By Ross Colvin
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Fifteen former members of Saddam Hussein's regime go on trial in a U.S.-backed court on Tuesday for their role in the crushing of a Shi'ite uprising in 1991, but many Shi'ites still talk bitterly of an American betrayal.
The trial is likely to revive debate over former U.S. President George Bush's decision not to invade Iraq after forcing Iraqi troops out of Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War.
With no threat of invasion, Saddam was able to use his elite Republican Guard units to swiftly suppress uprisings in the Shi'ite south and Kurdish north that erupted just days after the February 28 ceasefire ending the Gulf War.
Bush has since argued that while he hoped a popular revolt would topple Saddam, he did not want to see the break-up of the Iraqi state and feared the collapse of the multi-national coalition, including Arab states, that he had assembled.
"I just want to laugh when I hear American politicians talk about spreading democracy in the Middle East. I ask them: 'Why then did you allow Saddam to kill women and children when the Iraqi people revolted against his dictatorship?" said Mohammed al-Jawahiry, 32, a doctor in the southern city of Basra.
Saddam was eventually toppled in the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. President George W. Bush went further than his father, ostensibly in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction which have never been found.
Police in Basra said on Monday they had uncovered a mass grave containing 15 youths executed during the 1991 uprising. The grave was found during the repaving of a street.
"The bodies had gunshots to the head and, according to witnesses ... they were executed by former regime death squads in 1991," said Hayaniya police chief Colonel Karim Rheima.
In a farewell speech in March, the outgoing U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, said: "I feel we did not do the right thing after the war for the liberation of Kuwait and I felt we did the wrong thing in terms of leaving Iraq with sanctions and Saddam."
The 15 men on trial include Saddam's cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majeed, and two other senior military officers who have already been sentenced to death in a trial for the 1998 Anfal campaign against the Kurds that killed tens of thousands.
The alleged crimes include the torture and execution of suspects as Saddam's forces sought to retake towns and cities that had fallen to the rebels. There are no clear figures for how many were killed in the crackdown which involved tanks.
A background briefing note compiled by U.S. officials involved in the trial said evidence included "tapes and after-action reports but few actual orders due to regime-ordered destruction of records. Destruction of records came from Saddam Hussein himself."
In his book "A History of Iraq," historian Charles Tripp said a "terrible revenge" was taken on the rebellious Shi'ite cities, which included the holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala and Basra, Nassiriya and Amara.
While Shi'ites on Monday welcomed the trial as a long overdue chance for justice, they viewed American involvement in the trial court, which has American advisers, with cynicism.
"Bush the father and his army were the main reason for the death of Iraqi people in 1991. Bush the father must be the first one who must be put on trial for what happened," said Basra school teacher Nahla Razzaq.
On February 16, 1991, just days before the rebellions erupted in early March, Bush had called on "the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands, to force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside."
"It is an American trick. Yesterday they allow the tyrant's forces to hit central and southern Iraq and today prosecute them for these genocides," Dhiya Hussein, 44, a resident of Najaf, said angrily.