One woman has spent decades documenting crimes against humanity in Iraq.
Now Saddam and his circle are facing justice
he trials of the former leaders of Iraq will begin this spring. They will take place in the intact chambers of a bombed-out building at the center of Baghdad. The court that will hold them is an Iraqi national court but an American invention. It is called the Iraqi Special Tribunal. It has no function beyond these trials. It is staffed by Iraqi judges and prosecutors who after thirty-five years of totalitarian rule have no experience with the evolved legal concepts and procedures that they will be asked to use here. In the background stands a team of American government lawyers whose own experience in such matters is thin. If the purpose of these trials is to promote courtroom justice as an alternative to the Arab tradition of vengeance, the best one can hope for is that the tribunal will be able to learn on the job. The first of the trials should be the simplest, at least. It will be of Ali Hassan al-Majid, the man known as Chemical Ali, who is Saddam Hussein's cousin, and was a trusted agent of the regime. The evidence against him is clear. He organized the systematic extermination of the Kurds in Iraq's north, then turned south and oversaw the rape of Kuwait. Subsequently he oversaw the suppression of an Iraqi uprising by directing overwhelming military force against civilian populations in flagrant violation of the laws of war. Like Saddam Hussein, he will be prosecuted for genocide, among other crimes. Almost certainly he will be convicted and sentenced to die.
In practice if not by intent, this will be the end product of a decades-long campaign by international human-rights activists to document the atrocities of the Baathist regime, and to hold the leaders responsible. As it happens, the same activists have now turned against the special tribunal, because they believe that as constituted, as a national court, it cannot deliver justice. They also abhor capital punishment, which the tribunal is set up to impose. So be it. The activists are sticking to their principles, as they must. They are idealists, no doubt. But they are also hardened realists—not to be confused with the volunteers one sees distributing pamphlets on the streets of Europe and the United States, or blindly advocating peace. The veterans of the Iraq campaign are powerful players, cagey and brave, and effective on dangerous terrain. They are used to maneuver and compromise, and to war. Little wonder, therefore, that despite their opposition to the trials in their current form, they remain engaged in the process, still trying to shape it, in the chaos of Iraq.
Of those veterans there is one who by common agreement can stand for all the rest. She is Hania Mufti, a Jordanian by birth and upbringing but a longtime Londoner, and recently a resident of Iraq. Mufti is forty-seven. She is a tall, gaunt woman, with dark blue eyes, cropped hair, and usually a cigarette in hand. Her experience in life has made her spare, reserved, and judgmental. As such she is no apologist for the occupying Americans. Indeed, much of her time now is spent looking into abuses by U.S. forces and the Iraqi government they installed. But for twenty years she has been the most persistent investigator of the former regime's crimes. It is because of her efforts—along with those of a few people like her, a small circle of her friends—that the war makers of Great Britain and the United States were able to cite human-rights violations as a justification for their invasion, and that Saddam Hussein and his lieutenants will now be brought to trial. Mufti is an unusually private person, who shuns public attention and exerts her influence increasingly through backroom discussion as well as through published reports. But whether she desires this credit or not, there is no escaping the fact that behind the headlines about crimes and justice stands the mass of work that she and her associates have done.
t a late point in that work, in the fall of 2002, Hania Mufti rode in a hired car through the mountains of Iran toward the border with Iraq. This was half a year before the American invasion. As a woman traveling in Iran, Mufti was relegated to the car's back seat, swathed in heavy clothes, and forced to wear a scarf. The smothering annoyed her, but she did not complain. Personal discomfort and the oppression of women seemed minor compared with what lay ahead in Iraq: a nightmare filled with the most brutal political horrors, including severe torture and indiscriminate human slaughter. After a long career with Amnesty International, Mufti was now working for Human Rights Watch, a powerful New York—based organization, where she held the grand title London Director of the Middle East and North African Division. Effectively this meant Iraq. In the early 1990s Human Rights Watch had collected the crucial documents and testimony pertaining to Ali Hassan al-Majid's extermination campaign, and after sober legal consideration had been the first to define it as genocide and to call for international prosecution, in absentia if necessary. The organization lobbied governments in Europe and the United States to secure sponsorship for a trial. For practical as well as political reasons, that idea never took hold, and after a while Human Rights Watch turned to other matters. Iraq, however, was not a subject that could be abandoned for long—nor could the idea that it was justice, and not merely regime change, that had to be accomplished there. When the organization decided, in 2000, to try to turn up the heat, Hania Mufti was the natural person to enlist.
With Mufti in the car now, two years later, was another experienced Human Rights Watch employee, a fresh-faced Belgian-American named Peter Bouckaert, age thirty-two, who served as the organization's "senior emergencies researcher" and made his living by traveling to trouble spots around the globe, usually alone. Mufti and Bouckaert had never worked together before. Because entry into central Iraq at that time would have been pointless and quite likely fatal, their destination was Kurdistan, the mountainous enclave in the northern part of the country, where Ali Hassan al-Majid had unleashed his terrors. With assistance from the West, Kurdistan had fought its way clear of the central government's control in 1991, and had functioned as a Kurdish proto-state ever since, providing a haven within Iraq where human-rights investigators could gather evidence. Mufti knew it well. She and Bouckaert planned to spend three weeks there, where they would interview recent refugees about the latest horrors to the south, including extra-judicial killings, widespread torture, and the continuing expulsion of non-Arabs from the oil fields of Kirkuk. Frankly, such behavior was ordinary governmental fare in Iraq, and might not in itself have justified the expense and effort of the trip. But there was more in the air by that fall, because the carefully gathered record of Iraqi atrocities was being used by American and British leaders not to build a case for justice but to provide an emotional foundation for the claim that Saddam Hussein would use the weapons of mass destruction he was said to possess. Suddenly it was war that appeared ahead.
Peter Bouckaert was going in because of that, and with motives that were simple to understand. A war would certainly qualify as an "emergency," and he wanted to assess the challenges in advance, particularly for the Human Rights Watch teams that might come in for short stays during the expected combat. Mufti's motives were more complex. The truth is that she traveled to Kurdistan whenever she could, and for whatever reason. She was like the human-rights movement at large—drawn to Iraq because of the sheer scale of the suffering there, which she had first encountered as an abstract professional challenge decades before, but which then had gotten inside of her and shaped her soul. She would have disagreed if asked, and would have insisted that she had maintained professional distance and control. She would have said that she was taking this trip because Iraq was one of the countries in her brief, and, by the way, because she and her husband had a London mortgage to pay. Fine. She once explained to me that she believed in shielding her private life from her public one. This was awkward, because it was so obvious to me that she had failed. Her friends worried about her. They pointed out that Iraq was not her native country, and wondered why she would dedicate herself to such a place. I've been told that when she was in her early twenties, in London, she was a saucy girl with waist-length hair, and that though she was smart and unusually diligent at work, her attitude toward life was quite wonderfully carefree. That may almost be true. You can see hints of some earlier life in little lapses in the seriousness of her eyes, and in traces of girlish vanity—the cut of her cotton blouse, or her chagrin that exhaustion is visible on her face. She does remain a striking woman. Still, her work has made her seem radically unadorned.
For the last miles approaching the border Mufti and Bouckaert passed through an apocalyptic landscape of abandoned trenches, active minefields, and ruined tanks—the residue of the Iran-Iraq War, still fresh after fourteen years. They crossed into Kurdistan without incident, and were met by a big, garrulous man named Hawar Rathman, who would serve as their driver, and who eighteen months later, in February of 2004, would be killed in the suicide bombing of a political assembly, in "liberated" Iraq. Rathman drove them to the pleasant city of Sulaymaniyah, to the office of a Kurdish deputy prime minister, a man named Adnan Mufti, who was unrelated to Hania, but very friendly.
Afterward Bouckaert mentioned that the welcome had seemed unusually warm, and Mufti answered, in her usual low-key manner, "Oh, a few years ago I saved his life." She left it at that. It turned out that Adnan Mufti had been poisoned with thallium, a lethal powder that Saddam Hussein's agents sometimes mixed into orange juice or yogurt and fed to people perceived to be enemies of the regime. In 1987 there was a spate of at least forty such poisonings, largely of Kurdish leaders. Hania Mufti was at Amnesty International in London at the time. With characteristic determination, she bore down on the news: Adnan Mufti, among others, had fled to Tehran, where he lay in excruciating pain, losing hair and unable to eat, lingering near death. Hania Mufti arranged to evacuate him, along with two others. The three men were flown to London and rushed to a hospital, and they survived. Though she had yet to set foot in any part of Iraq, which in 1987 remained a completely closed state, Mufti's rescue operation counts among the first direct human-rights interventions there, significant because it was an unambiguous success.
Fifteen years later now, a larger intervention loomed ahead. For three weeks Mufti and Bouckaert worked their way through the mountains of Kurdistan, recording stories of the regime. But much of their attention, like that of their Kurdish hosts, was on the world outside Iraq, being shown on satellite TV. The British government published an argument for war, making explicit reference to the work of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. President George W. Bush addressed the United Nations, bluntly describing the reality inside Iraq. He said, "Tens of thousands of political opponents and ordinary citizens have been subjected to arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, summary execution, and torture by beating and burning, electric shock, starvation, mutilation, and rape." Iraqi Kurds clustered around their televisions and cheered.
To preserve their credibility as unbiased observers, human-rights organizations were officially neutral on the question of the war. Individually, however, many of the investigators were uncomfortable with the American policy of pre-emptive aggression, and with the tone and tactics of the Bush administration. Bouckaert, for one, made no secret, there in Kurdistan, of his doubts. He later told me that their driver, Hawar Rathman, was practically ecstatic at the thought that the Americans were coming. Rathman talked often about how beautiful Iraq was going to be after its liberation, about how he was going to take his children to Baghdad to eat fish in fine restaurants on the banks of the Tigris. Bouckaert warned him repeatedly of something he had observed before, of the social breakdown that accompanies war.
Mufti was more guarded about her thoughts. When I asked her what she had felt in Kurdistan during the lead-up to the invasion, she did not answer for herself but described the concern of the people around her. They were worried that international opposition to the war might cause Britain and the United States to hesitate, or back down. She said, "The question about whether there were weapons of mass destruction or not, I think for many Iraqis that was just a red herring. It didn't matter whether they were found. And there were all these antiwar demonstrations being shown on television, in Europe and the States, and elsewhere in the Middle East. And I remember sitting with various groups of Kurds watching the news, and they'd look at the TV screen and gesture in this way"—she waved her hand dismissively—"and they'd say, 'These people don't know what they're talking about. They should come here and try Saddam for a while, and see whether or not they like it for themselves.'"
