BAGHDAD — Saddam Hussein's cousin, known as "Chemical Ali," and another close aide to the dictator who represented him abroad appeared in court Sunday accused of orchestrating the bloody repression of Shiite riots after the 1999 assassination of a leading cleric.
It was the fifth trial of top Saddam-era figures and the second to include Tariq Aziz, internationally known as the dictator's defender and a fierce American critic after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the 1991 Gulf War.
Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, one of the most powerful Shiite clerics in Iraq in the 1990s, was killed with two of his sons in an ambush on Feb. 20, 1999, in the holy city of Najaf. His followers said Hussein's agents were to blame.
The next day, angry loyalists rioted near a mosque in Baghdad's main Shiite district — then called Saddam City but later renamed Sadr City after the cleric — blockading roads and ordering shops shuttered in mourning. Iraqi police trying to break up the protest were beaten and police cars destroyed.
Hussein's paramilitary Fedayeen militia opened fire on the protesters and a curfew was imposed. The entire district was sealed off until the next day.
Citing documents from Hussein's now-outlawed ruling Baath Party, chief prosecutor Munqith al-Faroon said Sunday that Hussein's security forces opened fire on the Sadr City crowd, killing 16 people. He said 14 others were killed in a similar crackdown in the Shiite southern city of Amarah.
Aziz, the only Christian among Saddam's inner circle, was for years one of the most visible leaders of the ousted regime. Among his 15 co-defendants, who were all present in court Sunday, was Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as Chemical Ali for ordering poison gas attacks against Iraq's Kurdish minority in the 1980s.
Formal charges were to be filed later, but a court official said the charges were expected to include crimes against humanity, which would carry the death penalty.