Humiliated and impotent, every Iraqi is a hostage now

The US authorities cannot let Dr Germ go - she knows too much

Jonathan Steele
Friday September 24 2004
The Guardian

They sit in their solitary cells all day, uncharged with any crime. No
family member, no friend, no lawyer may visit. Their freedom depends
on a callous game of Pentagon roulette. Word filters out that they are
about to be released. Then word follows that - alas - it will take a
bit more time.

These are America's Iraqi hostages, whose captivity in a high-security
camp at Baghdad airport has already lasted for over a year. The two
women scientists whose fate has been spotlighted this week belong to a
larger group of Iraqi prisoners who should not have been held so long.

Their cases cannot be compared to that of the British engineer,
Kenneth Bigley, or the other foreigners kidnapped by fundamentalist
groups. The circumstances are different. The motivations are
different. Their treatment is different. 

Public humiliation by video, repeated threats of imminent death, and
filmed beheadings are bestial. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the presumed
perpetrator of this cruelty, claims to be acting in the name of the
Iraqi resistance. In fact, he is a parasite on the occupation, seeking
its cover to advance the goal of an extreme theocratic state, which
few Iraqis share. 

Thanks to Zarqawi and various small groups of local Islamists whom he
has managed to inspire, all non-Arabs in Iraq have become potential
targets. No distinction is made between those who take jobs with the
occupa tion, and journalists, UN employees and aid workers, who are
neutral or, in many cases, severe critics of US and British policy. 

In Gaza and the West Bank, for all the chaos and confusion of
authority caused by 37 years of Israeli occupation, Palestinian
leaders and Palestinian society remain far-sighted, civic-minded, and
secular enough to keep out these kinds of Islamist soldiers of
fortune. Al-Qaida and its followers are unknown in Palestine. Foreign
aid workers and western journalists have never been kidnapped. They
are more likely to be killed by the Israeli army than by gunmen on the
Palestinian side. 

In Iraq the picture is darker. It is one more sign of the massive
social and economic destabilisation caused by the invasion and its
bungled aftermath that al-Qaida has found a foothold there which it
has not done in Palestine. Foreign journalists who used to rent houses
in Baghdad have had to retreat to better-guarded hotels. Many media
organisations have reduced their teams to one reporter, and even they
rarely risk leaving Baghdad. Their Iraqi interpreters and drivers are
under threat. The country may become a no-go area for news. 

In the mayhem of kidnappings, suicide bombs, and US air attacks, the
continuing detention of a dozen Iraqi scientists may seem trivial.
Thousands of other Iraqis have been arrested on suspicion of being
part of the anti-American insurgency. Most   are eventually let go,
some after beating and torture. Only a few have been taken to court
and convicted. 

But the holding of Iraqi scientists, whom the Americans call
high-value detainees, is significant because they, more than any other
group, seem to be hostages. Taken initially into custody because it
was thought they could shed light on those elusive weapons of mass
destruction, it is clear they had little new to say. There were no
WMD, as they always insisted. 

Dr Rihab Rashid Taha, called Dr Germ by UN weapons inspectors, was an
expert in biological warfare, who consistently told them before the
war that all stocks had been destroyed years earlier. Why has she not
been let go? She has not been charged with any crime, and even if she
were, could she not be freed on bail? Is it that the US authorities
don't want her talking to the press about the biological specimens she
received from American companies in the 1980s when Saddam Hussein was
Washington's friend? Are they worried she might produce the receipts
she has said she holds? 

What of Dr Amer al-Saadi, the rocket scientist who   briefly became
the government's link man with the inspectors in 2002? He, too,
repeatedly told them Iraq's WMD were dismantled long ago. He was the
first senior Iraqi to surrender voluntarily to the US authorities in
April last year, expecting to be held for brief interrogation and then
let go. 

Yesterday his brother, Radwan, told me he was assured last month that
Amer's release had been authorised and only a few bureaucratic
procedures remained. It seems he was part of the same joint
Iraqi-American review process which apparently gave the green light to
releasing the women scientists weeks before Kenneth Bigley's
kidnappers focused on them. 

Why the delay? Did Donald Rumsfeld or George Bush's election advisers
get cold feet, fearing the impact of interviews that would once again
highlight the fraud behind the invasion? Was the Iraqi government in
favour of the release, as its justice minister suggested, but
over-ruled by the Americans and denied the sovereignty it is claimed
to enjoy? 

What of Saddam Hussein himself? Has he, too, become a pawn in Bush's
bid to retain power? Few doubt that - unlike the scientists - he is a
war criminal, although technically he remains innocent until
convicted. When, and if, an Iraqi court with judges chosen
independently by Iraqis puts him on trial, not many tears will flow.

The issue is the timing. It was only thanks to the International
Committee of the Red Cross that the former dictator appeared in court
at all. On the eve of the formal transfer of sovereignty in June, it
declared that as a prisoner of war he must be released, if he had not
been charged. The Americans hurried to comply. 

After his brief but powerful defiance from the dock they said his
trial would take months to prepare. His lieutenants would be tried
first in the hope they would give evidence against him. Saddam would
not go back to court until 2005, if then. 

Suddenly we hear his trial may take place next month. This will be the
famous "October surprise". Bush will use the spotlight on Saddam as a
way of trying to justify the war on Iraq and put John Kerry on the
defensive. In this cynical scheme of things, America's best-known
prisoner becomes a hostage of Bush's election bid. 

Small wonder that Iraqis feel humiliated and impotent. They are
trapped between different sets of foreigners. On one side they face
the barbarity of outside Islamists, who use Iraq as the latest and
most convenient terrain for jihad against America. On the other, they
see the stubbornness of Bush and the arrogance of Blair, who refuse to
admit that their adventure was wrong, has become a disaster, and needs
to be ended. Every Iraqi is a hostage now. 
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