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http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2003/06/01/MN203466.DTL Gory revelations stun Iraqis Hussein clique kept news of its crimes from most citizens Anna Badkhen, Chronicle Staff Writer Sunday, June 1, 2003 ---------------------------------------------------------------------------- ---- Baghdad -- Like so many Iraqis these days, Chedha al Awsi feels betrayed and confused. On a computer screen before her, poorly recorded footage shows half a dozen laughing soldiers of Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard as they beat and kick civilian men kneeling on the ground, their hands bound behind their backs. There is a glitch in the recording, then the screen shows soldiers tying dynamite to the chests of their prisoners and blowing them up, one by one. Pieces of human flesh and bone fly in all directions. Al Awsi jolts in her seat, her face distorted by a grimace of pain. For much of the rest of the world, the gruesome crimes of Hussein's rule are familiar, if tragic, knowledge. But for al Awsi and for millions of her fellow citizens, they are shocking news. "You just suddenly realize that you didn't know what was happening. I feel deceived," said al Awsi, a 31-year-old office manager at a private trading company, her eyes glued to the computer screen. After Hussein's Baath Party seized power in 1968, it executed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and destined many more to the hell of Hussein's torture chambers. But criticizing the president and his party was a crime punishable by death. The combination of Hussein's brutal security police and his totalitarian propaganda machine sufficiently silenced any dissent from reaching ordinary people. "It's very important now that people come to grips with Iraqi history, with their own history," said Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch, the New York- based advocacy group. "It is true that a lot of Iraqis believed the propaganda of this government. It's easy to deny the past. To build false local histories of what happened." While they had a vague idea about Hussein's despotism and quietly hated his rule for its authoritarian repression, many people were unaware of the scale of his atrocities -- especially if, as in al Awsi's case, none of their relatives were victimized. "Halabja?" said al Awsi's friend, Thanaa al Taee, 34, an arts critic and a ceramics teacher who is now completing her fourth master's degree. Al Taee struggled to remember what she has heard about the notorious site of a 1988 chemical attack on the Iraqi Kurds, which killed about 5,000 people. When she finally replies, there is a note of uncertainty in her voice. "I've heard of it, but I'm not sure," she said. "I think -- did Saddam kill some people there?" GRUESOME INFORMATION When the Baath Party rule collapsed in Iraq six weeks ago, the magnitude of Hussein's crimes came crashing down in an avalanche of gruesome information. In a sign of the changing times, street vendors sell for $3 apiece bootleg CD-ROMs featuring video recordings of Hussein's executions of his political opponents and relatives fallen from grace. Iraqi television -- only sporadically available because of the irregular electricity supply -- broadcasts reports from mass graves that are being exhumed across the country's fertile marshes, rolling mountains and arid deserts. Newspapers that have sprung up since the fall of Hussein's regime print daily accounts of past atrocities. "The dictator had an ugly voice to conceal the truth. You have been fooled by his media and by his slogans. Wake up and see his crimes," read an opinion piece in Wednesday's Al Adala newspaper. "It is a very big shock. People will suffer from this shock for a very long time," said Mazin Ramadhani, professor of political science at Baghdad's al Nahrein University. The revelations are bound to continue. Volunteers have dug up crumbling remains of about 10,000 people in mass graves across southern Iraq, said Bouckaert, of Human Rights Watch. "On an average day we see six or seven mass graves. New ones," said Bouckaert, who has been working in Iraq for more than a month. Because of lack of record-keeping, it is difficult to estimate the number of victims who have been exhumed, he noted. Most of the bones belong to men, women and children executed in Hussein's effort to crush a Shiite Muslim rebellion in 1991. Bouckaert estimates that about 290,000 people have disappeared in Iraq throughout Hussein's rule. "There has to be accurate documentation so that our grandchildren, Iraqi grandchildren, can read about what happened," Bouckaert said. FILES PILED HIGH At the crowded office of the Committee for Free Prisoners, an Iraqi grassroots organization that is trying to collect information about the victims of Hussein's political repression, files documenting thousands of lives are piled high on the tiled floors and desks. Dozens of men pore over archives of the feared Mukhabarat security police, many of them marked "top secret." Surrounded by a crowd of men and women, a volunteer stands on a desk, reading out names from small pieces of paper he's holding in his hand. One woman, a college professor looking for records of her brother, who disappeared in 1991, is on her way out the door. Suddenly she leans against a wall, her back to the world, her forehead resting on her forearm, and begins to weep silently. "It is difficult, maybe impossible for some people to understand the scale of the atrocities. Some people knew nothing about it," said Ibrahim al Idrisi, the founder of the committee. "It's our job to show people just how bad the regime was. The most important thing in Iraq right now is to inform the people here how we really lived in those three decades." But the information is often distorted, exaggerated or simply too overwhelming to comprehend. For example, the Committee for Free Prisoners claims it has execution records of 8 million Iraqis -- an incredible number for a country with a total population of about 22 million. Najim Aboud, a guard at the al Mohsin Mosque, where Hussein's security police slaughtered hundreds of worshipers during a Friday prayer service, in an effort to thwart a Shiite uprising in 1999, says he knows for a fact that Hussein liked to hang two men every Wednesday. And al Awsi has heard a theory, which she admits she somewhat believes, that Hussein was an agent of the CIA -- "because why would a true Iraqi want to kill his own people?" Looking out at the arches and domes of Baghdad's exquisite skyline from the rooftop of Qasr al Musannat, the 12th century palace of Abbasid Caliph Al Nasir Lidin Illah, al Awsi struggled to make sense of it all. In her head, she is trying to piece together her own version of the recent history of Iraq, the long-suffering country she loves so much. "There are so many blank spots," she said, listening to sporadic bursts of gunfire on the other side of the Tigris River. "I don't know so much of what happened." E-mail Anna Badkhen at email@example.com. Page A - 1 _______________________________________________ Sent via the discussion list of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq. To unsubscribe, visit http://lists.casi.org.uk/mailman/listinfo/casi-discuss To contact the list manager, email firstname.lastname@example.org All postings are archived on CASI's website: http://www.casi.org.uk