This war as they saw it would be fought over human rights. In New York the head of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, later took pains to deny that the invasion had been about that, but to many observers he really did protest too much. In any case by then there was little other justification to hold on to.
he Iraqi Special Tribunal was signed into existence by the American proconsul Paul Bremer, on December 9, 2003, during the formal occupation of Iraq. It was largely the product of a brainy, Yale-educated commercial lawyer named Salem Chalabi. He is the nephew of Ahmad Chalabi, the expatriate leader of the Iraqi National Congress, who helped persuade the United States to attack, and was later found to have been peddling lies. Family allegiances aside, Salem Chalabi is a man of greater sincerity than his uncle. He returned to Baghdad close on the heels of the American forces, with high hopes for the competence of a free Iraq. These were hopes he later came to see as unrealistic, but they informed his design for the special tribunal and his earnest belief that it could function correctly as an Iraqi national court. The founding statute that he drafted imports from international law three categories of the most egregious crimes for use in an Iraqi prosecution, and lays the boundaries of the trials to come:
The Tribunal shall have jurisdiction over any Iraqi national or resident of Iraq accused of the crimes listed in Articles 11—14, committed since July 17, 1968, and up and until May 1, 2003, in the territory of Iraq or elsewhere, namely:
a) The crime of genocide;
b) Crimes against humanity;
c) War crimes; or
d) Violations of certain Iraqi laws listed in Article 14 below.
The first three categories of crimes, which rank from top to bottom in the measure of governmental depravity, are then defined in detail, and narrowly tailored to address the atrocities committed by the Baathist regime. Those definitions are deeply rooted in the work of the human-rights movement since its modern beginnings.
In 1946 the United Nations Commission on Human Rights was established in Geneva and given the job of upholding human rights worldwide. That job was largely symbolic. In 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed by forty-eight countries, including Iraq. The declaration put words to the principles of human rights, and laid the foundation for further agreements that, after permutations, were loosely accepted as descriptions of customary beliefs, and thus formed the basis for some elements of international law. In that same year the state of Israel was founded on land that Palestinian Arabs thought was their own.
Nine years later, in 1957, Hania Mufti was born in nearby Amman, Jordan. She was one of five children in a prominent Circassian family, which had a tradition of high government service. Her father was a banker, and once served as Jordan's minister of finance. Early in 1959 the government of Iraq, a military dictatorship, signed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Hania was not yet quite two. In 1961, when she was four, she was sent with an older sister to live and study in a Catholic convent school in Jerusalem, a few hours' drive from home. This was ordinary for the elites of Amman at the time. The school was for girls only. The classes were taught in French. As a nominal Muslim, Hania was not proselytized. On Sunday mornings, when the Christian girls had to go to church, she was allowed to sleep.
Also in 1961, in faraway London, a British lawyer named Peter Benenson founded Amnesty International as a membership-supported organization, initially to lobby for the freedom of certain prisoners being held for their political beliefs. As measured by popularity, it was an immediate success, and within a year had established branches in fourteen countries worldwide. Meanwhile, various coups and countercoups roiled the political life of Iraq, including one that brought the pan-Arab socialists of the Baath Party to power for nine months in 1963. Throughout that time Kurdish guerrillas in the northern mountains fought whichever clique happened to constitute the central government, in a war without resolution. None of this had the slightest effect on the life of young Hania Mufti, whose own country was relatively quiet, and who was snugly cocooned in her Jerusalem convent school. But then came June of 1967, when the Six-Day War broke out between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and Hania, at the age of not quite ten, got caught up in the fighting.
It happened on the third day of the war, as the Arab forces were being crushed and humiliated by the Israelis. Along with her sister and several cousins, Hania was evacuated from Jerusalem in a convoy of five taxis headed toward Amman. The trip took all day and more. Sometimes the taxis were stopped by fighting just ahead. Other times, when the fighting swirled around them, they kept moving, threading through the battles, past explosions and Jordanian troops firing from positions on the shoulders of the road. Hania watched two soldiers burning just beside her car. Later the first taxi in the line took a direct hit, perhaps from an artillery shell. Hania saw it explode with a flash of red, just as in the movies. They kept driving. When they arrived in Amman, it was late at night, and the city was blacked out. The taxi crept forward without headlights, down cratered streets, stopping often while the driver got out to feel the terrain ahead with his feet.
Next door in Iraq, in 1968, the Baath Party staged another coup, and returned to power. This time it was led by Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, who was Saddam Hussein's elder cousin; Saddam Hussein himself was operating just offstage, as the second in command. Two months later, after a countercoup was discovered and crushed, the leadership launched a series of Stalinist-style purges, cleansing the higher reaches of the government and the military of suspected rivals and opponents—a process that expanded across the decades into one of the great horror stories of our time, but even at the start was spectacular enough, marked by public executions and bodies strung up in the squares of Baghdad for all the citizens to admire.
Hania Mufti's parents left Amman and moved to Beirut. Hania and her sister went off to England to attend boarding school. They came home for holidays. They were not lonely, as children from some other culture might have been. This was what they knew, and by any measure it worked out well.
In January of 1969 fourteen "spies," nine of whom were Jews, were publicly hanged in Baghdad's Liberation Square. Untold numbers of other Iraqis were being thrown into prison, being tortured, enduring mock executions, being killed.
In August sixty-seven Kurdish women and children, who had fled Iraqi artillery attacks on their village, were said by Kurdish sources to have been burned to death in a cave where they had sought refuge.
In November, President al-Bakr formally named Saddam Hussein as the deputy chairman of the ruling Revolutionary Command Council, and gave him full control of the growing number of intelligence and security services.
In March of 1970 hundreds of Iraqi communists were arrested, tortured, broken, wiped out. Many of their families were arrested too, soon afterward or later on. Terror seeped through every crack of Iraqi society as Saddam Hussein tightened his control.
Meanwhile, Hania Mufti was living well. At the age of fourteen she returned from England to attend a coeducational Quaker boarding school in a beautiful mountain village called Brummana, overlooking Beirut and the Mediterranean Sea. Beirut was still an island of tolerance at the time, and the Quaker school was the same to a higher degree. It was enlightened, pacifist, secular, accepting, and intellectually strong—an island within an island in the Middle East. These were years of happiness for Hania, and she bloomed. Jerusalem was old history, Amman a fading memory. Baghdad hardly existed at all.
Then, again, an armed conflict washed over her. This time it was the Lebanese civil war, which began in the spring of 1975, several months before Hania was due to graduate. As she sat for final exams in her familiar classrooms in the mountains, she watched columns of smoke and dust rising from the city below. It was a war all right, but of the modern sort, whose dangers were partly obscured by the apparent normalcy of life. The cafés remained open, traffic still flowed through the streets, and the Mediterranean continued to sparkle in the clean Lebanese light. Hania finished her exams, and graduated on schedule in a pleasant campus ceremony. Her family moved back to Amman, out of concern for the future, but Hania was nearly an adult now, and she gamely stayed on. In the fall she started studies at the American University of Beirut, on the waterfront, close to downtown. For a scholastic term and a half the lecturers struggled forward against conditions that were increasingly disruptive. For Hania and other students there, university life was marked by long spells in shelters underground, while the fighting crackled and thumped overhead. At some point the lectures were suspended. One day the Jordanian government sent in an airplane, picked up the Jordanian students there, and flew them home. The students thought they would be gone for a week or two. But the fighting intensified and went on for another fifteen years. After several months in Amman, Hania Mufti moved to England to continue her education. It was the fall of 1976.
In 1977 the Geneva Convention was augmented by two new protocols that expanded the protection of civilians caught up in zones of guerrilla combat and in other nonconventional revolutionary struggles. Iraq did not sign. That same year Amnesty International issued a crudely typewritten summary of the Kurdish predicament in northern Iraq, reporting that separatist attacks had increased, and that the government had responded with executions, mass arrests, and a policy of forced deportations, carried out not merely against suspected fighters but, in some cases, also against their families.
In 1978 in suburban London an expatriate Iraqi surgeon and opposition leader named Ayad Allawi received a taunting late-night telephone call from a man he recognized as a half brother of Saddam's. Several hours later an Iraqi assassin broke into Allawi's house, while two other agents waited in a getaway car outside. Allawi was preparing for bed when he noticed a movement behind a curtain. The assassin sprang from hiding and attacked him with an ax—a weapon chosen for the gruesome trauma it would inflict. Allawi fought back, but was felled by blood-splattering blows, one of which sliced into his head, and another of which nearly severed a leg. He was saved by his wife's screams, and the intervention of his father-in-law. The assassin fled. Allawi spent the next eighteen months in hospitals under an assumed identity. It has been reported by London's Sunday Telegraph that Iraqi agents tracked him down nonetheless, and that while he was in the hospitals they sent him death threats, one of which read, "Even if you go to Mars, we will follow you." This was by no means an empty boast. Expatriate groups were systematically penetrated by agents of the Baathist regime, and over the years no small number of leaders were killed. Allawi, of course, was not one of them; he survived to become the first prime minister of post-Saddam Iraq.
Also in 1978, in New York, the organization Human Rights Watch—known first as Helsinki Watch—was launched by a group of writers and publishers, initially to monitor political freedoms in the Soviet Union. As might be expected of such a group, its strategies were based not on public protests but on careful research and analysis, and on the power of clear writing.
In July of 1979, in Baghdad, Saddam Hussein formally assumed the presidency. A few days later, in a famous piece of political theater, he assembled several hundred of the country's Baathist leaders in a Baghdad conference hall, and with an air of regret and sadness sat through the naming of sixty traitors among them, who were accused of having conspired with Syria to subvert the government. As the names were called one by one, the men were escorted from the room, ultimately to face firing squads. Saddam congratulated the remaining leaders for their loyalty. It is said that they stood and applauded in terror and relief, and that the meeting ended with raucous laughter bordering on hysteria. Afterward film footage of the spectacle was shown at Baath Party meetings throughout the country—in the unlikely event that anyone harbored illusions about the nature of the regime in Baghdad.
