi, who was stopped and terrorised by insurgents in March, have simply decided to stop going to the capital.



Hamadi, a shopkeeper from Dijail, was driving along the now infamous road when a car blocked his path near al-Mishahida. Three masked men came out and demanded to know where he was from.



When they discovered he was from Dijail, they ordered him out of his car. He begged them not to kill him, and after holding him for half an hour and insulting him – but not assaulting him – they let him go.



"They took me to their boss and I was shaking," he said.



The Shia Dawa party, which has a strong presence in Dijail, denounced the threats and said police must make a greater effort to capture the insurgents.



"They are terrorists, and they should be eliminated," said Sheikh Adil al-Zubaidi, a Dawa party official in the town.



Some in the town are now regretting their insistence that Saddam stand trial for the 1982 killings.



"If we would have known that this would have happened to us, we would never filed a complaint against Saddam and his deputies," said one man, Ali Essa.



"We've paid the price twice - first in the Eighties and again today."



Nasir Kadhim is a Baghdad-based IWPR trainee.