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Who is setting the fires in Baghdad?

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Robert Fisk, reporting from the heart of Baghdad, continues to provide details and analysis largely missing from the rah-rah mainstream media.

In the latest report, he asks some intriguing questions. For example,

    Why, Iraqis are asking, did the United States allow the entire Iraqi cabinet to escape? And they’re right. Not just the Beast of Baghdad and his two sons, Qusay and Uday, but the Vice-President, Taha Yassin Ramadan, the Deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, Saddam’s personal adviser, Dr A K Hashimi, the ministers of defence, health, the economy, trade, even Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, the Minister of Information who, long ago, in the days before journalists cosied up to him, was the official who read out the list of executed “brothers” in the purge that followed Saddam’s revolution – relatives of prisoners would dose themselves on valium before each Sahaf appearance.

    Here’s what Baghdadis are noticing – and what Iraqis are noticing in all the main cities of the country. Take the vast security apparatus with which Saddam surrounded himself, the torture chambers and the huge bureaucracy that was its foundation. President Bush promised that America was campaigning for human rights in Iraq, that the guilty, the war criminals, would be brought to trial. The 60 secret police headquarters in Baghdad are empty, even the three-square-mile compound headquarters of the Iraqi Intelligence Service.

    I have been to many of them. But there is no evidence even that a single British or US forensic officer has visited the sites to sift the wealth of documents lying there or talk to the ex-prisoners returning to their former places of torment. Is this idleness. Or is this wilful?

If Fisk’s observations are accurate, it is puzzling. But I suppose it would be in line with the Bush Administration’s general attitude toward global justice. Bush is opposed to the International Criminal Court, so perhaps his Administration simply plans to hold its own secret “trials” of those it determines are enemies. If this is the case, evidence would hardly be needed.

Fisk asks another question: Who is working with the Marines? The same police who tortured and oppressed the Iraqi people?

    Take the Qasimiyeh security station beside the river Tigris. It’s a pleasant villa – once owned by an Iranian-born Iraqi who was deported to Iran in the 1980s. There’s a little lawn and a shrubbery and at first you don’t notice the three big hooks in the ceiling of each room or the fact that big sheets of red paper, decorated with footballers, have been pasted over the windows to conceal the rooms from outsiders. But across the floors, in the garden, on the roof, are the files of this place of suffering. They show, for example, that the head of the torture centre was Hashem al-Tikrit, that his deputy was called Rashid al-Nababy.

    Mohammed Aish Jassem, an ex-prisoner, showed me how he was suspended from the ceiling by Captain Amar al-Isawi, who believed Jassem was a member of the religious Dawa party. “They put my hands behind my back like this and tied them and then pulled me into the air by my tied wrists,” he told me. “They used a little generator to lift me up, right up to the ceiling, then they’d release the rope in the hope of breaking my shoulder when I fell.”

    The hooks in the ceiling are just in front of Captain Isawi’s desk. I understood what this meant. There wasn’t a separate torture chamber and office for documentation. The torture chamber was the office. While the man or woman shrieked in agony above him, Captain Isawi would sign papers, take telephone calls and – given the contents of his bin – smoke many cigarettes while he waited for the information he sought from his prisoners.

    Were they monsters, these men? Yes. Are they sought by the Americans? No. Are they now working for the Americans? Yes, quite possibly – indeed some of them may well be in the long line of ex-security thugs who queue every morning outside the Palestine Hotel in the hope of being re-hired by the US Marines’ Civil Affairs Unit.

    The names of the guards at the Qasimiyeh torture centre in Baghdad are in papers lying on the floor. They were Ahmed Hassan Alawi, Akil Shaheed, Noaman Abbas and Moham-med Fayad. But the Americans haven’t bothered to find this out. So Messrs Alawi, Shaheed, Abbas and Fayad are welcome to apply to work for them.

    There are prisoner identification papers on the desks and in the cupboards. What happened to Wahid Mohamed, Majid Taha, Saddam Ali or Lazim Hmoud?A lady in a black chador approached the old torture centre. Four of her brothers had been taken there and, later, when she went to ask what happened, she was told all four had been executed. She was ordered to leave. She never saw or buried their bodies. Ex-prisoners told me that there is a mass grave in the Khedeer desert, but no one – least of all Baghdad’s new occupiers – are interested in finding it.