July of 1979 happened also to be the month of Hania Mufti's graduation with a master's degree from the University of Bath. Years later I asked her if she had been aware of the happenings in Iraq, and she said, "Not a clue." That turned out to be not quite right, because as a Jordanian she did have a general sense of the severity of the neighboring regime; but it is true that she was not much involved in politics at the time. She would have liked to become a forensic pathologist, but had difficulty with chemistry. Instead she studied sociology and Third World "development," a typical mishmash of topics. She was by no means an activist. She had an Iranian friend who was, and who worked the streets of Bath for Amnesty International, handing out pamphlets and soliciting funds. Mufti accompanied her a few times, but out of friendship rather than a deep sense of the issues involved.
At the age now of nearly twenty-two, she was glad to finish with her formal studies. She worked briefly as a cub reporter, and realized that journalism did not appeal to her. In 1981, almost on a whim, she took a job as an assistant researcher in the Middle East department of Amnesty International, without suspecting that the position might define her life. The man who hired her told me recently that he chose her because of her fluency in Arabic and her clear declarative writing. That's about how she remembers it too. She did not even have an opinion about capital punishment—opposition to which constitutes the unyielding core of the human-rights movement worldwide. She did have charitable inclinations, and so was glad enough to be associated with an outfit like Amnesty International. Mostly, though, she just wanted to stay in London, and needed a job.
Recently, while serving on hiring panels, she has been struck by the focus and preparation of current aspirants—their carefully planned summer jobs, internships, and academic tracks, all leading to some hoped-for career in human rights. Such a career can be a big thing, full of power and prestige, and perhaps even well enough paid, since by now the human-rights movement has grown up a lot. In contrast, when Mufti began, human-rights activism occupied an apparently marginal position on the political stage, and just a few years before had been naturally confused with Vietnam-era pacifism or with various forms of voguish rebellion that had proved easy for governments to discount or shove aside. Such an assessment seriously underestimated a movement that beneath its youthful appearance had tapped into the mainstream of at least 200 years of Western ethics and political thought, and that in Amnesty International already possessed something of a secular church—a large and effectively bureaucratized organization that was sustained by a tithing membership and armed with universalistic certainties. Its influence, however, would become apparent only with time, and most of the people who worked within it, like Hania Mufti herself, were unpresumptuous about the job.
Amnesty International's mandate by then was expanding beyond a narrow concern for political prisoners to include the full range of governmental abuses. The work consisted of two parts—first the gathering of information from varied sources, and second, after due analysis and verification, the writing of reports that could be used by the membership in grassroots campaigns. Mufti was given a typical portfolio of several Middle Eastern countries, ranging from relatively open Gulf states, where perhaps some progress could be made, to Syria, which was totally closed, harshly repressive, and for human-rights workers a really hard case. Iraq was considered to be the hardest case of all, and quite impossible to change. It would soon be added to her list.
n September of 1980 Iraq invaded Iran, sending six army divisions across the border. Iranian defenses were light at first, but Saddam kept his forces from advancing far, because he intended only to consolidate gains along the border. This turned out to be difficult to do. The following spring Iran launched a bloody counteroffensive that pushed much of Saddam's army back into Iraq, where most of the fighting took place during the remaining seven years of largely static war.
Ultimately, perhaps a million people died. In 1982 Iran launched a major offensive toward the southern city of Basra, using human waves of young, heavily indoctrinated believers seeking paradise through jihad. Iraq responded with chemical weapons. Initially the weapons contained only tear gas (lethal enough against boys without protection on battlefields swept by machine-gun fire), but by the following year, 1983, Iraqi ambitions had escalated, and Iraqi forces had begun to deploy deadly chemicals. The weapons seem to have been made in Iraq of substances imported from abroad. They included sarin, cyanide, tabun, and mustard gas. Together they formed a category of weapon that had long been outlawed by the Geneva Conventions, but whose use by the Iraqis—despite official denials—was hardly a secret. In fact, Iraq repeatedly tried to intimidate Iranian forces with open declarations of its intent to gas them, and at the height of the war issued a statement that "the invaders should know that for every harmful insect there is an insecticide capable of annihilating it, whatever their number, and Iraq possesses this annihilation insecticide." It was an accurate enough description of the weaponry. Some of the poison gases that Iraq used did smell sweet—like insecticide or rotting apples, according to survivors. Meanwhile, because Iraq's enemy, theocratic Iran, had become a pariah state, the world looked delicately away.
Iraq's reliance on chemical weapons was well known in Washington, D.C., where monitoring of the war at one point indicated almost daily use. Saddam's suppression of minority groups and political dissidents was also well known. U.S. diplomatic relations with Iraq had been broken off in 1967, as a result of tensions over the Palestinian conflict and, specifically, the Six-Day War. But of course times had changed. Ronald Reagan had won the U.S. presidency. Saddam Hussein was a distasteful character, but he was seen now to be fighting the good fight against the radicals of Tehran. In 1982 the State Department quietly removed Iraq from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Donald Rumsfeld, who had served as secretary of defense under Gerald Ford, arrived in Baghdad in 1983 on the first of two trips as a special envoy. His purpose was to open a dialogue—which to the Iraqis meant to make friends. Rumsfeld met with the foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, and touched on mutual concerns, including oil exports, pipeline construction, and especially the need to defeat the theocracy in Iran. Near the end of the meeting Rumsfeld mentioned Iraq's violation of human rights and its use of chemical weapons as troublesome, but made it obvious that such worries would not interfere with the rapprochement under way. In a separate meeting with Saddam Hussein he did not mention these issues, and kept the encounter positive. Diplomatic relations were restored in 1984.
The United States never sold weapons to Iraq, but it allowed for the sale of dual-use equipment like heavy trucks and helicopters, which were presumed to be of help to the war effort, and it shared information, probably pertaining to Iranian capabilities and to the position of enemy forces along the front lines. Beginning in 1983, it also provided agricultural and manufacturing credits worth more than $500 million annually, which created a powerful pro-Iraq lobby in Congress. That lobby worked throughout the 1980s to ensure that the U.S.-Iraqi relationship would remain unaffected by Iraq's domestic policies. Appearances were maintained, with occasional actions or statements indicating official displeasure with Iraq's use of chemical weapons. In March of 1984, for instance, the State Department prevented the shipment by an American firm of 22,000 pounds of phosphorus fluoride—a common ingredient of chemical weapons—that ostensibly was to be used for the manufacture of insecticide, and the United States issued an official condemnation of Iraq's chemical-weapons program. This message, however, was soon diluted by apologetic explanations of American political necessities, and by additional back-channel assurances of support. The Iraqis shrugged off the public condemnation and moved ahead with their weapons program.
Chances are they would have moved ahead under any circumstances. Such was their taste for chemical weapons that they soon began to use them not only against Iranian forces but also against their own population in the north. That use was embedded in the long-standing anti-guerrilla campaign in Kurdistan, which was pursued by Baghdad with renewed vigor starting in 1983, not because of American diplomatic maneuverings, which had hardly yet begun, but because of the fight-to-the-finish quality of the Iran-Iraq War, to which it was inextricably linked. Simply put, Kurdish guerrillas had sided with Iran—and the Baathist regime, unable to distinguish between combatants, sympathizers, and uninvolved civilians, responded in certain areas by trying to kill them all.
As a foretaste of what was to come, in July of 1983 government forces entered Kurdish resettlement camps and arrested 8,000 men and teenage boys of a prominent and rebellious clan known as the Barzanis. The prisoners were chosen not for what they had done but simply for family association and gender. They were loaded into trucks and driven south into the vastness of the Iraqi desert, where, it is presumed, they were machine-gunned to death and buried. Not one of them was ever seen again.
The following year Hania Mufti was given the Iraq brief at Amnesty International. It was a difficult and thankless assignment of the sort generally handed from one newcomer to the next. But Mufti by then had grasped the seriousness of this work—its consequences for people on the ground—and she applied herself to the problems in Iraq with persistence and intelligence. Penetrating the walls of secrecy around the regime was not easy. Travel to Iraq was impossible, as was safe communication by telephone or mail, and London itself was full of Iraqi spies. Remembering those times, and the difficulties involved in finding and protecting good sources, Mufti recently said to me, "There were people who traveled out of Iraq, who were in a position to know [about Baathist abuses] because of their rank within the political system, but who were able to transmit information to people like us when abroad only at great risk. The usual sources were either the victims themselves who were able to escape, or their families, or people they were in touch with abroad—political parties, sometimes journalists, but rarely. And also other eyewitnesses or former detainees. It was difficult to assess the truth of many things that we were hearing about, because of our inability to do any research on the ground, and our inability even to contact people from a distance, because it would endanger them."
She had to gather the information, in other words, largely from Iraqi refugees—the same people, generally, who in their fear and hatred of the Baathist regime later led the U.S. and British governments to overestimate the military threat posed by Saddam Hussein. Unlike those governments, the human-rights organizations, deeply concerned with maintaining their credibility, proved to be shrewd and reliable analysts, capable of intellectual detachment, and steady under pressure. I asked Mufti if she had heard many stories that had turned out to be untrue. She said, "It happens. You have to see how consistent the story is with others you have heard. You develop a sense of how to measure a story. But in a country like Iraq, where the stories you heard were so fantastic, sometimes I did doubt my own ability to tell truth from fiction." She paused, and shook her head. "What we ended up writing represented a small fraction of what we were hearing about. Sometimes the problem was that we couldn't verify the information to the minimum level necessary to go with it on the public record. For example, we couldn't verify the numbers of executions in any given incident, or in some period, and so we'd have to qualify the information and say 'hundreds' or 'dozens' of executions, or whatever. Or sometimes we'd be deliberately vague in order not to disclose the source. And it was certainly rare to be able to mention the names of victims, because even if they were already dead, the regime would go after their families. We would have to consult with the sources about the consequences of going public with names, and we would say, 'It's your call,' and most of them would say, 'No, don't mention names.' And then it became difficult to go further with it—and when we did go public, the Iraqi government would challenge us, and say, 'These are general allegations. How can we refute them when you don't mention names?' So it was always a Catch-22. But is it better to keep quiet because you can't mention the names, or is it better to raise the issue even though you are not able to take it a step further?" Amnesty answered that question case by case.
