[Marxism] Jon Lee Anderson on the Iraq resistance

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Nov 8 13:09:40 MST 2004


(Despite the anti-Communist tilt of the concluding chapters, Jon Lee 
Anderson biography of Che Guevara is excellent. Nowadays he is the New 
Yorker magazine's Iraq correspondent.)


OUT ON THE STREET
by JON LEE ANDERSON
The United States’ de-Baathification program fuelled the insurgency. Is 
it too late for Bush to change course?
New Yorker Magazine, Issue of 2004-11-15

(clip)

In the weeks before and after the American invasion, I spent a good deal 
of time with a senior Baathist, an official in the Foreign Ministry 
named Samir Khairi, whom I had met through a mutual friend. Khairi, a 
tall, jovial man in his early fifties, had droopy brown eyes and a great 
beak of a nose that was underscored by a clipped handlebar mustache. He 
spoke French and English, drank Scotch, and laughed a lot, with a loud 
honk. Unlike most Iraqi officials I interviewed, he showed no anger at 
the prospect of an American invasion. Khairi invited me to dinner at his 
home, a brown stucco house in the upscale neighborhood of Mansour. The 
house was a congenial mess, with piles of papers and clothes everywhere.

Khairi told me that he had become a Baathist in 1973, when he was a 
student at Baghdad University. Opportunism aside, the Party offered a 
nationalist ideology that appealed to him. The Baath Party—baath means 
“renaissance” in Arabic—was founded in Syria, in 1947, as a political 
vehicle to promote Pan-Arabism. In the fifties, Syrian exiles and Iraqi 
students brought Baathism to Iraq, which was then ruled by a military 
government. The Baathists came to power in 1963, in a coup that was 
followed by a bloodbath during which Baathists arrested, tortured, and 
killed their rivals. In 1968, in another coup, Saddam Hussein’s wing of 
the Baath Party took control of the country, and in 1979 Saddam declared 
himself President.

In 1981, Khairi, who was finishing a Ph.D. in law and had begun editing 
a Baathist newspaper, was summoned to meet Saddam’s half brother Barzan 
al-Tikriti. Barzan was then the head of the Mukhabarat, the Iraqi secret 
police. He proposed that Khairi become the editor-in-chief of an 
Arabic-language magazine based in Paris, and, Khairi said, assured him 
that he would not be required to do intelligence work, although his 
magazine, Kul al-Arab (All the Arabs), would be funded by the Mukhabarat.

When Khairi speaks of his Paris years—as he often does, with great 
nostalgia—he refers to himself as having been a journalist. But, of 
course, his magazine was principally a propaganda arm of Saddam’s 
regime. His tenure coincided with the Iran-Iraq War, which Saddam 
launched in 1980. This was the period during which Saddam actually did 
possess weapons of mass destruction, and used them against the Iranians 
on the battlefield and then in the genocidal Anfal campaign against his 
own country’s Kurdish citizens. Khairi told me that Barzan was 
personally involved in the torture and execution of hundreds of 
Iraqis—crimes for which he is soon to stand trial.

After the first Gulf War began, in 1991, the French authorities closed 
Kul al-Arab, arrested Khairi as a spy, and deported him. (Khairi insists 
that the charges were false.) When he returned to Baghdad, he continued 
working for the Mukhabarat, in its Presidential Research Institute. 
Eventually, he became estranged from Barzan and, in 1999, was briefly 
imprisoned. He stayed at the research institute until late 2002, when he 
became the press director of the Foreign Ministry. He said that he was 
relieved to be free of intelligence work and that, before the war, he 
had hoped to be given an ambassadorship.

One day when I was at Khairi’s house, we watched a news bulletin that 
contained footage of a mass grave being uncovered in south-central Iraq. 
I asked Khairi why he hadn’t fled the country, as so many other Iraqis 
had done, instead of continuing to work for Saddam. “Oh, I had no 
choice,” he said. “I was afraid for my family. If I were to go, they’d 
have hurt them. And if I stayed here and didn’t do my work they could 
kill me anytime. They killed many people.”

