FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Saddam’s Amnesty

by JEREMY SCAHILL

ABU GHRAIB, IRAQ. It was a scene that was unthinkable and unbelievable and Iraq is still in a state of stunned jubilation. Thousands of people jammed the streets in front of one of Iraq’s most notorious prisons today just moments after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein announced a “complete, comprehensive and final amnesty” for all prisoners, including those accused of political crimes and crimes against the state.

Earlier in the day word spread through Baghdad that the Iraqi president was going to address the nation with what several people said was “good news.” Shortly after noon, regular programming on all of Iraq’s television stations was interrupted by an announcement by Iraq’s Information Minister Mohammed Al Sahaf.

“Prisoners, detainees will be set free immediately,” Sahaf said in a statement attributed to the Iraqi President. He said the amnesty decree applied to “anyone imprisoned or arrested for political or any other reason.”

In another decree, the amnesty was extended to Arab prisoners, excluding those held or sentenced on charges of spying for Israel and the United States.

Sahaf said the amnesty was intended as a gift to the Iraqi people for their support of Saddam in last week’s referendum, in which the president claimed a 100-percent ‘yes’ vote.

“It’s a unanimity that others are incapable of believing and it is the greatest truth of this age from this great, honest, warm people,” the statement said. “The referendum honored us before the whole world.”

Throughout Baghdad, cars stopped in traffic as horns blared throughout the main streets of the Iraqi capital. The highway soon filled with caravans of cars heading west toward Abu Ghraib.

Outside the prison gates, thousands of people danced and sang, mainly songs of praise to Saddam Hussein. Many people had looks of total disbelief on their faces, clearly shocked at the scene. Cars stopped in the middle of the highway in front of the prison, as many simply abandoned their vehicles to join the crowd. Eventually the mob swelled to such a size that the prison guards had to open the main gate. Floods of people began scattering throughout the massive complex, scaling walls and climbing poles to make their way inside the cells. Mothers and wives frantically wandered around looking for their imprisoned loved ones.

In almost any other country, this scene would have undoubtedly erupted into a riot. No one here we spoke with could ever remember a time when such a massive group of people was permitted to run freely as part of anything other than a pro-government rally. And at times that is exactly what the scene looked like. Deafening chants of “Our blood, our souls, we’ll give for you Saddam” rang out throughout the compound. Some of the newly released prisoners cut their own forearms with knives as they chanted.

In one wing of the prison, the crowd massively outnumbered the guards and began running through wings of the prison that had not yet been opened. Gunshots rang out and guards began beating people with large sticks. The crowd began to scatter, but ultimately shouts of “salaam” calmed the situation. It was an incredible scene: Prisoners kissing their onetime jailers, dancing in joy in a place that for most of the men represented pure misery.

Inside the emptied prison, huge dormitories contained the abandoned belongings of the newly liberated men. Potato sacks and filthy blankets lay out in straight lines with metal bowls, shoes, photographs of loved ones. Guards smiled as they repeated, “Finished, finished, finished.”

One of the most shocking events of the day (and this is saying a lot) did not happen at Abu Ghraib. It happened in Washington. US Secretary of State Colin Powell, interviewed Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” said the amnesty was a political ploy by Saddam.

“This is typical of this man’s use of human beings for these political purposes of his,” Powell said. “This is the kind of manipulation he uses to try to paint himself as something other than what he is, a brutal dictator.”

It almost sounded as if Powell was suggesting that the men should have remained in “Saddam’s prisons.” Standing in the midst of the prison compound, watching thousands of men pour out of the cells it was impossible to imagine such a scene taking place in the US.

At Abu Ghraib, people didn’t seem too concerned with “political purposes.”

Throughout the prison compound, mothers hugged their sons. Fathers carried their children. Tears were shed, songs were sung. One prisoner had to be restrained by his brothers after learning that his mother had died while he was in jail. Three hours after the prison gates burst open, a massive column of prisoners stretched for what seemed like a mile. Many men carried huge plastic sacks on their backs; others dragged large metal chests. Scores seemed to have abandoned everything and walked quickly toward the exit. Every one of them with a look of tired astonishment on their faces.

“It’s a happy bright new day,” one of the released prisoners told us. “I want to say thank you to our President Saddam Hussein for his gift and presenting a new life for a new people, opening a new page in the new future. I’m very, very happy because I am going home to my people, to my family, my friends–to my beautiful wife and babies.”

