On Their Way to Abu Ghraib



"How could this happen?" nearly everyone asks these days. But as the U.S. now releases hundreds of men from Abu Ghraib prison, another question, "why were so many Iraqis locked up there in the first place?" is likely to become part of the debate.

The story of this farming hamlet 30 miles north of Baghdad sheds a lot of light on that question.

"On December 16, 2003, at 2:00 am, on a rainy night, all the houses in Abu Siffa, about two dozen, were surrounded by U.S. troops in tanks and humvees. They surrounded the fields of the farmers by tanks and they destroyed the fences of the fields," citrus farmer, Mohammed Al-Tai explained to a delegation from Christian Peacemaker Teams visiting the village to document detainees’ stories.

Soldiers from the Army’s 4th Infantry Division rounded up two attorneys, 15 schoolteachers, men in their 80’s, a blind man, police officers, young teens, and an elderly man so frail he had to be carried by the soldiers, Al-Tai said. In all, 83 men disappeared that night, virtually every male in the village.

His description of that night continued. "They destroyed the doors of the houses and of the rooms. At night usually the doors of the bedrooms are locked, so they kicked the doors in and destroyed them by their weapons. After that they gathered the men, beating them severely. One was an old man and they smashed his glasses, and for that old man they had to guide him."

Before the soldiers finished the Abu Siffa raid, Al-Tai added that they also "stole from Imad, the attorney, about 14 million dinars ($10,370). >From his father, Kamel, they stole 4.5 million dinars ($3,300). They stole 4 million dinars ($3000) from Ziad, an Iraqi police officer, and from all the other houses together, about 100,000 to 150,000 dinars ($75 to $110). They also took five cars. Later they returned two of them that belonged to police officers who died in the line of duty."

The reason for the raid was to apprehend Kais Hattam, Al-Tai said, adding that Hattam claimed he planned to surrender to the Americans the following morning. In a later interview, Lt. Colonel Nathan Sassaman, commander of the division’s 1st Battalion, the unit responsible for the district including Abu Siffa, confirmed that Hattam was their man, but doubted he would have surrendered voluntarily.

Sassaman said that Hattam was on a "wanted" list because his name appeared in Ba’ath Party documents found with Saddam Hussein, captured less than three days before the Abu Siffa raid. He described Hattam as a "key figure, one of five regional directors of the Ba’ath Party."

The Lt. Colonel’s version of the raid was that 73 people, not 83 were rounded up, all adults. He said his men found a several-acre compound with a large quantity of material for making IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), weapons, and "just a ton of explosives." He added that three of the detainees were later released for health reasons.

Asked why so many villagers were rounded up after the Army got the man they were looking for, he replied that the amount of weapons and explosives implicated Abu Siffa was a center of resistance, further proven by the fact that his base had been mortared from that area.

The CPT delegation in Abu Siffa listened to Mohammed Al-Tai and several of his neighbors explain that six weeks after the December pre-dawn raid on their village, 79 adult men were still held in Abu Ghraib, still without visiting privileges. They said that one ill detainee had been released. Contrary to Sassaman’s claim that no children were apprehended, Al-Tai said three children had been transferred to Al-Karkh, a special youth prison in Baghdad. The farmer and another villager said they’d been able to visit, albeit under difficult conditions. "It is not easy to get there, the lines are very long, and even family members are kept behind a line 20 feet away from their children."

Hania, wife of attorney-detainee, Kamel Khoumais, added in sad tones, "For 47 days I did not see him. I tried. I went to Abu Ghraib prison twice. I was turned back with tears." On the night of the raid, soldiers took their family car, she related, and her little finger, still swollen and red, was broken when the keys were ripped out of her hand.

The raid that swept up all of Abu Siffa’s men is only part of that village’s story.

After describing the December 16 roundup, Al-Tai took the delegation on a door-to-door tour of his village, starting with a vacant house where Abbas Abdwahid had lived with 15 members of his extended family. The 41 year-old primary school teacher and several other former residents of the home were now living in Abu Ghraib. Large holes in the brick walls, daylight through the roof, and an orange and white VW Passat taxi smashed up against a rear corner of the house by a Bradley Fighting Vehicle were silent reminders of the Army’s second raid on Abu Siffa, on New Year’s Eve.

No men were apprehended this time, Al-Tai said; "there were none left." The purpose of the return visit was made clear when the Bradley gunners opened fire with the 25mm Bushmaster chain gun and the 7.62mm machine gun, blasting holes large and small into the brick and cement-block home.

On January 2 the military came back. Al-Tai showed us the rear of another vacant house where he said four brothers, now all in Abu Ghraib, once lived. Still visible were the tracks the Bradley made as it approached the home of Hamis, Abd Kadir, Mohammed and Jasim. As with the previous raid, there was no resistance, Al-Tai said. After another display of firepower the soldiers left. The uninhabitable home, a flattened brick outhouse, a pile of 25mm shell casings and a steel door shot off its hinges, bleeding rust stains from dozens of bullet holes, spoke of that night’s violence. As the CPT delegation listened, one of the villagers added, "The soldiers warned the people that they will make this area ‘just like the land of the moonit will not be good to plant…it will be like the desert.’"

When asked why the Army returned twice to destroy homes, the 1st Battalion’s Executive Officer, Major Rob Gwinner, countered the homes were "still habitable. People are living in them." His boss, Lt. Col. Sassaman, said the subsequent raids were a reaction to mortar attacks against his base from the Abu Siffa area. Pentagon casualty reports state that on January 2, 28 year-old Captain Eric Paliwoda was killed in a mortar attack at the 1st Battalion’s base.

The prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib is providing the public with a painful education on the Geneva Conventions. To that lesson we can add the story of how people are rounded up and homes destroyed in places like Abu Siffa-both violate the Conventions’ prohibition against "collective penalties."

MIKE FERNER returned to Iraq this year for two months to write on developments since his trip just prior to the war with Voices in the Wilderness. He served as a Navy Hospital Corpsman during Vietnam, is a member of Veterans for Peace and a former member of Toledo City Council. He can be reached at: mferner@utoledo.edu

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