Throughout the 1980s, the London staffers said every year about Iraq, "Now, this year, let's finally get the bastards," and of course every year they did not. They worked resolutely nonetheless, publishing the accounts that Mufti and her supervisors judged to be real, no matter how fantastic they seemed. In 1985, for instance, in a report titled "Torture in Iraq," along with a standard litany of police methods (the beatings, shockings, burnings, stretchings, cuttings, breakings, and penetrations that were ordinary for this regime), they went public with information they had received about a bizarre plasma-harvesting program, under which prisoners at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison were killed by being strapped down and drained rapidly of their blood. The writing was typical of Mufti's early work.
Case Number 5: An Iraqi doctor of medicine testified to Amnesty International in 1984 that he witnessed and was forced to participate in the taking of blood from prisoners which resulted in their death. According to his testimony, he was aware of approximately 1000 such operations having taken place during 1982 and 1983. The operations are reportedly directly controlled by Security Headquarters (Ri'asat al-Mukhabarat) in Baghdad, and carried out with the co-operation of a prison director and personnel of the Blood Bank Institute in Baghdad. The following are extracts from his testimony:
"At Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad … where I was told there are … donors who want to donate blood … the prison doctor took me to the prison hospital. I found there two persons in a shock state, immobile, and who exhibited air hunger with a rapid thready pulse and cold, clammy skin. The prison doctor told me that those two prisoners were criminals and that he bled them under the influence of hypnotic drugs in order to benefit from their blood before they are executed. This doctor also told me that he has directives from Security Headquarters to use this method with important political persons so as to give the reason for the subsequent death as 'heart failure.' The directive also applies to criminals sentenced to death."
On another occasion at the same prison: "The prison doctor … told me that he will bleed 3 persons and asked me to help him. When I refused, he told me the Security Headquarters demanded that this operation must be done under my supervision and that if I refused, they will jail me."
Mufti's report continued with the Iraqi doctor's observations of the effects.
"1. He becomes acutely anemic and loses consciousness, due to insufficient blood supply to the brain. The state of unconsciousness is treated by feeding the person with salt water in a quantity equal to the amount of blood taken. This procedure prevents the immediate death of the person.
"2. Despite the fact that the body is compensated for the loss of liquids, the amount of haemoglobin remains very low (2—4 ml per 100 mm), which is insufficient for the functioning of the vital organs.
"3. As a result of this and after 3—5 days, the heart fails and the person suffers from a sharp drop in the heart's activities, which leads to a heart attack and death. Diagnosis shows death by heart attack, and the families of the dead person are officially informed of his death due to this reason."
The report then turned to the comments of an independent hematologist in Great Britain, who wrote that the observed symptoms were consistent with the rapid loss of more than 2.5 liters of blood, five times the quantity of a normal blood donation, or approximately 50 percent of the human body's supply. The hematologist concluded with measured understatement.
"The [Iraqi] doctor states that the collection of blood during the past three years before he left Iraq was non-voluntary on many occasions. If this statement is true, then it is not in accord with the directives of the World Health Organization or any reputable international or national body involved with blood donation and transfusion."
But what was the World Health Organization, or any other reputable body, going to do about it? The answer, quite obviously, was nothing at all. This was the frustration with the Iraq brief. The work required not only an even temperament but also inner strength, and a belief in the inherent value of creating an accurate, long-term record of these crimes.
Mufti's boss at the time, a veteran human-rights investigator named Hanny Megally, once told me, "I remember that in a lot of cases where other people might have given up when they hit a hurdle, or when it looked like you couldn't do something for one reason or another, she would keep trying and looking for another way until she could make it work. And one of the areas where we really saw that was in helping the refugees who were coming out of Iraq." He meant not just providing temporary financial support, for which Amnesty had some limited funds, but, more important, helping escaped Iraqis to win the right to settle as political refugees.
I said, "Helping them in London?"
He said, "All over the place—in France, or in Denmark, or in Sweden, or in Germany, or wherever. The Amnesty sections in those countries would contact the International Secretariat in London, saying, 'These people have arrived. We're trying to help them. They're talking about being arrested during a certain period. Does that tally with your information?' And Hania would painstakingly go back through her research." He returned to the subject later. "Hania just got very caught up. Iraq became her passion, in a way, because it was the hardest nut to crack."
he same was true for the human-rights movement itself. Amnesty International had been tracking Iraq for years, and refusing to give up no matter how great people's frustration at the lack of progress there. Now, like the worst tyrants, Saddam Hussein seemed to be growing more dangerous with age. Amnesty was in a position to understand that this was no longer just another repressive Middle Eastern government at play. It did not call for international justice, but it pursued its investigations relentlessly, in ever greater depth, and produced a body of work that alerted and persuaded others. The subsequent involvement of American organizations, and particularly of Human Rights Watch, turned out to be important. The Americans were energetic, rich, and ambitious. With their addition something like critical mass would be achieved.
The Iraqi government helped too; its depredations were becoming more brutal and brazen. In March of 1988, during a massive offensive against guerrillas in the north, the Iraqi military mounted a chemical attack against Halabja, a Kurdish town of 60,000 people (many of them refugees) near the border with Iran. Halabja had been infiltrated by at least some Iranian forces that may or may not have been in town when, in the afternoon on March 16, Iraqi aircraft began to drop chemical bombs. The bombs seem to have contained mustard gas, and perhaps the nerve agent sarin. The sweet fog seeped through the neighborhoods on the north side of town, and sank into the bomb shelters where many of the citizens were hiding. The citizens tried to flee, and they perished by the hundreds and then thousands in the streets, often in family clusters. Ultimately, according to one estimate, 4,000 died—and perhaps twice that many. Though such figures pale in comparison to those of the surrounding war, the chemical attack on Halabja still stands as the largest atrocity perpetrated by the Baathist regime against its own civilians in a single day. The Iranians exploited it adroitly, by flying in journalists to photograph and describe the death scenes. The news went around briefly, and although for most people the episode remained distant and abstract (Who are these Kurds, and by the way, where is Iraq?), nonetheless, somewhere in the collective consciousness of the world, Halabja lodged and stayed.
An obscure point of history that remains important, however, to Hania Mufti is that Amnesty International did not join in the immediate condemnation of the Halabja massacre, because of the possibility that Iranian forces had indeed been present not merely in the vicinity but inside the town, making this bombing arguably a military matter. Mufti was convinced otherwise, and believed that Amnesty needed to take a stand, but she was overruled, and had no choice but to remain silent—an abdication, as she saw it, that she found
On the ground the situation kept getting worse. In August of 1988, after months of reports of military actions in the northern mountains, word reached the outside world that up to 100,000 Iraqi Kurds were fleeing across the border into Turkey, seeking safety from oncoming forces. The Turkish government had its own problems with Kurdish separatism, and was fighting a vicious counterinsurgency campaign that over the years caused tens of thousands of deaths and major displacements of Kurdish peasants. Nonetheless, Turkey gave shelter to the fleeing Iraqi Kurds, grudgingly, in hastily assembled camps.
It was in those isolated camps along the border with Iraq that Turkish doctors mentioned to the press that many refugees exhibited symptoms of having come under chemical attack. The victims had been blinded and burned, and had difficulty breathing. Some reported that their neighbors and families had been killed by gas. But without reporters on the scene, as they had been in Halabja, the realities remained obscure. After the initial few days the Turkish doctors suddenly grew silent—the result, Mufti believes, of a decision by Turkish authorities to suppress any further commotion about the Kurds.
Several weeks later Mufti flew with a team of Amnesty investigators to the walled city of Diyarbakir, in southeastern Turkey, on her first trip into the Iraqi theater of operations. She and the others augmented the efforts under way by an American group, Physicians for Human Rights, and they managed to drive to some of the border camps, despite roadblocks and attempts by suspicious officials to keep them away. They returned to Diyarbakir, to a hospital where some of the refugees had been taken, but they were prevented from visiting the patients. When they spoke to doctors there, they were given inconclusive descriptions of the injuries. Mufti returned to London and issued a statement that mentioned the possibility of chemical attacks against civilians but for lack of evidence did not pursue the subject.
It took another several years for the truth to come out: what the Turkish doctors had seen (and Mufti had just missed) was evidence of one of the great crimes of the late twentieth century—an Iraqi counterinsurgency campaign that had exceeded all bounds, and indeed had gone quite insane. That campaign was the Iraqi equivalent of the Final Solution—a carefully planned "cleansing" operation, known in Arabic as the "Anfal" (a Koranic reference meaning "spoils of war"), whose purpose was to eliminate the rural population from which the Kurdish rebels were drawn, and to empty the most troublesome valleys, by killing or arresting the inhabitants, razing their villages, and creating permanent free-fire zones where not even livestock would be allowed to live. It lasted for seven months, from February through September of 1988, and was led by Saddam's special envoy, Ali Hassan al-Majid, who during its course earned his name as Chemical Ali. Al-Majid set up a bureaucratic structure to carry out the campaign, creating an extensive documentary record of directives, lists, and interoffice communications, which ultimately were captured and will form the core of his prosecution on charges of genocide. In a directive to relevant military commands (later published by Human Rights Watch) he wrote,
1. All the villages in which subversives, agents of Iran and similar traitors to Iraq are still to be found shall be regarded as out of bounds for security reasons;
2. They shall be regarded as operational zones that are strictly out of bounds to all persons and animals and in which the troops can open fire at will, without any restrictions, unless otherwise instructed by our Bureau;
3. Travel to and from these zones, as well as all agricultural, animal husbandry and industrial activities shall be prohibited and carefully monitored by all the competent agencies within their respective fields of jurisdiction;
4. The corps commanders shall carry out random bombardments using artillery, helicopters and aircraft, at all times of the day or night in order to kill the largest number of persons present in those prohibited zones, keeping us informed of the results;
5. All persons captured in those villages shall be detained and interrogated by security services and those between the ages of 15 and 70 shall be executed after any useful information has been obtained from them, of which we should be duly notified;
6. Those who surrender to the governmental or Party authorities shall be interrogated by the competent agencies for a maximum period of three days, which may be extended to ten days if necessary, provided that we are notified of such cases. If the interrogation requires a longer period of time, approval must be obtained from us by telephone or telegraph or through comrade Taher [Tawfiq] al-Ani …
For information and action within your respective fields of jurisdiction. Keep us informed.