Another man, who said he had been locked up for “a month and 2 days,” began to describe how he felt before abruptly stopping mid-sentence. He then looked around as if he thought the whole thing might be a mistake–that a guard may come and tell him, “Not you, you just got here.” He smiled politely, slung his bags over his back and bolted for the gates.

As the day wound down, a camouflage Iraqi Army helicopter descended on the prison. Rumor spread that Saddam was actually on board. Not likely. But that wouldn’t have been necessary. The disbelief was already there.

JEREMY SCAHILL is an independent journalist, who reports for the nationally syndicated Radio and TV show Democracy Now! He is currently based in Baghdad, Iraq, where he and filmmaker Jacquie Soohen are coordinating Iraqjournal.org, the only website providing regular independent reporting from the ground in Baghdad.

JEREMY SCAHILL, an independent journalist who reports frequently for the national radio and TV program Democracy Now, has spent extensive time reporting from Iraq and Yugoslavia. He is currently a Puffin Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute. Scahill is the author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.His new website is RebelReports.com

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

March 22, 2017
Paul Street
Russiagate and the Democratic Party are for Chumps
Russell Mokhiber
Single-Payer, the Progressive Caucus and the Cuban Revolution
Gavin Lewis
McCarthyite Anti-Semitism Smears and Racism at the Guardian/Observer
Kathy Kelly
Reality and the U.S.-Made Famine in Yemen
Kim C. Domenico
Ending Our Secret Alliance with Victimhood: Toward an Adult Politics
L. Ali Khan
Profiling Islamophobes
Calvin Priest
May Day: Seattle Educators Moving Closer to Strike
David Swanson
Jimmy Breslin on How to Impeach Trump
Dave Lindorff
There Won’t Be Another Jimmy Breslin
Jonathan Latham
The Meaning of Life
Robert Fisk
Martin McGuinness: From “Super-Terrorist” to Super Statesman
Steve Horn
Architect of Federal Fracking Loophole May Head Trump Environmental Council
Binoy Kampmark
Grief, Loss and Losing a Father
Jim Tull
Will the Poor Always Be With Us?
Jesse Jackson
Trump’s “March Massacre” Budget
Joe Emersberger
Rafael Correa and the Future of Ecuador: a Response to James McEnteer
March 21, 2017
Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt
On Being the “Right Kind of Brown”
Kenneth Surin
God, Guns, Gays, Gummint: the Career of Rep. Bad Bob Goodlatte
David Rosen
Popular Insurgencies: Reshaping the Political Landscape
Ryan LaMothe
The Totalitarian Strain in American Democracy
Eric Sommer
The House Intelligence Committee: Evidence Not Required
Mike Hastie
My Lai Massacre, 49 Years Later
James McEnteer
An Era Ends in Ecuador: Forward or Back?
Evan Jones
Beyond the Pale
Stansfield Smith
First Two Months in Power: Hitler vs. Trump
Dulce Morales
A Movement for ‘Sanctuary Campuses’ Takes Shape
Pepe Escobar
Could Great Wall of Iron become New Silk Roadblock?
Olivia Alperstein
Trump Could Start a Nuclear War, Right Now
David Macaray
Norwegians Are the Happiest People on Earth
March 20, 2017
Michael Schwalbe
Tears of Solidarity
Patrick Cockburn
Brexit, Nationalism and the Damage Done
Peter Stone Brown
Chuck Berry: the First Poet of Rock and Roll
Paul J. Ramsey
What Trump’s Travel Ban Reveals About His Long-Term Educational Policy
Norman Pollack
Two Nations: Skid Rows vs. Mar-a-Lago
Michael Brenner
The Great Game: Power Politics or Free Play?
Sam Gordon
Falling Rate of Profit, What about Some Alienation?
Jack Random
Sidetracked: Trump Diaries, Week 8
Julian Vigo
The Limits of Citizenship
James Graham
French Elections: a Guide for the Perplexed
Jeff Mackler
The Extraordinary Lynne Stewart
Lee Ballinger
Chuck Berry: “Up in the Morning and Off to School!”
Binoy Kampmark
Romancing Coal: The Adani Obsession
Nyla Ali Khan
Cultural Syncretism in Kashmir
Chad Nelson
The Politics of Animal Liberation: I Can’t Quit You Gary Francione
Weekend Edition
March 17, 2017
Friday - Sunday
John Reynolds
Israel and the A-Word
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail