|Filed October 24, 2002 By Jeremy Scahill
BAGHDAD▄There's no doubt about it-the small-scale protests
that broke out in front of Iraq's Ministry of Information earlier
this week were extraordinary. No one here can recall a moment when
any group of people for any reason staged a spontaneous demonstration
here in Baghdad. Last week, the very idea of a demonstration that
could be construed even remotely as having an anti-government tone
would have sent shudders through almost any Iraqi asked the question
"what if÷" It still does.
|On October 20th the gates of Abu Ghraib
prison opened and everyone filed out. Photo by Nathan Mauger.
Last Sunday's announcement by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that
he was granting a complete and immediate amnesty
for nearly all the country's prisoners, brought stunned jubilation
into the homes of thousands of citizens. Celebrations stretched
for days in some neighborhoods. But for other Iraqis, the announcement
brought pain and ultimately spurred them to gather in front of the
Information Ministry to ask the whereabouts of their loved ones.
An unknown number of prisoners were not released last Sunday. Officially,
those accused of spying for Israel or the United States (a sweeping
designation) were not covered under the amnesty, nor were those
people convicted of murder who had not reconciled with the families
of their victims. Unofficially, it seems clear that there were other
prisoners who simply did not come home. There is only speculation
here as to the reasons why. Some people say that certain Shi'ite
and communist political prisoners were not released and are still
being held. Others say they fear that other unaccounted for prisoners
had been executed. There is no way of confirming any of this.
What is clear is that several dozen people were willing to brave
what many here believed would be severe consequences for engaging
in an "unauthorized" demonstration. But the mothers, fathers and
siblings of some unaccounted for prisoners knew what they were doing
when they selected the location for their demonstration. The Information
Ministry also houses the "Press Center" which is still relatively
packed with foreign journalists.
They also were smart on another front. There were no anti-government
banners or leaflets and the people sustained long sessions of chanting
their loyalty to Saddam. "Yes, Yes to the Leader Saddam" and "Our
Blood, our souls, we'll give for you Saddam." Also, "Down, down
USA, down, down Israel." Some say this was all people knew how to
chant; others said it was a strategy to make clear it was not anti-government
protest. One Iraqi man smiled and said, "What else could they have
But one must remember that for these people who gathered in front
of the Information Ministry, desperation looms over them. They have
watched thousands of families rejoice in the return of their loved
ones while theirs are nowhere to be seen. It also must be stated
that this demonstration was not some plot clandestinely launched
in the homes of some underground dissidents. It grew out of a gathering
of several hundred people inquiring about their loved ones whereabouts
in front of another government building.
The government responded in a remarkably calm manner in dispersing
people in front of the Information Ministry. Yes, police and "minders"
ran around frantically. But largely people were simply told that
they should leave-"now." Foreign journalists were ultimately told
they could not take pictures and hurried back inside the building.
But it was hardly the "iron-fisted" tanks-in-the-street response
one might expect from Saddam after listening to only 5 minutes of
a White House press briefing.
It must be said, however, that there is no way of confirming that
there will be no consequences for the people who demonstrated (many
media outlets handed over copies of their videotapes from that day
to the government). But there is also no way of confirming that
there will be consequences. Interestingly, Babil-the newspaper owned
by Saddam's son Uday-ran an article today on the protest, saying
that officials from the Information Ministry told the families that
their messages would be relayed to the president.
|Outside the prison gates at Abu Ghraib,
thousands of people danced and sang, mainly songs of praise
to Saddam Hussein. Many people had looks of total disbelief
on their faces, clearly shocked at the scene. Cars stopped in
the middle of the highway in front of the prison, as many simply
abandoned their vehicles to join the crowd. Photo by Nathan
What is extraordinary about the last week here in Iraq is that Saddam
Hussein, released almost every prisoner in the country. Not just a
few hundred for the cameras, not just shoplifters and purse-snatchers.
He released almost every prisoner. Regardless of the motive or reason,
it was incredible, unprecedented. Only Cuba at the time of the 1980
Mariel boatlift comes even close, and that was a remote second. Remember,
this is THE Saddam we're talking about.
Incredibly, New York Times correspondent John Burns reported "Many
prisoners thanked President Bush for their liberty, seeing it as the
government's response to Mr. Bush's description of Mr. Hussein as
a murdering tyrant."
Many prisoners thanked Bush? Is he kidding? "Many" implies that thousands
must have been rushing up to Burns (on the day of their "liberation"
back into "Saddam's Iraq") to make sure that The Times relayed their
message back to the Oval Office (which is currently threatening to
destroy Iraq). Even if Burns had managed to hunt down that handful
of Iraqis who do have affection for the US president, none of them
would have been stupid enough on that day, when they had just hit
"freedom," to come out swinging at Saddam and praising Bush to an
American reporter. And "many" is a flat-out fairytale.
Then there is the issue of the salivating journalists, eager to show
that "the regime" is teetering on the brink.
The Boston Globe reported, "Diplomats suggested that the protest represented
a potential fissure in the government's iron grip." The paper quotes
an unnamed "western diplomat" as saying the protest indicated a "lack
of discipline, losing grip, losing control."
At the end of the day, the "demonstrations" by a few dozen people
out-scooped the incredible story of Saddam s having just virtually
emptied the country's prisons.
The press coverage of these small "protests" in Baghdad of families
of the unaccounted for prisoners is probably one of the most extensive
pieces of reportage ever done on families of the "disappeared." Where
are these stories for the 1,300 Serbs still missing in Kosovo? Every
day the families protest in Belgrade. Or the countless families in
Central and South America, whose loved ones disappeared in murderous
rampages by US-trained and supported security forces and paramilitary
death squads? Or the countless Timorese "disappeared" by the US-backed
regime in Jakarta? Or the families of prisoners now held in INS "detention"
in the US and Guantanamo? If only this media blitzkrieg was applied
when it does not directly pander to George W. Bush's agenda.
Scahill is an independent journalist, who reports for the nationally
syndicated Radio and TV show Democracy Now! He is currently based
in Baghdad, Iraq, where he and filmmaker Jacquie
Soohen are coordinating Iraqjournal.org,
the only website providing regular independent reporting from the
ground in Baghdad.
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