Exhuming truth

Published : Jun 06, 2003 00:00 IST

A weeping Iraqi woman, next to bags containing the remains of bodies taken out from a mass grave in Mahaweel, central Iraq, on May 14. - MURAD SEZER/AP

A weeping Iraqi woman, next to bags containing the remains of bodies taken out from a mass grave in Mahaweel, central Iraq, on May 14. - MURAD SEZER/AP

THERE is little disinformation here, none of the fraudulence of Kuwaiti babies snatched out of incubators by invading forces or the staged theatricality of the mission to rescue a prisoner of war from an Iraqi hospital. The mass graves that have been disinterred in parts of Iraq reveal a horrific legacy of state brutality. One that has been dug up by local residents in the vicinity of the city of Hilla, 100 km south of Baghdad, may have up to 3,000 bodies. Another near the eastern city of Amara is believed to have been the final resting place of 300 victims of the deposed Iraqi regime.

Unearthing the brutalities of the Baath regime has so far been an initiative of the Iraqi people. In the south of the country, where British forces are in occupation, efforts have begun to protect some of the sites. But U.S. forces, which are stationed in much of the rest of Iraq, have not received any specific directive on safeguarding forensic evidence for future trials.

Many of the graves are believed to hold the victims of the failed 1991 uprising, immediately after the first U.S.-led war on Iraq. Others, though a much smaller number, could be from as recently as 1999, when the assassination of a prominent Shia cleric caused a minor uprising in the Basra region.

Reuters recently obtained chilling video footage detailing the execution of three Iraqis convicted of a Baghdad bombing that killed three children in 1985. Wired with explosives, the men are serially blown up against a barren desert landscape after the warrants of execution are read out to them. As with many of its greatest atrocities, the Iraqi regime preserved the visual evidence of its rather unique technique of capital punishment. Obviously, the intent was to create the maximum possible shock and horror, to deter those who would step out of line and to induce those who had to come back in compliance.

Similar video documentation exists of a 1979 meeting where Saddam Hussein launched a sequence of bloody purges of the Baath party high command. It begins with a senior functionary's staged confession of complicity in a Syrian conspiracy, and ends with Saddam Hussein inviting an obviously terrified gathering to join the firing squad to execute the plotters.

More germane to the origins of the mass graves is another video recording of which many copies reportedly still exist. It shows Saddam Hussein's cousin and one-time Interior Minister, Ali Hasan al-Majid, directing a military operation against insurgents in the south of the country in March 1991. His instructions to a helicopter pilot setting off on a mission to recapture a bridge are explicit: "Don't come back until you are able to tell me you have burnt them; and if you haven't burnt them, don't come back." Prisoners are shown bound and lying on the ground, as their captors loudly exchange remarks about how a few random executions could have the salutary effect of persuading the survivors to part with information.

The 1991 uprising was sparked off by the anger and frustration of soldiers returning from the disaster of the Kuwait occupation. It was fanned ablaze by long-running resentments among the Shia community over their exclusion from centres of power. And it was premised upon the assurance of U.S. sustenance that the first President George Bush had tacitly held out. Well before formally ordering a ceasefire in the Gulf, Bush had urged the Iraqi people to take "matters into their own hands" and force Saddam Hussein to step aside. Their reward, said the U.S. President, would be an Iraq that could "rejoin the family of nations". The actual uprising, which began shortly after the ceasefire, caught the U.S. completely off-guard. Andrew and Patrick Cockburn (Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein, Harper-Collins, 1999) argue that the U.S. was expecting a frictionless change of regime in Baghdad, with somebody from the higher echelons of the military command disposing of Saddam Hussein. It simply had no wish to see the Iraqi people joining in the enterprise. And as the insurgency raged across 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces, the U.S. effectively disowned it.