I asked him how many people he thought Saddam had killed. Half a million?

“Oh no, not so many,” he replied. “Around one hundred thousand, maybe 
one hundred and twenty thousand, for sure.” He said this 
matter-of-factly, with no indication that he felt tainted by the crimes 
of the regime. (Khairi’s numbers were off: a likelier figure is around 
two hundred and fifty thousand, and estimates range much higher.)

Khairi told me he believed that the ideals of Baathism had been betrayed 
under Saddam Hussein, that the Party had been taken over, and that 
Saddam’s family held the only real power. But Khairi was part of 
Saddam’s apparatus and, by his own admission, was proud of the work he 
did. He once told me, “I did good work in strategic planning for the 
President, and he liked it—three times, after reading my papers, he sent 
me a half-million dinars as a present.”

This kind of dissociative thinking—and a certain remorselessness—was, in 
my experience, common among Baathists, and especially among Sunnis like 
Khairi. Most echoed Saddam’s justifications that the victims, who were 
primarily Kurds and Shiites, had betrayed the fatherland by siding with 
Iran, were thieves and looters, were not real Muslims, and had committed 
a host of other supposed crimes.

I visited Khairi frequently that spring. There were always several other 
guests in the house—all of them men, who would come to eat, watch Al 
Jazeera and CNN, and talk about the news. Khairi had been allowed to 
have a satellite dish, a privilege reserved for senior Baathists, and he 
was a generous host. His friends would complain about the looting, or 
about former exiles like Chalabi, but over all they were optimistic 
about the future. Most of them were, like Khairi, Baathist functionaries 
or former military officers, and they all seemed to have accepted 
Saddam’s fall from power as a fait accompli. Most appeared to believe 
that they would be receiving a summons from the C.P.A. to return to 
their jobs any day.

After Bremer’s decrees, however, Khairi’s optimism vanished. When I 
visited him, I often found him sitting around the house in the middle of 
the day, flipping the channels on his TV. He had been told that he was 
not going to get his job back, or receive a pension, and he was despondent.

In July, 2003, Khairi was arrested by American soldiers. The house in 
Mansour was trashed and looted; when I arrived, even the doors to the 
garage were gone. No one seemed to know where he was being held, and 
although I made inquiries with Coalition officials, I couldn’t find out 
anything, either.

Almost a year later, I heard that Khairi had been released and was in 
Amman, Jordan. I arranged to meet him there at a hotel. When he walked 
in, I was shocked by his appearance. He was well dressed, with carefully 
pressed trousers, but his face was much thinner and his eyes had dark 
rings around them.

On the night of July 19, 2003, Khairi said, American soldiers kicked in 
the front door to his house, dragged him out to the street in his 
pajamas, and threw him to the ground as his neighbors watched. When he 
asked a soldier why he was being arrested, the soldier bashed him 
several times with his rifle. He was left with four broken ribs.

Khairi was held in an Army detention center without food and with little 
water for twenty-four hours. He was then taken, with some other 
prisoners, to a facility in Kadhimiya, the former headquarters of 
Saddam’s military-intelligence service. “We were put in a cell with no 
toilet,” Khairi said. “We had to use the floor, like dogs.”

Khairi was interrogated by a female American soldier who had papers that 
had been taken from his house, including a copy of an article I had 
written for this magazine, in which Khairi was quoted expressing his 
loyalty to the Baath Party. Khairi told her about the soldier hitting 
him and asked to see a doctor. “She said, ‘Really,’” Khairi said, 
lifting his eyebrows in an imitation of a skeptical expression. A few 
hours later, Khairi was taken to a detention facility at the Baghdad 
airport, a large open-air camp with tents surrounded by razor wire. He 
fell asleep on the ground around 4 a.m. “I was in very bad shape,” he 
recalled. “I was very dirty. We’d had no water to clean ourselves.”

