Sunday, January 4, 2004

Many eager to testify to Saddam's evil



The Associated Press

BAGHDAD, Iraq - A ship's captain dipped into nitric acid wants to offer his wrecked body as evidence of Saddam Hussein's crimes. A janitor wants to tell the world how the dictator ordered her husband killed and her son tortured.

A new tribunal created to try top former Iraqi officials doesn't have custody of Saddam. It doesn't have courtrooms, judges or prosecutors either. Things like charges and witness lists remain months away.

But already, thousands of Iraqis who suffered under Saddam's bloody rule are lining up for a chance to testify against the man who to them personifies the evil of a regime that destroyed its people.

Iraqis like Abdul-Wahid al-Obeidi, 63. A merchant marine captain, he was arrested in 1971 for doling out religious and political advice aboard his ship. He was dipped in nitric acid and left for dead, and his family was persecuted in the decades after his miraculous survival.

Iraqis like Nuria Bash Agha Yassin, 47. A janitor at a home for the elderly, she still mourns her husband 20 years after his execution, and cares for the son he left in her womb, who hasn't been well since three months of electric shocks in an Iraqi torture chamber.

They and thousands more see their trauma as an entitlement: to confront the man in their nightmares, and then to watch him suffer.

Al-Obeidi says the victims are many. "Their nails were pulled out. Their ears were cut off," he told The Associated Press. "We will show him the evidence of our bodies. We will tell Saddam Hussein: 'Aren't these things evidence enough of your crimes?"'

---

Al-Obeidi graduated in 1957 from Baghdad's military college with the rank of captain, his allegiance split between the country he loved and the God he served.

By the end of the 1960s he had a good job at the helm of a ship leaving Iraq's southern ports loaded with oil and returning with manufactured goods for a country that was rapidly modernizing under its new Baath Party leadership.

One of his proudest achievements was the construction of a small mosque aboard his ship. When crew members came to pray, they often asked their captain for religious advice, which he happily gave, reveling in the role of spiritual leader.

One day, a sailor asked him if God would approve of the purges of political opponents being carried out by Saddam's Baath Party. Al-Obeidi told the man he didn't think God would. That comment later found its way into a secret police report.

In June 1971, al-Obeidi sailed into the port of Umm Qasr to find police waiting for him. They blindfolded him and took him to Baghdad's Qasr al-Nihaye - Palace of the End. For more than a year, he was beaten and given electric shocks.

"They would hang me from a ceiling fan by my legs," he said, dangling a string of prayer beads to illustrate. "They'd beat me with cables. When they were finished, they'd turn the fan on and leave me spinning."

Finally, in September 1972, the torturers took al-Obeidi to what was known as the death room.

"They told me, 'It's over. You're going to die,"' he said.

But he said they took pity on him. When they lowered him into a bathtub filled with nitric acid, they immersed only his back.

"They put me in for less than a second, then pulled me out," he says. "I felt my flesh melting. I was unconscious for three days."

When he woke up, he saw his tearful family gathered around him. He later learned that prison officials, believing he would soon die, sent him home so they wouldn't have to dispose of the body.

Al-Obeidi faced a long recovery. His back and upper arms were destroyed. A former bodybuilder, he had wasted away to nothing. He sold a plot of land to travel to Westminster Hospital in London, where doctors performed 13 skin grafts to replace the dead flesh.

Meanwhile, the government that had failed to kill him did what it could to make his life miserable. He was fired from his job, denied his pension for 12 years of service and forbidden from working for the government. He found odd jobs loading and unloading trucks, and a local mosque gave him a monthly pension of 5,000 dinars - $3.

His children were kicked out of school, and police burst into his home regularly to search for political writings. A security agent moved in next door to keep an eye on him. He was frequently summoned for questioning.

"For 30 years we lived with fear inside of us," he said. "But we had conviction that God would punish Saddam."

Al-Obeidi watched with joy as TV stations broadcast images of Saddam in captivity, his mouth being probed by a U.S. soldier. The very next day, he went to an organization of former prisoners to let them know he wanted to take the stand.

"If there is a sentence worse than the death penalty, Saddam should face it," he said. "When he goes to the hereafter, God will punish him. If he killed 1 million people, he will be killed 1 million times. That will be God's punishment."

---

Yassin, the widow, has met Saddam before.

It was 1983, a few months after her husband had been arrested for membership in the Communist Party. She knew nothing of his fate, but requested an audience with the president because she needed to feed her three daughters and her newborn son.

"I told him, 'I have children and I have no support,"' Yassin said. "He said, 'Your husband was executed. You're young. You can work.' He called an officer and told him to take me away."

The work Yassin was given consisted of cleaning a home for the elderly in the Baghdad slum then known as Saddam City. She was paid 3,500 dinars - $2 - a month.

The director let her stay in a one-room ramshackle building nearby in exchange for keeping an eye on the public well in the yard. After a few years, the water was declared undrinkable and the well was closed, but Yassin was allowed to stay.

She raised her family as best she could, marrying off two of her daughters. Her son, Khaled Khawan, graduated from high school and got a job as a prison guard, but after two months the government realized his father had been a communist, and fired him.

Khawan cursed Saddam for his predicament, and was overheard. In November 2002, he was hauled into jail where he received three months of electric shocks to his hands, neck and ears before being transferred to a prison. He was released in April by American soldiers, but his mother said he isn't the same.

"He has a nervous disorder now," Yassin said. "When he remembers how they hung him from the ceiling he starts shouting and goes into convulsions."

And so he has become another mouth to feed, huddled with his two sisters in his mother's one-room shack, jagged pieces of linoleum carpeting the bare cement floor.

After Saddam's fall, Yassin found her husband's remains in a cemetery outside Baghdad. She doesn't have money to rebury him, so she put up a cardboard sign with his name.

Yassin begins to cry at the thought of the trial, saying she would testify not because of her suffering, or even her husband's, but because of her son's.

"I raised him with my tears. I gave him everything. I raised him so he would protect his sisters," she said. "Why did they torture him? Why did they destroy him?"

Testifying at the trial, she said, would be "just like talking to God."

"Saddam saw our suffering and tortured us anyway," she said. "I need him to suffer just like he made our children suffer. I want him to see what we saw."




GOOD THINGS HAPPENING
Local Red Cross gets some relief

TOP LOCAL HEADLINES
Memories get razed as 'McMansions' rise
Scientist to help build the case against Saddam
Many eager to testify to Saddam's evil
Freeze to follow balmy weekend
At 30, library in its prime
E-check set for speedier testing
Twitty counsels: 'Wait and see'
Groom needs good excuse to miss today's bridal show
1 dead, dozen hurt in collision
Police handing out locks for guns
Ex-con questioned in I-270 shootings
Minstrels mingle with sprites at cathedral
Rumpke workers fear for safety
First homicide victim of 2004 identified
TO OUR READERS: What do you think of our changes?

EDUCATION HEADLINES
Head Start expansion proposal criticized

NEIGHBORS HEADLINES
Mayor ends 20-year tenure
Family of five adds four more for holidays
Parks director says Miami bike path traces history
Fairfield-based troops bid families adieu

LIVES REMEMBERED
James Nolan, 75, dedicated life to peace
David Nordyke, 51, leader of charter school