This excellent report we stole from the New York Times exposes the cracks in Saddam’s evil regime. We acknowledge NYT copyright and publish in the interests of open dissemination of important information.

By JOHN F. BURNS

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Oct. 22: President Saddam Hussein’s decision on Sunday to
open the gates of his prisons and let tens of thousands of political
prisoners and common criminals go free has afforded ordinary Iraqis a rare
glimpse into the gulag that has maintained his power for 23 years, and
prompted small but remarkable protests by some who lost relatives into the
grim embrace of the state security police years ago.

The protests over the last two days are the most visible sign of a new and
potentially seismic trend: A willingness among ordinary people to speak up –
if only in relatively small numbers, briefly, and to the accompaniment of
strident praise for Mr. Hussein – for rights obliterated by him in his 23
years as Iraq’s absolute ruler.

Iraqis said they knew of no previous occasion, in Baghdad, when people had
taken to the streets to march on a government building, and then had
persisted in protests even after secret police fired automatic rifles into
the air, as they did today.

Some who attended a protest at a secret police headquarters on the outskirts
of Baghdad on Monday said there were at least 700 people taking part who for
some time defied orders that they disperse.

“Where is my son? I demand to know where is my son!” one middle-aged woman
in a black cloak cried, as she huddled with a group of women at the head of
150 protesters who staged a noisy rally today outside the Ministry of
Information beside the Tigris River in central Baghdad.

Similar cries went up from other women desperate to know what had become of
long-lost husbands and sons and brothers, in some cases sisters and
daughters, who disappeared into the vast network of prisons and detention
centers as long as 20 years ago. The details that stuttered out as the women
told their tales were like episodes from the nightmares of Soviet Russia:
Men and women, and even teenage children, picked up by anonymous enforcers,
usually in unmarked cars, and never heard from again. As officials pushed
reporters back, ordered security guards to fire warning shots into the air,
and pleaded with the women to still their cries, the women’s accounts of
their wrenching doorstep partings, and of the dates – 1980, 1987, 1991,
1992, 1997, 1999 – rang out like the tolling of a sexton’s bell.

Iraqis who attended the protest on Monday at the secret police headquarters
said most in the crowd seemed resigned to the grim inevitability that their
relatives were dead. Those Iraqis said they had been told by some protesters
of rumors heard years ago that their relatives had been shot or hanged on
the day they disappeared. Still, the protesters said, they had never given
up the hope, however remote, that the missing had somehow survived to become
nameless numbers in some prison or detention cell.

Only now, those Iraqis said, after desperate, unrewarded vigils at the
prisons in Baghdad and elsewhere that emptied out on Sunday, had the
families accepted that their hopes were gone. Still, those people said, the
mothers and fathers and daughters and sons had demanded, when confronted by
secret police officials at the Monday protest, that they be told when their
relatives had died, and where they could go to find the remains and perform
the observances that the traditions of faith in this overwhelmingly Islamic
country demand.

Why Iraq’s reclusive leader decided so abruptly on an amnesty, abandoning at
least for the moment one of his principal mechanisms of control, remained a
topic of astonished debate among this nation’s 22 million people. But
whether he intended to try to checkmate President Bush, who has called him a
murdering tyrant, or to build new support among the previously disaffected
as he hunkers down for his showdown with the United States, his “gesture of
love,” as officials described the amnesty, appeared, at least partly, to
have backfired.

The desperate searches of many families, from cellblock to cellblock at Abu
Ghraib, a grim fortress 20 miles west of Baghdad, then on to other prisons
and detention centers, and in some cases from Baghdad to Kerbala and Basra
and other cities, seemed only to have confirmed the worst that many Iraqis
had feared about the system they have lived under for much of their lives.
By letting tens of thousands go, Mr. Hussein, in effect, was revealing to
untold numbers of other families that he had nothing to give back to them.

What nobody could know, given the brooding secrecy that envelops all
government actions here, was whether Mr. Hussein was wavering in the face of
the new challenges, or only pausing before ordering a new crackdown to
silence the stirrings of dissent. For the moment, with the protests
scattered, drawing modest turnouts and enveloped by the protesters in a wall
of praise for Mr. Hussein, the Iraqi leader seemed to have the option of
inaction. But that, some Iraqis said, would run counter to every instinct
honed by a state used to crushing the slightest hint of opposition.

Officials at the Information Ministry, including some seconded from security
agencies, appeared almost paralyzed when the women protesting in the street
suddenly marched in the gates and barged their way into the office of the
stunned press center director. After a brief exchange, the women were led
back into the street, and the protest evaporated, only to reassemble barely
an hour later, with even greater vehemence. This time, officials raced into
the street, backed by at least one man clutching a Kalashnikov rifle, and
roughly ordered the protesters to disperse.

One official who spoke with the women made little headway with what was a
circular argument. The man told them that there was no point in demanding
that the government tell them what had become of their lost relatives
because the prisons and detention centers were now empty – a fact officially
confirmed today by the interior minister, Mounzer al-Naqshabandi – and there
was nobody left there to release. That, the official said, meant there was
nobody left to account for. “Better that you go home, and be calm,” he said.

One reason for unease in the government is that many of the political
prisoners released on Sunday – and many of those identified as among the
missing by the protesters today – were members of the two restive population
groups, Kurds and Iraqi Shiites, who have been at the heart of past
uprisings against Mr. Hussein. As political prisoners raced for the gates at
Abu Ghraib on Sunday, the few who paused long enough to tell their stories
spoke of how they had been seized after joining Kurdish nationalist or
Shiite opposition groups. Many Shiites, a majority in the Iraqi population,
have long resented the government of Mr. Hussein, which is composed mostly
of the Sunni Arabs who are a minority in Iraq.

Iraqis with contacts at senior levels of the government said the events on
Sunday had caused a new alert to be sent out to the southern governorates,
especially Basra, that have been centers of Shiite unrest in the past. As
well, security officials were reported to have tightened their grip on
Saddam City, a vast poverty-stricken district on the outskirts of Baghdad
where many of the capital’s three million Shiites live.

Meanwhile, new accounts that became available today suggested that the
events at Abu Ghraib (pronounced aboo huh-RAYB) may have been grimmer than
first suggested. Those accounts focused on a cell- block known as Division
Six, at the southern end of the vast, square-mile prison compound. It had
remained sealed by guards for hours even as a mob of 50,000 people, perhaps
many more, forced open the prison gates and swept inside to help pull the
prisoners from their cells.

Why some guards at the cellblock tried to hold the prisoners back was not
clear, because other cellblocks, including one known as the Special Judgment
Division, for the highest-priority political prisoners, had emptied out
hours before. Families at Division Six told of male relatives who were
serving terms of 15 years and more for petty theft, passing bad checks and
smuggling. But today, some Iraqis said relatives of men in the cellblock had
told them that some prisoners had been killed by guards even as the crowds
massed outside.

The Iraqis who passed on those stories today said it was the bludgeoning of
some prisoners inside the block that caused the panicked stampede among the
prisoners that resulted in the suffocation deaths of about 10 others. One
account spoke of something still more grotesque, of prisoners being killed
at the last moment with lethal injections. But the account, like much else
about the incident, was impossible to verify, including the numbers of dead,
especially because officials at Abu Ghraib today barred entrance to all
foreign journalists, and seized the film of an Italian television crew that
approached the compound.

Copyright The New York Times Company

Peter Fray

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