Across the marble floor of the Shrine of the Imam Hussein in Kerbala scampers Suheil with his plastic bag of metal. He points first to a red stain on the flagstones. “This was a red smoke grenade that the Americans fired,” he tells me. “And that was another grenade mark.” The Shia worshippers are kneeling amid these burn marks, eyes glistening at the gold facade of the mosque which marks the very place, behind silver bars kissed by the faithful, where–in an epic battle far more decisive in human history than any conflict fought by the United States–Imam al-Hussein was cut down in AD680. There is a clink as, one by one, Suheil drops his souvenirs on to the marble.
US forces denied that any ordnance fell upon the shrine when they opened fire close to the Huseiniya mosque last month. Of course they denied it. Denial has become a disease in Iraq–as it has through most of the Middle East. The Americans deny that they kill innocent civilians in Iraq–but kill them all the same. The Israelis deny they kill innocent civilians in the occupied territories–indeed, they even deny the occupation–but kill them all the same. So folk like Suheil are valuable. They expose lies. The evidence, in this case, are his little souvenirs. On one of the grenades in his plastic bag are written the words “Cartridge 44mm Red Smoke Ground Marker M713 PB-79G041-001”. Another is designated as a “White Star Cluster M 585”, yet another carries the code “40mm M195 KX090 (figure erased) 010-086”. They are strange things to read in a religious building whose scholars normally concentrate on the minutiae of Koranic sura rather than the globalised linguistics of the arms trade.
But one of the Kerbala shrine’s guards, Ahmed Hanoun Hussein, was killed by the Americans when they arrived to assist Iraqi police in a confrontation with armed thieves near the shrine. Two more Shias were shot dead by the Americans during a protest demonstration the next day.
Suheil insist that the US troops wanted to enter the mosque–an unlikely scenario since they are under orders to stay away from its vicinity–but four bullets did smash into an outer wall. “We are peaceful people–so why do we need this?” Suheil asks me plaintively. “Remember how we suffered under Saddam?” And here he points upwards to another sacrilegious assault on the shrine, this time amid the gold of one of the two principal minarets–a shrapnel gash from a shell fired by Saddam’s legions during the great Shia revolt of 1991, the rebellion we encouraged and then betrayed after the last Gulf War.
So you’d think, wouldn’t you, that the shootings at Kerbala were an established fact. But no. The US still insists it never fired into the shrine of the Imam Hussein and “has no information” on the dead. Just as it had “no information” about the massacre of at least six Iraqi civilians by its soldiers during a house raid in the Mansour district of Baghdad a month ago. Just as it has no information on the number of Iraqi civilian casualties during and after the illegal Anglo-American invasion, estimated at up to 5,223 by one reputable organisation and up to 2,700 in and around Baghdad alone according to the Los Angeles Times.
And I’ve no doubt there would have been “no information” about the man shot dead by US troops outside Abu Ghraib prison last week had he not inconveniently turned out to be a prize-winning Reuters cameraman. Thus Mazen Dana’s death became a “terrible tragedy”–this from the same American authorities whose Secretary of State Colin Powell thought that the tank fire which killed another Reuters cameraman and a Spanish journalist in April was “appropriate”. Of course, the Americans didn’t hesitate to peddle the old lie about how Dana’s camera looked like a rocket-propelled grenade–the same cock-and-bull story the Israelis produced back in 1985 when they killed a two-man CBS crew, Tewfiq Ghazawi and Bahij Metni, in southern Lebanon.
But there’s a far more hateful bit of denial and hypocrisy being played out now in the US over two young and beautiful women. The first, Private Jessica Lynch, is feted as an American heroine after being injured during the American invasion of Iraq and then “rescued” from her Iraqi hospital bed by US Special Forces. Now it just happens that Private Lynch–far from firing at her Iraqi attackers until the last bullet, as the Pentagon would have had us believe–was injured in a road accident between two military trucks during an ambush and that Iraqi doctors had been giving her special care when Lynch’s “rescuers” burst into her unguarded hospital. But the second young American is a real heroine, a girl called Rachel Corrie who stood in front of an Israeli bulldozer that was about to demolish a Palestinian home and who was killed–wearing a clearly marked jacket and shouting through a loudspeaker–when the Israeli driver crushed her beneath his bulldozer and then drove backwards over her body again. All this was filmed. As a Jewish writer, Naomi Klein, bravely pointed out in The Guardian, “Unlike Lynch, Corrie did not go to Gaza to engage in combat; she went to try to thwart it.” Yet not a single American government official has praised Rachel Corrie’s courage or condemned her killing by the Israeli driver. President Bush has been gutlessly silent. For their part, the Israeli government tried to smear the activist group to which Rachel Corrie belonged by claiming that two Britons later involved in a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv had attended a memorial service to her–as if the organisers could have known of the wicked deed the two men had not yet committed.
But there’s nothing new in smearing the dead, is there? Back in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, I remember well how the British Army’s press office at Lisburn in Co Antrim would respond to the mysterious death of British ex-soldiers or Englishmen who were inconveniently killed by British soldiers. The dead were always described as–and here, reader, draw in your breath–“Walter Mitty characters”. I used to get sick of reading this smear in Belfast Telegraph headlines. Anonymous army officers would pass it along to the press. The guy was a Walter Mitty, a fantasist whose claims could not be believed. This was said of at least three dead men in Northern Ireland.
And I have a suspicion, of course, that this is where Tony Blair’s adviser Tom Kelly first heard of Walter Mitty and the ease with which authority could libel the dead. Born and bred in Northern Ireland, he must have read the same lies in the Belfast papers as I did, uttered by the same anonymous army “press spokesmen” with as little knowledge of Thurber as Mr Kelly himself when they spoke to journalists over the phone. So from that dark war in Northern Ireland, I think, came the outrageous smear against Dr David Kelly, uttered by his namesake to a correspondent on The Independent.
So let us remember a few names this morning: Ahmed Hanoun Hussein, Mazen Dana, Tewfiq Ghazawi, Bahij Metni, Rachel Corrie and Dr David Kelly.
All they have in common is their mortality. And our ability to deny their deaths or lie about why we killed them or smear them when they can no longer speak for themselves. Walter Mitty indeed!