Ali Hassan al-Majid
Member of the Regional Command
Secretary General of the Northern Bureau
This directive prefigured a sustained attack on Kurdistan during which entire valley complexes were cordoned off, one after the other, and then assaulted by conventional ground forces, and by aircraft dropping chemical bombs. Ali Hassan al-Majid had perhaps 200,000 soldiers and security men at his disposal. Over the course of the spring and summer they did exactly what Ali Hassan al-Majid had told them to do.
nvestigators from Human Rights Watch later collected testimony from some of the few detainees to have survived the mass executions of captured villagers, and pieced together stories from those moments of hell, which were published in 1993 in a lengthy report called Genocide in Iraq. Here is one episode, based on the testimony of three Kurdish survivors:
With the bulldozers in the lead, the new nine-vehicle caravan drove west along a bumpy paved road that ran parallel to the Euphrates. In the fading light, the silhouettes of date palms fringed the road to the right. One of the prisoners in Ozer's bus was weak and faint, and a prisoner who spoke a little Arabic begged the new driver for water. This was not allowed, the driver answered. "Let the man die," he said. "You are all men of Jalal Talabani."
After half an hour, the convoy turned right on to a dirt road. Ahead the prisoners saw only desert and darkness. Some began to pray, muttering the Shehadeh—"There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet …" Remembered images of his family flashed through Ibrahim's mind. By now all the men were weeping, asking what they had done to deserve such a fate, kissing each other's beards and exchanging words of forgiveness, as is the Muslim custom among those who know they are about to die.
It was almost dark, and the meaning of time had begun to dissolve. Ozer thought that the sealed buses traveled along this rutted desert track for about ten minutes; Omar estimated that the journey took from 15—30 minutes; Ibrahim said that it felt more like an hour. Suddenly, the bus lurched to a stop, bogged down in the deep sand. The vehicle behind, the last one in the convoy, swerved to the right to avoid it and got stuck as well. Through the wire-mesh screen in the sliding door, Ozer could see that the three remaining buses, as well as the two Landcruisers and one of the two bulldozers, had driven on ahead. In the half-light he could just make out the tops of the vehicles bobbing as they crested a rise and dipped into a shallow depression in the desert a quarter of a mile or so ahead. The driver turned off the engine.
Since the final turn on to the dirt road, there had no longer been any room for denial or wishful thinking. The men knew exactly what lay in store for them, and they began to plan feverishly, speaking in Kurdish in the knowledge that neither the guard nor the driver could understand them. When the guards arrived to kill them, they would put up a struggle. "Even if only one of the thirty-five survived, it was worth the try," said Ibrahim.
In the sudden quiet, the prisoners could hear the steady chatter of gunfire from automatic weapons, and the churning, whining sound of bulldozer engines. After perhaps twenty minutes, the guns fell silent. Out of the darkness, a bulldozer lumbered toward them and took up position behind the bus. Gears screaming, it tried several times to push the vehicle out of the sand, but the front wheels only dug in deeper. Next it tried to lift the bus out by its rear end, and Ozer thought the driver meant to tip them headlong into a trench, bus and all. At last, the bulldozer managed to drag the stalled vehicle out frontwards. The driver climbed down from his cab, exhausted by the effort, and took out his hip flask. The prisoners begged for water, banging on the windowless steel walls. The driver drank deeply and jeeringly held up his flask as the rest of the liquid trickled away into the sand.
It was now 7:30 p.m., and quite dark. The men were just able to tell the time by squinting at a watch that a prisoner from the village of Khidr Beg had somehow managed to hang on to at Topzawa. Twice more, there were volleys of gunfire and the sound of screams. After about half an hour, the two Landcruisers returned, with the officer who had joined the convoy at the bridge over the Euphrates. The driver of Ozer's bus climbed down from his seat, walked around to the back of the vehicle and turned off the overhead light in the rear compartment. Having done this, he went back to his cab and turned his headlights on full-beam. As Ozer and his companions whimpered in panic, the three dozen occupants of the second stalled bus were dragged into the pool of light, and a uniformed firing squad opened up on them with Kalashnikovs and pistols. When the firing stopped, the men were dragged into a freshly dug pit. Ozer noticed that some of the bodies were still moving. Only one busload of prisoners now remained.
The men's plan was this: When the first guard entered the bus to take the prisoners away, the strongest of them would overpower him, grab his weapon and try to wedge the door open. Most of the men were too weak to assist, but Ozer, Omar and a handful of others watched the sliding partition door. Ibrahim waited fearfully at the back, ready to bolt if he could. Through the grille, Ozer could see that two guards with pistols had taken up position on either side of the door; another, who carried a Kalashnikov stood by the driver's seat; while a fourth man, also armed with a Kalashnikov, guarded the outer door, with one foot planted on the step and the other on the ground.
After a few moments, one of the uniformed guards, a burly man with a thick neck, removed the padlock and slid back the connecting door to the driver's compartment. As soon as he did so, a prisoner named Salam lunged forward to strike him. But a second guard in the driver's cab opened fire with his pistol, killing Salam instantly, and slammed the door shut again. Ozer heard the first guard, apparently an officer, declare that he would execute the prisoners one by one.
Seizing command of the situation, Ozer issued his instructions. When the guards took the first prisoner out, Omar would throw his weight against the rail of the sliding door to prevent it from being closed. The other men would hurl themselves into the breach. And that is essentially what happened. The burly guard returned, pulled one prisoner into the open doorway and tied a white cloth around his eyes as a blindfold. As he turned to drag the man away, half a dozen prisoners rushed forward. Several of them laid hold of the shoulder strap of the guard's Kalashnikov, while he kept a firm grip of the stock and the barrel. Ozer yelled at another prisoner to punch the officer in the face. Although the man, like everyone, was weakened by several days without food, he succeeded in landing a blow on the officer's eye. Ozer wrenched the rifle free, but the officer managed to break loose, unclip the magazine and hurl it out of the bus behind him, rendering the weapon useless.
Pouring through the open door, the prisoners cut off the escape of the guard who had been standing by the driver's seat. Gunfire erupted, and two men fell dead on top of Ozer. Another prisoner tried to leap from the bus and was also cut down. As Ozer struggled to free himself, he saw the second of the four guards—the one who had killed Salam—stagger toward him, bleeding profusely from the shoulder. The man was screaming, "Abu Saleh, come and help me!" It appeared that he had been shot by his own side. Ozer reached for the man's pistol but could not find it; instead, he wrestled him to the ground by his injured arm, and the guard lay still, apparently unconscious. Meanwhile the soldiers or police outside continued to rake the bus with gunfire, and the men in the passenger compartment cowered under the bus seats. Bodies piled up inside the bus, and Ibrahim took a painful flesh wound in the right buttock. He was also dimly aware that he could no longer see through his right eye. In the confusion, Omar managed to wriggle under the vehicle as bullets ricocheted from it on all sides. Ozer felt his leg grazed by a flying piece of shrapnel. As he lay there, he heard a strange sound between the bursts of firing. At first he could not place it; then he realized that it was the sound of blood dripping from the bus. Almost all of his fellow prisoners were dead.
Ozer escaped by staggering away into the night, across a desert of corpse-filled trenches, until by chance he found refuge in a Kurdish resettlement camp. He was one of very few to survive that night. Altogether, Human Rights Watch estimated that 50,000 to 100,000 Kurds were killed in the Anfal operations, including many women and children. The operation ended (with a false amnesty) in September of 1988. Later Ali Hassan al-Majid turned over the command to his successor with an impromptu speech, during which he said, "When the amnesty was announced, I was about to get mad. But as a responsible party member I said, okay. I said, probably we will find some good ones among [the Kurds], since they are our people too. But we didn't find any. Never."
In July of 1988 Iraqi ground forces had leveled Halabja with bulldozers and dynamite. That August the eight-year Iran-Iraq War had ended in a cease-fire—a peace that was welcomed by human-rights activists, certainly, but that allowed the Baathist regime to turn increasingly to its domestic enemies. Now, in September of 1988, Mufti and others at Amnesty International felt that the repression of the Kurds in particular was so serious that an argument had to be made that world peace itself was being threatened. As Mufti herself knew, the argument did not bear close scrutiny, and was more a measure of desperation than a practical assessment of geopolitical realities. But on the basis of it Amnesty made an unprecedented approach to the United Nations Security Council, requesting emergency intervention. This was not a call for war, but it was close. The request was ignored. Similar entreaties in Washington fell on deaf ears. Mufti and her colleagues felt hemmed in. They found themselves fighting on two fronts—against the abuses of the Baathist regime, and against the great powers who, despite growing public concern over Iraqi atrocities, refused for practical reasons to get involved.
In 1989 the University of California published a book titled Republic of Fear, a brilliant if sometimes propagandistic examination of Saddam's unique form of totalitarianism, written by an Iraqi expatriate named Kanan Makiya, who had close ties to Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress. Makiya is a charming man, and friends with Mufti, with whom he shared an emotional commitment to the plight of ordinary Iraqis trapped by the Baathist regime. His book was hardly noticed at first, but it was soon swept up in events when Iraq invaded Kuwait, after which it came to serve in Europe and the United States as an essential moral component in the argument for war. However unintentionally, Hania Mufti's humanitarian work did too.
raq attacked Kuwait on August 2, 1990, and with that single disastrous move set in motion an entirely new set of crimes for which Saddam and his lieutenants will stand trial. Those crimes were committed in waves, starting within Kuwait during the seven months of its occupation, then spreading to Iraq's south and beyond, and continuing to ripple for years to come.
The invasion of Kuwait took merely a day. For human-rights workers the world was suddenly stood on its head. The Great Powers had praised but long ignored their work. Now the United Nations, the United States, and the important European powers responded with all the condemnations and sanctions against Iraq that Amnesty International could have hoped for. Beyond that, a five-month military buildup began in neighboring Saudi Arabia. Within Kuwait there was resistance to the Iraqi occupation. Horror stories started to filter out, and though many were distorted for political and military reasons, taken together they indicated that the Baathist regime was treating Kuwaiti society with all the viciousness for which it was known. Indeed, having formally annexed Kuwait one week after the invasion, Iraq had named as the new province's governor none other than the architect of the Anfal campaign, Ali Hassan al-Majid.