    And the men who suffered under Saddam? What did they have to say? “We committed no sin,” one of them said to me, a 40-year-old whose prison duties had included the cleaning of the hangman’s trap of blood and faeces after each execution. “We are not guilty of anything. Why did they do this to us?

    “America, yes, it got rid of Saddam. But Iraq belongs to us. Our oil belongs to us. We will keep our nationality. It will stay Iraq. The Americans must go.”

Obviously American officials such as Rumsfeld have been quite enthusiastic in working with Saddam and his regime in the past.

Are they simply working with the regime once again, minus Saddam?

    At the end of the Second World War, German-speaking British and US intelligence officers hoovered up every document in the thousands of Gestapo and Abwehr bureaux across western Germany. The Russians did the same in their zone. In Iraq, however, the British and Americans have simply ignored the evidence.

    There’s an even more terrible place for the Americans to visit in Baghdad – the headquarters of the whole intelligence apparatus, a massive grey-painted block that was bombed by the US and a series of villas and office buildings that are stashed with files, papers and card indexes. It was here that Saddam’s special political prisoners were brought for vicious interrogation – electricity being an essential part of this – and it was here that Farzad Bazoft, the Observer correspondent, was brought for questioning before his dispatch to the hangman.

    It’s also graced with delicately shaded laneways, a creche – for the families of the torturers – and a school in which one pupil had written an essay in English on (suitably perhaps) Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. There’s also a miniature hospital and a road named “Freedom Street” and flowerbeds and bougainvillea. It’s the creepiest place in all of Iraq.

    I met – extraordinarily – an Iraqi nuclear scientist walking around the compound, a colleague of the former head of Iraqi nuclear physics, Dr Sharistani. “This is the last place I ever wanted to see and I will never return to it,” he said to me. “This was the place of greatest evil in all the world.”

    The top security men in Saddam’s regime were busy in the last hours, shredding millions of documents. I found a great pile of black plastic rubbish bags at the back of one villa, each stuffed with the shreds of thousands of papers. Shouldn’t they be taken to Washington or London and reconstituted to learn their secrets?

    Even the unshredded files contain a wealth of information. But again, the Americans have not bothered – or do not want – to search through these papers. If they did, they would find the names of dozens of senior intelligence men, many of them identified in congratulatory letters they insisted on sending each other every time they were promoted. Where now, for example, is Colonel Abdulaziz Saadi, Captain Abdulsalam Salawi, Captain Saad Ahmed al-Ayash, Colonel Saad Mohammed, Captain Majid Ahmed and scores of others? We may never know. Or perhaps we are not supposed to know.

    Iraqis are right to ask why the Americans don’t search for this information, just as they are right to demand to know why the entire Saddam cabinet – every man jack of them – got away. The capture by the Americans of Saddam’s half-brother and the ageing Palestinian gunman Abu Abbas, whose last violent act was 18 years ago, is pathetic compensation for this.

The biggest mystery seems to be why the ministries are all being set on fire. Fisk doesn’t speculate on who might be behind it. But he does observe that it seems to be an organized operation, and that the arson is separate from the looting. Why would an organized team of men specifically go to all the ministries–minus the Ministry of Oil and Ministry of the Interior–and burn them down? Who would finance this operation? What do they have to gain?

    Then there’s the fires that have consumed every one of the city’s ministries – save, of course, for the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Oil – as well as UN offices, embassies and shopping malls. I have counted a total of 35 ministries now gutted by fire and the number goes on rising.

    Yesterday I found myself at the Ministry of Oil, assiduously guarded by US troops, some of whom were holding clothes over their mouths because of the clouds of smoke swirling down on them from the neighbouring Ministry of Agricultural Irrigation. Hard to believe, isn’t it, that they were unaware that someone was setting fire to the next building?

