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Some Iraqis Justify Saddam's Crimes, Polls Show - 2003-12-30


Iraqi legal experts are preparing to try Saddam Hussein for crimes against humanity, although it is still not clear when and where the ousted Iraqi leader will face trial. Human rights groups say his regime executed at least 300,000 people in a quarter of a century. A recent opinion poll showed that most Iraqis believe his policies were criminal, but a minority continue to believe they were justified.

Scores of photocopied flyers adorn the outside walls of a two-story house in Baghdad's Kadhimiya neighborhood. Each bears a name and a photograph, and each represents someone executed by Saddam's regime.

One flyer pleads, in English, Where is my brother? Another marks the memory of a young girl, just nine when she was killed. Another bears the portrait of a man in a military uniform, with a neatly trimmed beard. He was arrested and executed more than 10 years ago.

This is the home of the Iraqi Committee of Free Prisoners, a group dedicated to the rights and memories of those imprisoned by Saddam Hussein's regime. The group maintains a massive database of prison records, including the names of 300,000 people who were executed in Saddam's prisons.

Inside the cavernous front room of the house, a 30-something year-old man sitting at a small desk pounds on a computer keyboard.

An elderly woman arrives at the desk, covered from head to toe in the black robe called an abaya. She gives the man a name, which he types into the computer. Then she gives him another name. And another.

The woman does not want to give her name, but agrees to talk about why she is here.

She says she came here looking for seven relatives who disappeared during Saddam's regime, including her brother and her son. She says her son was taken in 1991 during the Shi'ite uprising.

She says she just found out from the man at the computer that her brother was executed after his arrest in 1980. She says she raised her brother from the time he was six months old. Her voice breaks, and she is overcome with emotion. She turns away, weeping, and will not speak again.

Haidar Al-Wardi of the Free Prisoners Committee, says roughly 250 people come to the office every day, searching for their lost relatives. He says they have a list of 300,000 names of people who were executed under Saddam, but the actual numbers of victims may be much higher.

An unknown number of files were stolen or destroyed by fleeing Baath party officials, and others were destroyed when government offices were bombed during the war, or looted after the regime fell.

In the days after the fall of Saddam's regime, the prisoners' group, run by a Shi'ite sheik, realized that Baath party loyalists were trying to destroy or remove thousands of government records. So members of the committee went in and grabbed all the prison records they could find.

Despite questions over whether the data should be turned back over to the government at some point, the Coalition Provisional Authority has now given them a couple of computers. They are in the process of entering all the data, to make it easier for people to search for their missing loved ones.

A recent survey conducted in eight Iraqi cities found that an overwhelming majority felt that Saddam had committed serious crimes against humanity. For example, 81 percent of Iraqis surveyed said burying people in mass graves was a crime. Eighty-seven percent felt that the gassing of Iraqi citizens was a crime.

But anywhere from 13-19 percent of those surveyed believe that Saddam's actions were justified.

As far as Iman Toon is concerned, Saddam was just protecting his country. She says that in the northern city of Halabja, where Saddam killed about 5,000 Kurds with chemical weapons, it was only because they conspired against him. She says they were letting Iranians into the country to fight against the Iraqi army so he had to gas them.

Although she swears she is no supporter of Saddam, she says he had to bury victims of the Iran-Iraq war somewhere, so he did it in mass graves. She says Saddam had to suppress the Shi'ite uprising of 1991 because it threatened his hold on the country.

For her, Saddam's actions are just a fact of life, not a question of right or wrong.

She asks, if your president felt he and his people were facing some kind of danger, what would he do? She says, he would execute someone. In fact, Ms. Toon thinks that is exactly why U.S. troops are in Iraq.

But back at the Free Prisoners Committee headquarters, the families of the executed do not share Ms. Toon's sympathy for Saddam Hussein. All they want to know is what happened to their loved ones.

Abbas Al-Maali has come looking for three of his brothers, who were arrested by Saddam's regime in the 1980s and never returned home. He has learned the fate of only one of them. He says one brother was arrested in 1982, and then executed. They brought his body to the family in 1983. Another brother was taken in 1984, and the third in 1988.

He says he still has no idea what happened to those two brothers. He has not seen their bodies and their names are not in the prisoners' committee database.

As for the brother who was executed, Mr. Al-Maali says he, too, was accused of belonging to an illegal organization. Mr. Al-Maali says he himself was a military officer at the time, and he received a letter telling him to resign because his younger brother was involved with the Dawa Party, an Islamist group that was banned under Saddam. Mr. Al-Maali says he does not know what his brother's politics were. He was just a 21-year-old college student when he was arrested.

Sitting behind the computer, Mr. Al-Wardi of the Free Prisoners Committee says the records show that Saddam's regime made many arbitrary decisions, and many mistakes. He says for example, the group found the files of two Christian women who were executed for belonging to banned political parties. One was accused of being a communist, the other a member of the Dawa Party. He exclaims, she was a Christian! The Dawa Party is Islamist!

Hundreds of thousands of families are finding out now what happened to their loved ones, but many more may never know.