Shortly after the first shots were fired in the Shia insurrection, Majid al-Khoei, son of the grand Ayatollah of Najaf, set off on a hazardous journey to link up with U.S. forces occupying large parts of southern Iraq. He was rather brusquely told to contact the French forces, who were encamped a considerable distance away. The job of locating and establishing contact with the French took another two days, but the effort seemed worthwhile from the more responsive attitude that al-Khoei encountered. Contact was made and a meeting scheduled with the overall commander of Western forces, General Norman Schwarzkopf. Al-Khoei and his group then waited three days and more, only to be finally told that the meeting with Schwarzkopf was off. With remnant forces of the Iraqi regime now counterattacking in force, the uprising was doomed from that moment on.

Said K. Aburish (Saddam Hussein: The Politics of Revenge, Granta, 2000) records that the U.S. attitude - far from being neutral - "amounted to malevolent interference without use of arms". U.S. warplanes provided air cover to Iraqi attack helicopters deployed to crush the rebellion. Western forces provided safe passage to Iraqi armed divisions being rushed to insurrectionary sites. Rebel forces were stopped from seizing armouries and re-supplying themselves. And U.S. forces in the south dug trenches across strategic locations to impede the advance of the insurgents.

By mid-March, it was officially admitted in the U.S. that the rebellion in the south was taking a massive toll of life. But the White House spokesperson disavowed any sense of "guilt" over the U.S. failure to assist the rebels. By the end of March, the central authority of the Iraqi regime had been re-established across the country. Curiously, the U.S. then moved its forces into the north, ostensibly to protect the Kurds. The Shias in the south, who had been the main force behind the uprising, were left to their own devices, condemned as surrogates of the Islamic clergy in neighbouring Iran. Rewriting the rules framed by the U.N., Bush then declared that the sanctions against Iraq would continue as long as Saddam Hussein remained in power. To the guilt of association with the crushing of the Shia uprising, the U.S. now prepared to add its direct culpability in the holocaust of Iraqi civilians, which was to claim a million lives over the next 12 years.

What the people of Iraq need now is not victors' justice, but an honest and transparent accounting for all the brutalities they have suffered over the last 12 years. This would include the sanctions - surely the most repugnant form of collective punishment ever witnessed in modern times - and the promiscuous violence of the 1991 and 2003 military campaigns.

In excavating the brutalities of the past, Iraq could well uncover many of the horrors inflicted upon it by the U.S. too. Mass graves could well be found where the victims of the Mittlah Ridge massacre have been buried. This, the last major engagement of the 1991 war, had seen Iraqi forces in tumultuous retreat being trapped in a relentless hail of artillery and aerial bombing, in total violation of all conventions of warfare. Over 20,000 people are believed to have died in this horrific attack, which the Soviet Union had then condemned as an instance of "modern-day barbarism".

Anthony Swofford, a former corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps was with the initial expeditionary forces in Kuwait in 1991. In a graphic account of the horrors he was witness to (Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War, Scriber, 2003), he records the scene of destruction: "The scene is too real not to be real. Every fifty or one hundred feet a burnt-out and bombed-out enemy vehicle lies disabled on the unimproved surface road, bodies dead in the vehicles or blown from them. Dozens, hundreds, of vehicles, with bodies inside or out."

With a wealth of eyewitness testimony and documentation, the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has shown (The New Yorker, May 15, 2000) that the U.S. Army's 24th division launched an unprovoked and devastating attack on a retreating Iraqi convoy - part military and part civilian - two days after the ceasefire. The assault ordered by divisional commander Major-General Barry McCaffrey - who was later to earn four stars and join the Clinton administration as drugs enforcement chief - was "one of the biggest and most one-sided" of the war. It involved U.S. tanks, attack helicopters and artillery and was effectively a mass killing stretched over five hours. The dead were buried soon afterwards in the Rumaila oilfields area. That seemingly is another mass grave waiting its exhumation and a full accounting of all the crimes that have been perpetrated on the Iraqi people since 1991.

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