    Then I spotted another fire, three kilometres away. I drove to the scene to find flames curling out of all the windows of the Ministry of Higher Education’s Department of Computer Science. And right next to it, perched on a wall, was a US Marine, who said he was guarding a neighbouring hospital and didn’t know who had lit the next door fire because “you can’t look everywhere at once”.

    Now I’m sure the marine was not being facetious or dishonest – should the Americans not believe this story, he was Corporal Ted Nyholm of the 3rd Regiment, 4th Marines and, yes, I called his fiancée, Jessica, in the States for him to pass on his love – but something is terribly wrong when US soldiers are ordered simply to watch vast ministries being burnt by mobs and do nothing about it.

    Because there is also something dangerous – and deeply disturbing – about the crowds setting light to the buildings of Baghdad, including the great libraries and state archives. For they are not looters. The looters come first. The arsonists turn up later, often in blue-and-white buses. I followed one after its passengers had set the Ministry of Trade on fire and it sped out of town.

    The official US line on all this is that the looting is revenge – an explanation that is growing very thin – and that the fires are started by “remnants of Saddam’s regime”, the same “criminal elements”, no doubt, who feature in the marines’ curfew orders. But people in Baghdad don’t believe Saddam’s former supporters are starting these fires. And neither do I.

    The looters make money from their rampages but the arsonists have to be paid. The passengers in those buses are clearly being directed to their targets. If Saddam had pre-paid them, they wouldn’t start the fires. The moment he disappeared, they would have pocketed the money and forgotten the whole project.

    So who are they, this army of arsonists? I recognised one the other day, a middle-aged, unshaven man in a red T-shirt, and the second time he saw me he pointed a Kalashnikov at me. What was he frightened of? Who was he working for? In whose interest is it to destroy the entire physical infrastructure of the state, with its cultural heritage? Why didn’t the Americans stop this?

    As I said, something is going terribly wrong in Baghdad and something is going on which demands that serious questions be asked of the United States government. Why, for example, did Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defence, claim last week that there was no widespread looting or destruction in Baghdad? His statement was a lie. But why did he make it?

    The Americans say they don’t have enough troops to control the fires. This is also untrue. If they don’t, what are the hundreds of soldiers deployed in the gardens of the old Iran-Iraq war memorial doing all day? Or the hundreds camped in the rose gardens of the President Palace?

    So the people of Baghdad are asking who is behind the destruction of their cultural heritage: the looting of the archaeological treasures from the national museum; the burning of the entire Ottoman, Royal and State archives; the Koranic library; and the vast infrastructure of the nation we claim we are going to create for them.

    Why, they ask, do they still have no electricity and no water? In whose interest is it for Iraq to be deconstructed, divided, burnt, de-historied, destroyed? Why are they issued with orders for a curfew by their so-called liberators?

    And it’s not just the people of Baghdad, but the Shias of the city of Najaf and of Nasiriyah – where 20,000 protested at America’s first attempt to put together a puppet government on Wednesday – who are asking these questions. Now there is looting in Mosul where thousands reportedly set fire to the pro-American governor’s car after he promised US help in restoring electricity.

    It’s easy for a reporter to predict doom, especially after a brutal war that lacked all international legitimacy. But catastrophe usually waits for optimists in the Middle East, especially for false optimists who invade oil-rich nations with ideological excuses and high-flown moral claims and accusations, such as weapons of mass destruction, which are still unproved. So I’ll make an awful prediction. That America’s war of “liberation” is over. Iraq’s war of liberation from the Americans is about to begin. In other words, the real and frightening story starts now.

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About Brian Flemming

  • SlackMFer

    wow, you really care about the poor suffering iraqi’s…now that it fits with your anti-bush agenda. before, when it wasn’t against bush to give a shit about the iraqi’s, left-wingers just said “fuck ’em.”

  • san

    I think concern for the Iraqis has always been a big part of us “left-wingers'” argument against this war.


  • SlackMFer

    US out of iraq, huh? if you care so much about them why would you want us to abandon them to certain misfortune? do you think it wouldn’t be disastrous to just leave now? some new dictator would just take over (if not saddam himself) and the country would be back where it was.