Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

New Column: Aftermath of a Hanging

This week's column is about the end of Saddam, and the gaggle of commentators who took issue with the circumstances: Aftermath of a Hanging.

I argue that the detractors have swooped down to a new low, and that they would have found other reasons to decry the execution even if had been pulled off perfectly: "Why wasn’t the execution chamber heated to 72 degrees? Was the rope too itchy? Did you get they skimp out on the rope? Why didn’t they play soothing music? Maybe they should have hired a string quartet? Did Saddam get a final meal? Did he get a bag of Doritos, his favorite snack, right before the end?"

In this column, I discuss a cartoon by Tom Toles that I had written about in the early days of Talisman Gate.

Also today, the New York Times has finally realized that Saddam was an evil totalitarian nightmare--but only after he admitted it himself on tape. John Burns has a front-page story about Saddam's tapes where he discusses using chemical weapons against Iraqi civilians and casually estimates that it will kill thousands and destroy the environment. The tone of Mr. Burns' piece seemed to be one of surprise; it seems that it took Saddam himself to spell it out in order for the journalist and his editors to believe it. Because all the footage, the witness accounts, the documents and the damage that still remains did not add up to a case, afterall, these were Iraqi voices and, as we all know, Iraqis don't matter. Saddam, on the other hand, was and continues to be a compelling story.

[Full text of the NYT piece is posted in the comments section]


Blogger Nibras Kazimi نبراس الكاظمي said...

January 9, 2007

Hussein’s Voice Speaks in Court in Praise of Chemical Atrocities


BAGHDAD, Jan. 8 — The courtroom he dominated for 15 months seemed much smaller on Monday without him there to mock the judges and assert his menacing place in history.

But the thick, high-register voice of Saddam Hussein was unmistakable. In audio recordings made years ago and played 10 days after his hanging, Mr. Hussein was heard justifying the use of chemical weapons against the Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s, predicting they would kill “thousands” and saying he alone among Iraq’s leaders had the authority to order chemical attacks.

In the history of prosecutions against some of the last century’s grimmest men, there can rarely have been a moment that so starkly caught a despot’s unpitying nature.

On one recording, Mr. Hussein presses the merits of chemical weapons on Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, his vice-president, and now, the Americans believe, the fugitive leader of the Sunni insurgency that has tied down thousands of American troops. Mr. Douri, a notorious hard-liner, asks whether chemical attacks will be effective against civilian populations, and suggests that they might stir an international outcry.

“Yes, they’re very effective if people don’t wear masks,” Mr. Hussein replies.

“You mean they will kill thousands?” Mr. Douri asks.

“Yes, they will kill thousands,” Mr. Hussein says.

Before he was hanged Dec. 30 for offenses in another case, Mr. Hussein had used the so-called Anfal trial, involving the massacre of as many as 180,000 Iraqi Kurds, as a platform for arguing that the chemical weapons attacks of the kind that devastated the town of Halabja on March 16, 1988, were carried out by Iranian forces then fighting Iraq in an eight-year war.

But the recordings told another story. Court officials gave no hint as to how they obtained the recordings, which Iraqis familiar with Mr. Hussein’s voice said seemed to be authentic. But they appeared to have been made during meetings of his Revolutionary Command Council and of the Baath Party High Command, two groups that acted as rubber stamps for his decisions. Mr. Hussein regularly ordered meetings to be recorded, according to Iraqis who knew the inner workings of Mr. Hussein’s dictatorship.

Mr. Hussein sounds matter of fact as he describes what chemical weapons will do. “They will prevent people eating and drinking the local water, and they won’t be able to sleep in their beds,” he says. “They will force people to leave their homes and make them uninhabitable until they have been decontaminated.”

As for the concern about international reaction, he assures Mr. Douri that only he will order the attacks. “I don’t know if you know this, Comrade Izzat, but chemical weapons are not used unless I personally give the orders,” he says.

When Iraq resumed the genocide trial of its former leaders on Monday, Mr. Hussein’s high-backed, black vinyl seat at the front of the dock was left ominously empty. Something about the six remaining defendants, including Ali Hassan al-Majid, Mr. Hussein’s cousin, who was known among Iraqis as Chemical Ali for his role in overseeing the attacks on the Kurds, suggested that they felt orphaned without the commanding presence of Mr. Hussein.

Gone were the cries of “Mr. President!” as Mr. Hussein entered the court to join them in the dock, and gone, too, was the emboldened posture they took from Mr. Hussein, with frequent challenges and insults to witnesses, prosecutors and judges. Perhaps Mr. Hussein’s hanging, and the humiliating taunts he endured from witnesses and guards as he stood with the noose around his neck, had broken the last illusions among those surviving him that they could somehow evade a similar end.

