Iraqis struggle to weigh hatred for Saddam against human rights

Tuesday, July 6, 2004

HILLAH, Iraq -- Ibrahim al-Idrissi lost seven family members and was jailed 11 times during Saddam Hussein's rule. Like many Iraqis, al-Idrissi -- now head of an agency helping Iraqis who suffered under Saddam -- is torn between hatred for the former regime and respect for human rights and due process in postwar Iraq.

But Saddam's defiance in court last week has deepened the human rights worker's desire for revenge, rather than justice. "Saddam must be tried and executed," he says dispassionately.

Al-Idrissi created the Association of Free Prisoners in the immediate aftermath of Saddam's ouster last year to help Iraqis learn about the fate of loved ones among the hundreds of thousands who vanished under Saddam.

So far, it has discovered 106 mass graves, of which some of the largest are found around Hillah, a Shiite city south of Baghdad where anger and grief still run deep 13 years after Saddam's army suppressed a Shiite uprising, summarily executing tens of thousands.

To keep the memories alive, the association's local branch has opened a museum in which items that belonged to the victims are on display -- ID cards, clothes with bullet holes, locks of hair, blindfolds, a wristwatch and a piece of candy found on a young victim.

During a reporter's visit, the discussion in the Hillah office swung from compassion for the victims' families to the desire to exact revenge on the culprits. Mahmoud Adai Ali, who heads the local branch, keeps a list of about 60 people suspected of taking part in the executions.

His assistant, Abbas al-Haidari, bitterly laments that a man he recognized as a suspected executioner who took part in the shooting of thousands in nearby Mahaweel was freed on bail by local authorities and has since fled.

Public trialIt's against the backdrop of such deeply felt bereavement that many Iraqis watched video footage of Saddam appearing before an Iraqi judge on July 1. For most of the 26 minutes he spent in court, he behaved like he was still the man ruling Iraq with an iron fist.

Saddam loyalists are suspected to be playing a leading role in the 15-month-old insurgency in Baghdad as well as Sunni areas to the west and north of the capital. His defiant court appearance is widely thought to have given the insurgents an added incentive to carry on.

Al-Idrissi, a father of four who once worked as a jeweler, says his agency had only scratched the surface and that the 160,000 deaths documented by the agency so far were no more than 10 percent of the number of people who perished under Saddam.

"What we are dealing with here is the history of a nation built on the pains and tragedies of 35 to 40 years," said al-Idrissi, who has torture scars on his face, feet and right hand.

"It is unfair. People remembered their heartaches and pains when they saw him in court. Why did they give him a suit to wear? It's ironic that they chose to be so democratic with Saddam of all people -- a man who killed so many.

"Saddam must be tried and executed," he concluded.

Al-Idrissi's dilemma as a human rights activist and Saddam victim at the same time encases the mood of a nation that's caught in an enduring state of shock or disorientation caused by the upheavals that came with the swift fall of a dictatorship, and the trauma of a foreign occupation seen as harsh and destructive.

"We harbor no personal animosity against Saddam or anyone else," al-Idrissi says before he adds: "Saddam is not a common criminal, he is a criminal institution."

He says his comrades in the struggle against Saddam were Kurds, Sunnis as well as Shiites like himself and that he had refused to give the association he co-founded a Shiite name. "I did not even want it to have an Islamic name. This is an organization to serve every one in Iraq," he replied indignantly when asked whether his association was serving only Shiites.

After years of suffering, once Saddam was gone, "it was like you put me on a very comfortable bed. I was tired, but I did not want to sleep. I began running again; like my life had just begun," he said.

He says he got off lightly, considering the many whose lives Saddam cut off.

Among the many unfortunate ones, there are 40 whose remains were found in a mass grave of more than 300 bodies in a spot called Imam Bakr six miles south of Hillah.

No one could identify the 40 and their remains were buried in unmarked graves. Hoisted over the cement graves is a banner accusing Saddam and his Baath party in the deaths.

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