In the morning, the other prisoners in his tent elected Khairi to 
represent them in a meeting with the Red Cross, since he spoke French 
and English, but during the meeting he fainted. When he came to, he was 
taken to a medical tent, where a doctor immediately put an I.V. in each 
arm and began to feed him. Khairi repeated this story to me several 
times, emphasizing how caring the doctor had been.

A few days later, Khairi was interrogated again. “This was my most 
important interrogation, and it lasted about three hours.” He said that 
an American in civilian clothes told him, “If you don’t speak the truth, 
I will kill you.” Khairi went on, “He asked if when I was in Paris I had 
had any relations with Al Qaeda.”

At this point, Khairi laughed. “Can you imagine, Al Qaeda! I reminded 
him that I had returned from Paris in 1991, when there was no Al Qaeda. 
He didn’t like that, and said, ‘O.K., then, if not Al Qaeda, did you 
have relations with any other terrorist groups? Did Saddam Hussein ask 
you to meet or give money to any other groups?’ I asked him, ‘Which 
terror groups do you mean?’ And he became angry and repeated that I 
should answer his questions or he’d kill me.”

Khairi was then taken to a detention center in Bukka, in the desert 
south of Basra. Five days after he arrived, he had a heart attack. He 
was treated at a hospital in Basra, then returned to Bukka. There, after 
being held for several days in a tent, Khairi was interrogated by 
another officer. “For the first time, I was with somebody who was very 
clever. When he heard that I had been mistreated when I was arrested, he 
wanted to know the name of the unit that was responsible, and told me I 
had the right to press charges. I asked him if there was any evidence 
against me. He said no.”

At the end of August, Khairi’s wife was allowed to visit. She told him 
that his father had died after hearing of his arrest. That afternoon, 
Khairi had a second heart attack. He stayed at Bukka for two months and 
then, on November 4th, he was sent to Abu Ghraib.

When Khairi and other prisoners arrived at Abu Ghraib, he said, “the 
guards took everything we had brought with us from Bukka—all of our 
clothes, everything. They left us in our pajamas. An American soldier—a 
big fat guy—took the reading glasses my wife had brought to me and 
stomped on them. The translator said to us, ‘This is not Bukka. That was 
a five-star hotel. This is Abu Ghraib.’ They took my medicines. It was 
cold, and we slept in a tent, on the ground.”

Khairi’s heart problems became worse, and he was medevaced out of the 
camp twice. Khairi said that although many of the Americans he had met 
at the clinics where he was treated had been kind, some military 
policemen with German shepherds would barge in and allow their dogs to 
terrorize the patients. (It was only later that he learned about the 
torture and sexual humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.) Once, he had 
seen a hooded, half-naked prisoner being herded by American soldiers 
into a wooden trailer, and leave some time later, hobbling as if in 
great pain. But, he said, “I don’t know what they did to him.”

Khairi was bewildered by the demeaning treatment of Iraqi prisoners. 
“The young men in my tents told me they were just waiting for the day 
they would get out so they could fight,” he said. “In the early days at 
Bukka, the Shia prisoners were not too much against the Americans, but 
after a few months even they changed their minds. I’d say that about 
ninety-five per cent of the Shia I met were talking about taking revenge.”

Almost every day, there were mortar attacks, Khairi recalled. “We 
noticed that they only attacked the American positions inside the 
prison, not where the prisoners were. The Iraqis were very happy when 
the attacks occurred. Some of them yelled, ‘Allahu Akbar!’ and said, 
‘This is God’s punishment to the Americans for their ill-treatment of 
us.’ Once the attacks became more frequent, they began hooding us 
whenever we went anywhere because the prisoners were telling their 
visiting relatives the Americans’ positions.”

full: http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/?041115fa_fact

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