Travels September 2003

Bad Debt

Settling accounts in the vacuum of postwar Iraq

"Before they came, they sent a bulldozer to dig a big hole," explained Said Jabir al-Husseini, a fifty-one-year-old farmer who owned the land just next to the land where he was standing—leaning, really, on a wooden walking stick. "After that they brought people blindfolded and hands tied behind their backs."

Al-Husseini could not have been more obliging, but everything about him was dark: his coffee-ground eyes, his cracked-clay face, his gray-dusted black beard, the black netted jacket that lay over his black dishdashah, and, darkest of all, the memory on his mind. In 1991, as the Shiites of southern Iraq rose up against the regime of Saddam Hussein and were brutally put down again, al-Husseini witnessed the digging and the filling of a mass grave here at al-Mahaweel, a little more than an hour's drive south of Baghdad, in the Babel region.

About a week before I arrived, in late May, the grave had been discovered. Now it was a scene of bustling desperation. A stream of Shiites came in hopes of finding long-missing loved ones among the dunes of skulls and bones. Local volunteers were digging up the remains, placing them in plastic bags, and lining the bags up in rows. Now and then the anguish would boil over, as someone finally found a relative—or didn't. U.S. Marines were on hand, strictly, they emphasized, to support the Iraqi effort.

Every day since the digging began, al-Husseini had come here and brought lunch for the workers. Twelve years earlier, from March 7 to April 6 of 1991, he and his father and several of his five brothers had spent every day hiding among some trees and watching as a steady flow of victims arrived by pickup truck and school bus, in groups of approximately 130 to 150. Like other witnesses to this and similar massacres, al-Husseini described a hyper, hurry-it-up quality to the killing. Asked why this was, he cited the powerful, if dubious, rumor that everyone else cited: the regime compensated the killers at a rate of 3,000 dinars (about $9,000 at the time) per victim.

When they went home each night, al-Husseini said, he and his family talked about what they should do, and came to the conclusion that, for survival's sake, they should do nothing. "I kept my mouth shut for twelve years," he told me.

Understandable though this silence was, not everyone understood it. As we talked, people came up to al-Husseini periodically and hit him with a spitball of angry Arabic, scolding him for not coming forward sooner, before their relatives' bodies had been reduced to bone.

Such anger, however, was not in the same universe of rage as that expressed at the man whom these people held most responsible—apart from Saddam Hussein—for what had occurred here: Sheikh Muhammad Jawad al-Naifus, whom U.S. forces had taken into custody in late April and, according to a Marine colonel at the site, were holding on suspicion of mass murder. The sheikh, a few conversations made clear, was viewed as Saddam's eyes, ears, and fist in this area. Now he was also widely viewed as a man who should hang.

Significantly, one person who held this view was a long-bearded, thickly robed old man whose bearing managed somehow to telegraph sorrow, fury, and prestige. He was a member of the Hawza, the Najaf-based Shiite religious body that—emboldened by the fall of the regime—was exerting increasing influence over Iraqi life, influence that was spilling forth from mosques and into hospitals, schools, and police stations. He was at the grave to ensure the proper Islamic redisposal of the victims' bodies. He also favored the proper Islamic disposal of the sheikh's case: swift, sure, and in a Hawza court.

It was not generally agreed at the mass grave that Sheikh al-Naifus should be tried by an Islamic court, but it was emphatically insisted that he and people like him should be tried by an Iraqi court, before the Iraqi public. People clearly feared that such criminals might be subjected to unduly soft American or, worse yet, non-Iraqi Arab justice, and would ultimately be spared or spirited away. But the U.S. military was quick to assuage such fears. Although it had been U.S. forces that arrested al-Naifus, along with two of his sons and two of his grandsons, at his mansion in the nearby village of Balwan, the Marines at the gravesite gave the strong impression that this had been done largely to keep him safe and available until such time as the appropriate Iraqi court could be established.

The question of safety, at least, was real. While al-Naifus was in custody at the police station in the nearby city of al-Hillah, the capital of the Babel region, a local mob gathered to demand his immediate execution. Some Marines later told me, a little derisively, that Iskandar Jawad Witwit, the newly installed, U.S.-approved governor of Babel, had publicly called for his hanging on the spot—which Witwit, a dapper but perpetually harried official, made no attempt to deny when I met with him later at his office in al-Hillah. During the same visit I spoke with the Babel police chief, who had on his shirtsleeve a patch from the Philadelphia Police Department, recently given to him by a well-wishing officer from the City of Brotherly Love. "Al-Naifus is not like a regular criminal," the chief said. "I think he is not a human being."

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Tish Durkin is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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