When the chief judge, Muhammad Ureibi al-Khalifa, began the proceedings by abruptly cutting the microphone as Mr. Majid stood to intone a prayer in memory of Mr. Hussein, the former dictator seemed to be judicially, as well as existentially, dead. But the anticlimactic beginning swiftly gave way to the most astonishing day of testimony since Mr. Hussein and his associates went on trial. Once more, it was Mr. Hussein, this time in an involuntary orgy of self-incrimination, who dominated.

In the sequence of scratchy recordings — some with the dialogue quite clear, some barely decipherable — Mr. Hussein repeatedly showed the ready resort to brutality that seized Iraq with fear during his 24 years in power. At one point, he is heard telling a general to summarily execute field commanders who fail to adequately prepare their defenses against Kurdish guerrilla raids.

He cites as a precedent “some commanders who abandoned their positions when they found themselves in an awkward situation, who deserved to have their necks cut, and did.” At another point, he tells subordinates to execute any internal security officials who fail to stop Iraqi soldiers sneaking home from the Iranian front on fake passes.

“If you arrest any of them, cut off their heads,” he says. “Show no mercy. They only joined the security to avoid having to join the army and fight Iran.”

One recording revealed, more clearly than anything before, Mr. Hussein’s personal involvement in covering up Iraq’s attempts to acquire unconventional weapons, the program that ultimately led to President Bush sending American troops to overthrow him. Talking to the general who led Iraq’s dealings with United Nations weapons inspectors until weeks before the 2003 invasion, he counseled caution in the figures being divulged on the extent of Iraq’s raw supplies for chemical weapons, so as to disguise the use of unaccounted-for chemicals in the attacks on the Kurds.

But it was Mr. Hussein’s chilling discussion of the power of chemical weapons against civilians that brought prosecutors and judges to the verge of tears, and seemed to shock the remaining defendants. One of the recordings featured an unidentified military officer telling Mr. Hussein that a plan was under development for having Soviet-built aircraft carry containers, packed with up to 50 napalm bombs each, which would be rolled out of the cargo deck and dropped on Kurdish towns.

“Yes, in areas where you have concentrated populations, that would be useful,” Mr. Hussein replies.

Another recording involves a General Thabit, who was not further identified by the prosecutors, telling Mr. Hussein that his forces had used chemical weapons in the northern sector of Kurdistan, but that “our supplies of the weapons were low, and we didn’t make good use of the ones we had.” The general notes that Iraq’s production of mustard gas and sarin, a nerve gas, was “very low,” and says they should be used sparingly. “We’re keeping what we have for the future,” he says.

Before they recovered enough to begin pleading their innocence, Mr. Hussein’s erstwhile companions in the dock buried their heads in their hands, gazed at the floor, and glanced furtively toward TV cameras transmitting live coverage of the trial. Mr. Majid shifted uneasily in his seat as one recording had him telling officials to warn Kurdish refugees that they would be attacked with chemical weapons if they attempted to return to their villages.

The prosecutor, Munkith al-Faroun, came to court as almost the only person who attended Mr. Hussein’s execution on Dec. 30 to emerge with an unsullied reputation. It was he, as he and others confirmed, who attempted to halt the taunts hurled at Mr. Hussein as he stood with the noose around his neck, moments before the trapdoor opened. Over the hubbub, an illicit camera phone recording showed Mr. Faroun calling out for silence, “Please, no!” he said. “The man is about to be executed.”

But back in the courtroom, Mr. Faroun became, again, the man holding Mr. Hussein to account and, in one poignant moment, counseling restraint among those who have expressed outrage over the manner of the former ruler’s execution. That moment came after the court watched television images taken after the Halabja attack, which more than any other event focused world attention on the atrocities committed under Mr. Hussein.

The video showed the horrors: a father wailing in grief as he found his children lying along a street littered with bodies; dead mothers clutching gas-choked infants to their breasts in swaddling clothes; young sisters embracing each other in death; and trucks piled high with civilian bodies. “I ask the whole world to look at these images, especially those who are crying right now,” Mr. Faroun said, referring to the outpouring of sympathy for Mr. Hussein.

The recordings played at Monday’s trial session, seemingly eliminating any doubt about Mr. Hussein’s role in the attacks on the Kurds, may go a long way to answering criticism of the government for executing him before he was judged for the worst of his crimes.

American justice department lawyers, who have done much of the behind-the-scenes work in sifting tons of documents and other evidence gathered after the invasion of 2003, had never hinted that they held the trump card, judicially and historically, that the audio recordings seem likely to be.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

1:00 PM, January 09, 2007


Post a Comment

<< Home