Just Following (Saddam Hussein’s) Orders

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Ibrahim al-Marashi
New York Times
March 25, 2003

Americans were understandably appalled by the televised images of dead and captured United States soldiers filmed by their Iraqi interrogators. But nobody should have been surprised. Documents taken in Iraq after the first Persian Gulf war showed the extent to which Saddam Hussein hoped to have his soldiers and even civilians exploit prisoners of war, particularly downed pilots.

The documents were found on battlefields and in government offices in southern Iraq and Kuwait during the war, and are now held by the Iraq Research and Documentation Project at Harvard. Many were issued by Saddam Hussein himself, and they provide a window into his thinking that is just as relevant today as it was in 1991.

For example, an Iraqi order issued on Jan. 27, 1991, 10 days after the air war began, said that “officers will be promoted if they capture an enemy and retrieve important information.” Obviously, forced interrogation of uniformed prisoners is a breach of the Geneva Conventions. Still, it’s clear that career advancement trumped the international rules of combat. Capt. Richard Dale Storr, an Air Force pilot shot down and captured six days after that order was issued, said he was questioned under illegal conditions. Suffering from a broken nose, a punctured eardrum and a dislocated shoulder, he was handcuffed and forced to lie on a cement floor. When his answers were deemed unsatisfactory, he was shocked with an electric prod.

Such interrogations were considered so important to the regime that a living American had twice the value in hard currency of a dead one. On Jan. 20, 1991, the Iraqi Air Force Command issued a monetary prize for Iraqi soldiers who shot down allied pilots. The bounty, said to come from the pockets of Saddam Hussein himself, worked out as follows: “The president leader has ordered that the following financial rewards be distributed: 30,000 dinars for taking down an enemy aircraft; 10,000 dinars for a live enemy pilot; and 5,000 dinars for a dead enemy pilot.”

There was even a breakdown for how the reward would be distributed to a missile or antiaircraft brigade that took down an enemy aircraft. The combat unit responsible for hitting the target would share 50 percent of the reward, the remaining members of the battery would receive 35 percent, and the brigade command would take the remaining 15 percent.

After watching TV images of people in Baghdad hunting supposedly downed coalition pilots in the Tigris River this weekend, many Americans concluded that allied forces were not going to receive much help from sympathetic Iraqis. This should not have come as a surprise. On the eve of his invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, Saddam Hussein issued this decree: “Sheltering foreigners for the purpose of hiding them from the authorities will be considered a crime of espionage. Any person who commits the above described crime will be executed. Effective immediately.”

As for the fate of the wounded, on Feb. 13 Saddam Hussein gave this order regarding a seriously wounded American pilot in a hospital in southern Iraq: “Concerning the wounded prisoner in al-Qaim hospital, he must be transferred to Baghdad immediately. Please implement these orders as fast as you can.” There is only one reason for rushing an injured prisoner to Baghdad so that the security services can interrogate him.

This raises the question of the journalists missing in Iraq and reported to have been injured if they are in Iraqi hands, will they too soon be “transferred” to Baghdad? After all, during the first gulf war Saddam Hussein sent this order to all military units: “there will be no existence of any foreigners in our country now especially for Westerners and imposters. A diplomat or media person should be arrested and given to the nearest security center.”

The Iraqi regime’s lack of concern for prisoners and civilians was echoed by its indifference to allied troops who died in combat. A command from Saddam Hussein on Feb. 9, 1991, ordered that “enemy casualties are to be buried with numerical codes placed on their graves, while the real names of those who will be damned in the next life are to be written down in special notebooks.” Fortunately allied casualties were so slim that Saddam Hussein’s plan most likely never went into effect.

Many other files including the Iraqi records of the pilots’ interrogations remain in the vast vaults of Iraq’s intelligence headquarters in Baghdad. It is imperative that when the city falls, the American military get its hands on them before they can be destroyed. The regime’s paper trail could be vital in effectively remaking Iraq; it might also help us better understand the way in which a brutal totalitarian state functions.

Although the content of the files found in 1991 may not surprise anyone, it is curious that their existence is so little known. One reason, perhaps, is the press’s tendency to cover controversy rather than substance. An article I wrote based on the files for The Middle East Review of International Affairs was used without attribution in a report by the British government last month. Although I wish that I had been given proper credit, what saddened me most was that the information in the study was obscured by the frenzy surrounding its origins. What’s more, journalists went on to dismiss Mr. Blair (and, in effect, my work) because the report was based on documents captured in 1991 as though that somehow made it out of date.

After encountering the brutal images beamed to us from Baghdad, it is clear that the information is as relevant as ever. In Iraq, lamentably, nothing has changed.

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