During the months that followed Hania Mufti traveled to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to interview witnesses among the approximately 300,000 refugees who had fled Kuwait. She was accompanied by her boss, Hanny Megally. The work was grueling. It involved long drives between distant cities, and negotiations with soldiers and officials, just to get access to the witnesses; as usual, it also involved sorting through difficult stories of the worst sort of suffering, and yet somehow maintaining emotional distance and separating the exaggerations from the facts. Saudi Arabia in particular was burdensome for Mufti, because of the limitations placed on her as a woman there, including such petty restrictions as rules forbidding her to enter government buildings or to check into hotel rooms alone. She wore a veil. One day, while accompanied by five Saudi and Kuwaiti men, she and Megally were stopped at a checkpoint by a Saudi official who said he would have to get them written permission to proceed.
"How many are you?" the official asked.
Megally answered, "Seven."
The official looked at them and said, "No, there are only six."
Megally was confused. He said, "No, there are seven."
So the official counted them—one, two, three, four, five, six men. When he got to Mufti, he made a dismissive gesture, as if she were rubbish.
Back in London she wrote the most important report of her career to date—a meticulous eighty-two-page condemnation of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. Echoes of that condemnation will emerge in court this spring, when Ali Hassan al-Majid and others face charges as leaders of the occupation. In the introduction Mufti wrote,
Widespread abuses of human rights have been perpetrated by Iraqi forces following the invasion of Kuwait on 2 August. These include the arbitrary arrest and detention without trial of thousands of civilians and military personnel; the widespread torture of such persons in custody; the imposition of the death penalty and the extrajudicial execution of hundreds of unarmed civilians, including children. In addition, hundreds of people in Kuwait remain unaccounted for, having effectively "disappeared" in detention, and many of them are feared dead …
Amnesty International takes no position on the conflict in the Gulf, and does not condone killings and other acts of violence perpetrated by the parties to the conflict. What concerns the organization are human rights violations taking place in that context. Those violations which have been reported since 2 August are entirely consistent with abuses known to have been committed in Iraq over many years, and which have been documented by Amnesty International in its numerous reports. Iraq's policy of the brutal suppression of all forms of internal dissent continues to be implemented, and the people of Iraq remain its victims. Amnesty International has repeatedly placed such information on the public record, and regrets that until the invasion of Kuwait, the international community did not see fit to apply serious pressure in an attempt to put an end to these abuses.
The report proceeded into the details, systematically describing a reign of terror, in page after page of unflinching narrative, supported by witness statements. This, for instance, from a Kuwaiti doctor:
"On average, five or six new bodies were brought to the hospital each day. All were males and most were in their 20s. Many bore marks of torture. Judging by the bodies that I personally saw, the methods of torture being used included the extinguishing of cigarettes on the body; burning of the skin with heated metal rods; application of electricity; cutting off of the tongue and ear; gouging out of the eyes and the breaking of limbs. In most of these cases, the immediate cause of death appeared to be a single shot in the back of the head or, in a few cases, a shot in the ear or mouth. I also saw the body of a middle-aged man who appeared to have been strangled with a rope. Most of the victims were Kuwaitis, but among those whom I came across were five Egyptians and one Iranian. Some of the victims had also had their fingernails extracted, and others had swollen feet with pockets of pus as a result of being subjected to falaga [severe foot beatings] for prolonged periods. Some had marks around their ankles, consistent with having been suspended upside down. One had been shot in the thigh … One of the Egyptians I saw had been shot at point blank range in his hand, which looked as if it had been torn to pieces. Some had had their beards plucked out."
According to the information that Mufti was able to gather, the abuses were systematic. In addition to the techniques of torture described above, the investigators heard stories of other methods—of boring a hole in the leg with a drill; of castration; of tying a string around the penis and tightening it; of hammering nails into hands; of inserting bottle necks, sometimes broken, into the rectum; of pumping air into the anus, particularly of young boys; of extinguishing cigarettes in eyeballs; of burning and blinding people with acid and caustic substances; of subjecting people to extremes of heat and cold and thirst; of various forms of mock execution. Summary executions were commonplace, and for as little reason as carrying the former Kuwaiti currency, which had been officially replaced by the Iraqi dinar. Rape was widespread, and was perpetrated against women of all classes and backgrounds, but particularly against Asian maids. Westerners were being hunted, thousands were in hiding, and those who were captured were being sent to Iraq to act as human shields at military and industrial sites. The fate of young Kuwaitis suspected of resistance was worse: a pattern was established by which, after being tortured, they were driven to their homes, displayed to their families for proper identification, and then executed in the street before their families' eyes. Such cruelty defies understanding. Perhaps most shocking, the report repeated assertions by Kuwaiti doctors that amid the sporadic murders of hospital patients and the systematic looting of medical equipment, Iraqi soldiers had discarded as many as 300 premature babies in order to make off with their incubators. This turned out to be not merely implausible but simply untrue. The decision to include it was a rare misjudgment by Mufti; it weakened her work, damaged Amnesty International's reputation for careful research, and indirectly embroiled Mufti in the political controversy that followed. Fundamentally, however, it did not detract from the accuracy of the other information contained in her report.
The report was ready for release in December of 1990, at a time when the buildup of the American-led military coalition was nearly complete, and war seemed close at hand. An intense argument broke out within Amnesty International about the morality of going public with a document likely to be used to help justify a war that would be fought essentially over oil, as they saw it, and that inevitably would kill hundreds if not thousands of innocent civilians, not to mention legions of hapless Iraqi draftees. Mufti believed firmly that the report had to be issued, that the human-rights movement could not remain silent about the abuses being perpetrated, and that in any event the decision to go to war had already been made. She was right, of course, and her argument prevailed. Sure enough, President George H.W. Bush used the report in a television interview with David Frost, during which he said that he had handed it to his wife, Barbara, and that she had read about two pages of it before saying, "I can't read any more." If true, her reaction was sane and self-protective. It is not clear whether President Bush read the entire document. He labeled the crimes it described as "primeval." Or completely modern, as the mood may be.
Mufti was in Washington, watching on television on January 16, 1991, as the air war began. Iraq responded feebly to the attack by firing a few missiles into Saudi Arabia and Israel. Saddam made bellicose noises. The ground war began six weeks later, and ended after merely four days, on February 27, 1991, with an Iraqi defeat. In a reminder of the war's original logic, the retreating troops set fire to the Kuwaiti oil fields. The American-led forces entered southern Iraq and then stopped. Mufti and her colleagues arrived in Kuwait City immediately afterward. Their purpose was primarily to document the Iraqi crimes, but they found themselves overwhelmed by an additional problem, which was the widespread Kuwaiti vengeance that was being carried out against perceived collaborators—mostly foreign. This particular pattern—of the oppressed becoming the oppressors when the tables suddenly turn—is a perpetual problem for human-rights activists, and an indication of the structural challenges that they face in their attempt to remake human behavior. Mufti and her team set to work documenting the new crimes of the former victims, and gamely soldiered on.
Their soldiering soon took them across the border into Iraq, where during the temporary weakening of Baathist control that followed the defeat in Kuwait, a violent Shiite uprising had broken out throughout the country's south. The inspiration for the uprising was an address given by President Bush in Washington just before the ground war. Bush had said, "But there's another way for the bloodshed to stop, and that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands, to force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside, and to comply with the United Nations resolutions, and then rejoin the family of peace-loving nations." It was a statement of fact, and reasonable enough, but in a Middle East where American strength is often confused with intent, it was taken as a promise, which it was not. Apparently the uprising started with a single small mutiny by retreating soldiers in the southern city of Basra, but it spread quickly to the long-suppressed Shiite majority, among whom ordinary citizens picked up guns and knives, and went out to slaughter the agents of the Baathist regime. Within a week most of the Shiite cities of the south had been wrested from Saddam's grasp.
Their autonomy did not last long, in part because the expected American support never materialized. Indeed, though U.S. forces were present in Iraq, they stood back and watched as helicopter gunships and elite troops from the Iraqi Republican Guard retook the south, using heavy and indiscriminate firepower against Shiite citizens. Ali Hassan al-Majid was again in charge. For Hania Mufti as for many Iraqis, the American passivity amounted to betrayal.
Speaking of the Shiite uprising, she recently said to me, "They were let down. Let down at a huge cost to themselves … Those are the kinds of people whose mass graves are now being found. There was a lot of pressure from the neighboring countries, the Gulf states and others, not to go on to Baghdad. And the Americans said, 'Okay, the main aim was to get the Iraqis out of Kuwait, and that's been achieved. That's all we want. To hell with the rest of the country. To hell with the Iraqis. Whatever Saddam does to them now is nobody's concern. It becomes an internal affair.'"
"Sovereignty," I said.
"Sovereignty … If it had been in the Americans' interest, I'm sure they would have found some legal or not-so-legal way of justifying a continuing march on to Baghdad. And at that point if they had marched on to Baghdad, for sure the Iraqi people would have thrown flowers at the soldiers. Now the Americans ask, 'Why didn't they throw flowers at us this time around?' Well, because that kind of betrayal is not easy to forget."
Be that as it may, after three weeks the 1991 uprising was almost over, and mass arrests were under way. Suspected rebels were being tortured, shot, or in at least one instance thrown to their deaths from the heights of multi-story buildings. Thousands of Shiites were fleeing toward Saudi Arabia and across the border into Iran. Others were slipping into the vast alluvial marshes of southeastern Iraq to hide. It was at this time, toward the end of the uprising, that Mufti and her colleagues crossed the border into Iraq. Their visit lasted just a few hours. They drove to the nearest settlement, a collection of tents and ramshackle houses. The settlement was filling with people on the run from Saddam's forces, which were just to the north and approaching. For fleeing Iraqis the border to Kuwait was closed. Mufti walked through the settlement, talking to the refugees about the tactics of the conquering forces. At one point, to her surprise, a man she knew from London walked up to her; he was from a wealthy Shiite family, now on the run. He asked her quietly if she would come with him, and led her to the second floor of a makeshift building, where she found more than sixty people in hiding. Most were women, old men, and children, but some were young men—all from the sort of influential Shiite families, well connected to Iran, that Saddam at the time was gunning for. These people were terrified. For days they had been there in isolation, worried about betrayal, and afraid to speak to anyone until now. They told Mufti that they had no means of communication with the outside world, and asked her if upon her return to her Kuwaiti hotel she would telephone a mutual friend in London, to arrange for an airplane to fly them out to Iran. This she did, and perhaps the airplane did arrive, because recently in Baghdad one of them told her that she had saved their lives.
She returned exhausted to London, wrote furiously, sent off a small team to southern Turkey, and, still exhausted, flew off with another team to Iran. She later told me that the circles under her eyes had never been so dark. The crises in Iraq seemed never-ending. The uprising in the south had spread to Kurdistan in the north, where Kurdish forces had even taken the important, oil-rich city of Kirkuk. The Kurds, however, were no match for Saddam Hussein's army once the Shiite uprising had been suppressed; the army had launched a powerful offensive that had retaken Kirkuk, and was pressing north into the mountains. This time the Western powers had responded, and having drawn a line through the air along the 36th parallel, beyond which Iraqi aircraft were henceforth forbidden to fly, in April of 1991 they declared the north to be a "safe haven," and with subsequent assistance from the United Nations, effectively allowed for the birth of an autonomous Kurdish state. American F-16s patrolled the skies. With fighting on the ground continuing, however, and with memories of the Anfal campaign still fresh, much of the Kurdish population was on the run, whether deeper into the wilds or into Turkey or Iran.
More than a million Iraqi refugees, primarily Kurds and Shiite Arabs, now huddled in Iran. They were held in huge camps strung from north to south along the entire length of the 906-mile border. Mufti and her colleagues traveled among them, interviewing the recent arrivals about Saddam's latest violence. It was another difficult mission. The weather turned hot. The Iranian government placed numerous obstacles in the investigators' way, and at one point held them under town arrest for two days, while various officials discussed the risk that they might make contact with Iranian opposition groups.
They had a "minder" from the Foreign Affairs Ministry with them at all times, whose assignment was to keep them under control. It was a difficult job, because these were not diplomats he was ushering around but tough and determined investigators. When they pulled into the camps, they would quickly be surrounded by hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of refugees, and would take advantage of the commotion to split apart. The minder had no choice but to follow one or another, leaving the others free to do their work. The refugees had no idea who these Westerners were. They would ask for blankets, perhaps, or for help in emigrating to Scandinavia. Eventually the investigators would explain enough of themselves to get the interview process going—ideally in the quasi-privacy of some tent, one person at a time, in production-line style. Mufti set her all-time record for number of interviews during that trip, in a Kurdish camp containing the survivors of the Barzani clan, sixty of whom spoke to her in a single day about the arrest and disappearance of their men, eight years before. These interviews were short, a few minutes each, because their contents closely overlapped. Other interviews could take two hours, or more. Given the enormity of the crimes that had been committed, it was sometimes more helpful to seek volume than depth, and to diversify the people being interviewed so that the testimonies would come from different times and places. Of course by no means did everyone want to talk—whether because of fear and suspicion, or because of the difficulty of reliving traumas that after years could still cause even hardened men to cry. Generally the reception in the northern camps was positive, because of the international charity that the Kurds had long enjoyed. Conversely, in the south the Iraqi Shiite refugees expressed hostility at being merely studied for their plight, and they confused Amnesty International with other international groups that had more-tangible benefits to offer but so far had offered none. They were bitter. Given their own years of repression and loss under Saddam Hussein, why was it, the Shiites wanted to know, that such disproportionate attention had been paid to the Kurds? Why was it that their own uprising had recently been allowed to collapse, yet Kurdistan was now being propped up as practically an independent nation?
These were legitimate questions, to which it was not enough to answer that history is chance, and life is unfair. The Iraqi Kurds have indeed long been favored by the West. One reason may be the extreme beauty of their region—at least as compared with the scorching flatlands that consume the rest of the country. Another reason may be their long and honorable tradition of suffering and resistance, and their refusal nonetheless to resort to the kidnappings, bombings, and other terrorist techniques of the Middle East. Still another reason, though it can hardly be said, may be that they fundamentally do noa target="_blank" hreft like the Arabs, and neither, fundamentally, does the West.
In any case, with Saddam's forces being held at a distance, and de facto Kurdish autonomy developing fast, the pioneers of Western sympathy soon arrived in the north and began a still more ambitious effort to collect evidence of Baathist crimes. In December of 1991 an American team of forensics investigators from Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights crossed in from Turkey for a brief survey of some of the mass graves that had been discovered by the Kurds on the outskirts of several cities. Mufti arrived five months later, traveling alone in May of 1992, on the eve of the first Kurdish elections. There were no hotels. She slept in the border town of Zakho, in the home of a guerrilla fighter. When she went to bed and put her head on the pillow, she felt something hard, and reaching under, found a Kalashnikov. It was the perfect welcome to her first full night in Iraq. I asked her what she had done with the weapon. She said, "I kind of just put it aside and went to sleep, because, you know, it's a tiring trip by road."
The elections had ended by the next evening, when she arrived in the Kurdish city of Arbil. The balloting had gone smoothly, and people were celebrating in the streets, firing their weapons into the air. They were masters of themselves for the first time in centuries, and free at last of Saddam. Mufti crisscrossed the region, interviewing fugitives from the Baathist regime. Most significant, though, she spent time alone in back rooms, poring over captured Iraqi government records, a huge number of which the Kurdish political parties had seized and hauled away during the March 1991 uprising. The records were rigidly bureaucratic in style, and extraordinarily detailed—self-incriminating, perhaps, but a necessary mechanism of Baathist control. They were seized by the Kurds because of what they might show about intelligence operations, about the specific fate of the dead, and about original titles to confiscated properties. But then the physical realities of the collection had set in. Millions of documents, many of them in canvas bags and in binders that were falling apart, had been dumped haphazardly into spare rooms, and if only because of their collective size and weight, they were impossible to sort through. The Kurds had thrown up their hands at the task. They would unlock the back rooms for Mufti and invite her to stay as long as she liked, and sometimes to take whatever documents were of interest to her. She photocopied a few. The reading was riveting to her: here was the criminal regime in its own words. She searched for evidence of certain crimes and, during that process, came across a number of documents pertaining to the Anfal campaign, to specific arrests, and, most surprising, to Iraqi expatriates she knew in London, some of whom had been targets of the Iraqi intelligence services, others of whom had been collaborating—as she now discovered—and had been sending home reports.
The importance of the collection was well known to opponents of Saddam's regime. A small number of them had arrived in Kurdistan to do something about it. They included Kanan Makiya and a man named Peter Galbraith, who at the time was a staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and who over the years since then has proved to be one of the more acute observers of the Iraqi scene. They joined with three investigators from Human Rights Watch, which had decided to commit significant resources to an ambitious project to document the history of the Anfal campaign. At the core of the project were the government records in Kurdistan. With the tacit support of the U.S. government, and a promise to safeguard and catalogue the documents, Kurdish authorities were persuaded that the best hope for the captured records was to release them into American custody. In May of 1992 the first of what would eventually amount to eighteen tons of documents (and a few invaluable audiotapes) were transported to Turkey and then flown by the U.S. Air Force to a government facility in suburban Washington, D.C., where employees of Human Rights Watch and the National Archives launched into the enormous job of translation and analysis. The work ultimately produced a damning record of Iraqi intentions and methods, including incontrovertible evidence of Ali Hassan al-Majid's knowledge and responsibility—documents that will now be used at last in court. Meanwhile, from April of 1992 to April of 1993 investigators from Human Rights Watch spent a total of six months in Kurdistan collecting relevant testimony from eyewitnesses. It was after this work that Human Rights Watch concluded that the Anfal had technically been genocidal, and that although no direct orders had been found, Saddam Hussein himself could be held legally responsible, along, of course, with Ali Hassan al-Majid and others. In the summer of 1993 the organization published its book-length report, Genocide in Iraq, and called for an international tribunal to hold members of the Baathist regime accountable. Specifically, Human Rights Watch had in mind a UN body in The Hague called the International Court of Justice, and a groundbreaking prosecution that would be based on the Genocide Convention. This was the lobbying effort that collapsed when governments turned away.
It was at this time, in the mid-1990s, that satellite pictures began to show evidence of the last great crime for which the Baathist regime will be put on trial—the destruction of the southeastern marshes, and particularly of the unique and ancient "Marsh Arab" culture they contained. On the surface the destruction was merely the sort of thing that governments naturally do—a major river-diversion project, planned since the 1980s, to dry up an unproductive swamp of 7,700 square miles, formed by the confluence of the lower Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and to provide efficient access to the oil deposits that lie beneath it. As usual for the Baathists, however, there was a political logic, and it was vicious. The Marsh Arabs had long lived their lives beyond Baghdad's control. More significant, their watery wilderness sheltered thousands of deserters from the Iran-Iraq War, and it had recently provided a haven to which Shiite rebels had been able to escape during the collapse of the 1991 uprising. It was not by chance that the drainage project began in earnest the following year. The Baathists called it a "modernization" of the region. The drying out proceeded in a patchwork pattern, as dikes and dams went up and drainage ditches were dug. The Marsh Arabs were required to abandon their villages, which were then rocketed or burned. To help persuade them Iraqi forces shot their water buffaloes, destroyed their boats, and sowed the remaining waterways with mines. Village by village, most of the Marsh Arabs moved to the cities and resettlement camps, and started new lives. The stalwarts who refused to leave and tried to flee deeper into the wilderness found that the wilderness was steadily shrinking. They were like game animals flushed by fire. Sooner or later most of them shared the fate of the thousands of fugitives in the region, and were gunned down by helicopters, picked off in infantry sweeps, or rounded up and sent to prison, where many were tortured and killed.
As best she could from a distance, Hania Mufti kept track, but her output slacked off on the subject of Iraq. The truth is she was tired and discouraged, and she badly needed a break. The effort to muster support for a genocide trial had failed. Saddam Hussein remained in power. The Kurds were still killing one another. And to top it off, Amnesty International seemed caught up with internal concerns and increasingly bureaucratic. In the summer of 1997, therefore, Hania Mufti resigned from her job. For a while in London she simply relaxed. She slept late every day, read, and saw friends. After a few months she decided to go back to school, perhaps for a Ph.D. At first she thought she would use her expertise and study something related to the Middle East, but she soon realized that she couldn't bear the topic anymore, and so instead she studied French literature and philosophy. She enjoyed this very much. Like the human-rights movement itself, by the late 1990s Mufti had burned out on Iraq.
rom within Baghdad today it seems like an omen that in the year 2000 Mufti returned to the struggle fully recharged. This time it was for Human Rights Watch, which would soon resume its earlier pre-eminence on the subject of Iraq—a position it has retained ever since. Mufti continued to work out of London. Initially she signed on for only six months, but she kept finding reasons to stay, and then, as she now says, Iraq hotted up. She went to Syria and Jordan to interview refugees from the suppression of a new Shiite rebellion in the south, and documented the latest waves of repression in Baghdad and its environs. In both countries she encountered secret police, but was not directly threatened.
After her September visit to Kurdistan before the American invasion in March of 2003, she returned to London to write, and to help plan for the deployment of Human Rights Watch researchers, primarily to neighboring countries, in the event of the war that now seemed inevitable. She herself intended to be inside Iraq, pre-positioned in Kurdistan, because of the likelihood that the international borders would be closed. Furthermore, she decided to leave London and relocate to Baghdad after the fall of Saddam. All this is indeed what happened. In early March of 2003 Mufti joined up with a mass-graves investigator formerly of Physicians for Human Rights, an American named Eric Stover, and traveled through Syria and then across the upper Tigris by barge, into Kurdistan. Her friends greeted her with delight, because they saw her presence there as a sign that war was really coming. And of course they were right.
The American invasion began on March 19. The bulk of the combat lay far to the south, but there was a northern front as well, where Kurdish fighters, assisted by American aircraft and Special Forces teams, slowly advanced out of the mountains, tying up a portion of the Iraqi army. Mufti and Stover spent most of their time traveling along that front, interviewing deserters and others coming over from the Iraqi side and looking at Kurdish preparations for refugees and, possibly, the use of chemical weapons. They were in a Kurdish town doing just that when, on April 9, Baghdad fell. Wild cheering broke out. That afternoon Mufti and Stover drove to Sulaymaniyah, near the Iranian border. They arrived there in the evening amid a huge celebration that tied them up for hours in traffic. No complaint. Having deposited their car at the hotel, they walked through the dancing crowds on the streets, surrounded by people hugging and kissing. They were asked, as foreigners, to pose with people for photographs. Mufti did not feel like a foreigner, but she gladly played along. As artifacts of the war, those pictures would be worth finding. Mufti claims she is not photogenic, but she must have been radiant that night.
The next day, April 10, she and Stover drove back along the front lines, where in the afternoon they heard that the long-disputed city of Kirkuk had just fallen. Having arranged with a Kurdish political party for armed protection, they proceeded there without hesitation. Rolling in from the north with her Kurdish gunmen, Mufti and the others were greeted as if they belonged to a liberating army—which indeed they did. They had stopped at a gas station to fill up when her satellite phone rang. It was New York calling. The staff had just learned of the fall of Kirkuk, and was sending urgent instructions that under no circumstances should she risk going there. Mufti answered, simply enough, "I'm sorry, but we're already here." And by the way, it was too late in the day to leave. They stayed two nights. The streets were a carnival. Mufti called her husband in London, who said, "Yeah, I can see it on TV." She replied, "No, it's not the same. I wouldn't have missed this for the world." The satellite phone was a bulky Thuraya, which required her to stand outside with the antenna directed southward, toward the equatorial sky. People spotted her with it, and crowded around to call their families abroad with short, happy messages that they were alive.
Of course, most of Iraq was not so glad. In nearby Mosul, as well as in Baghdad and other cities that had belonged to the regime, the Baathist collapse resulted not in street parties but in immediate looting and death—a pattern of chaos that led through the failures of the American occupation to the conflict that consumes the country today. Mufti and Stover were taken to the sites of several mass graves, some of which were clearly visible as mounds of earth. At the time, still only days after the fall of the regime, the sites were undisturbed—but they were also unprotected, and vulnerable to being dug up by relatives of the victims, looking for the remains of their loved ones. Concerned about the effect of such informal excavations on the state of evidence that could prove crucial in an eventual legal case against the regime, Mufti and Stover talked to American soldiers nearby about the need to provide protection. The soldiers answered, correctly, that they were shorthanded, and already overwhelmed by the more pressing needs of an occupying army. Soon afterward the informal excavations began, along with the large-scale looting of documentary evidence that was potentially even more important. Eric Stover left Kurdistan and went home. Mufti stayed on in the north for two weeks, and toward the end of April, on a momentous day in her life, finally arrived in Baghdad. The worst of the looting was over, and there was enough calm in the shattered streets for her to feel the popular elation, despite the fear and violence that lay below the surface.
One day she went to the scene of so much of her research, the prison at Abu Ghraib, whose doors stood temporarily ajar. She found two looters there, looking in the wrong place for prizes. She ignored them. The history of the Baathists' crimes weighed on her mind. Crimes as large as these require a very thoughtful response. Saddam Hussein and most of his circle had not yet been found, but when they were, there would be a need for the deepest sort of justice to be done. Human Rights Watch had renewed that call during the months leading up to war, and it had been repeated by the leaders of Great Britain and the United States. Deep justice in this case would derive from open trials, based on the latest developments in international law, protected from political influence, and competently managed. Trials in which the defendants would have every chance to answer the prosecution, as long as they confined themselves to the specific charges at hand. Trials in which the defendants would be treated firmly in proceedings that would be unassailably fair—and precisely because these men were guilty, and never gave their victims any such chance. Trials that could work as models of enlightenment, and might thereby serve not as a justification of the American intervention but as at least one acceptable consequence of the war. Trials that would stand like islands in the Middle East. This was what Hania Mufti hoped for. Given the finite nature of the task and its obvious importance to both Iraq and the United States, there was no reason to think that it could not be pulled off.
Her acquaintance Salem Chalabi clearly agreed. He despised the former regime but understood the need for genuine justice, and earnestly believed in the possibility of an enlightened Iraq that could deliver it, using international laws and advisers, but managing the process as a national affair. He was probably not the best man to design the tribunal or to run it, but he was the one who was available and sincere. At the end of 2003, when the tribunal was signed into existence, he began immediately to prepare for the first of what he believed would be historically significant trials. It didn't take long, however, for doubts to set in. By the spring of 2004, as he struggled to find capable judges and to pull together a functional team, he began to suspect that the Iraq he'd had in mind simply did not exist. He said this to me at the time. Whatever illusions he still harbored evaporated that summer, just weeks after Iraq became a sovereign state, when he was not merely dismissed from his position by Ayad Allawi's interim government, but also set up on phony murder charges, and essentially banished from the country. As a means of deposing an official, the technique was disturbingly similar to those used by Saddam Hussein, though without the need (yet) for Chalabi to be tortured and killed. He was replaced by a deputy, who in turn was soon replaced by a loyalist to the acting prime minister—a man with no legal experience—and any semblance of judicial independence collapsed.
hat is just one small sample of the troubles that lie ahead. Twenty-three months after the collapse of the Baathist regime, as the first of the trials begins, there is a serious risk that in practice the justice will be shallow. Indeed, the façade of good procedure is surprisingly thin. Beyond it lies tremendous confusion of uncollected evidence—documentary, forensic, and testimonial—most of which cannot be gotten to because of the violence in Iraq, and which has been tainted in any case by looting, forgery, and chaotic pawing-over. Equally problematic are the people involved—not least the judges, who still lack the necessary knowledge, and feel politically and physically vulnerable. Last fall they were sent to London for a week of training. The trip was arranged by a team of American advisers in Baghdad who have been there for more than a year, trying to shape them up. Privately the Americans were discouraged. The trainers who joined the judges in London came away believing that much further work is necessary. Now some of the judges themselves admit that they are unprepared. Were it not for the evidence-gathering done long ago by Human Rights Watch on the Anfal campaign, they would have little or nothing at all.
From the start Human Rights Watch has warned that justice cannot be served in such a haphazard way, and it has tried to bring about changes through private and public comment, with the understanding that the flaws of the tribunal will be locked into place when the first trial begins, but that until then there is a possibility for reform—or even a complete rethinking. Hania Mufti has been in Baghdad, closely watching and arguing the case, in which she has a twenty-year personal stake. Back in New York she has been joined by the hierarchy of the organization, and particularly by one of its lawyers, a man named Richard Dicker, who has provided a wealth of criticisms and suggestions, and has proved to be the most prescient of the tribunal's observers. Most of his comments have pertained to legal specifics, such as the inclusion of the death penalty, the selection of judges, the lack of the prisoners' access to defense counsel, the possibility that information presented may have been obtained through torture, and technical aspects of the rules of evidence and procedure. He has also pointed out that the court is inherently vulnerable to political manipulation. Underlying this weakness is the American insistence on rejecting significant international participation and on making the tribunal a national court—here, in a place that is not really a nation, decimated by decades of repression and war. That is my observation, not Dicker's. But Dicker, in his own travels to Iraq, has been told by Iraqi jurists that the longest trial in the thirty-year history of the Baathist regime lasted only two days. A national court in Iraq is simply incapable of delivering the sort of justice required.
Opposition to the tribunal has put Hania Mufti in something of a bind. On the one hand, she cannot fully participate in the logical conclusion of her decades of labor—for instance, by collaborating with the prosecution as she might if she believed that justice could truly be done. On the other hand, she refuses just to walk away from this history—and in truth is willing to suffer hardships and considerable personal risk to see it through. She told me once about a meeting she had with a group of American representatives to the tribunal, who initially would not allow Mufti to see the proposed rules of evidence. One of them finally admitted, "Well, the folks back in Washington are concerned that if we get you involved in the process, you might trash the whole thing."
Mufti was taken aback. She said, "Look, we've been doing this work for the past two decades, long before the U.S. had any interest. And more than probably anybody else, we want the right kind of justice delivered. So whatever we comment on, whatever we participate in, it's done in a constructive and positive spirit, because we do want this process to work."
Mufti will stay on as a close observer, confronting the problems of Iraq not only in the past but in this present form, the tribunal, today. This is the nature of the life she has chosen. She told me that she knows she lives in an imperfect world. But it happens to be the real world, and she remains determined to make the best of it.
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Excerpts from Amnesty International reports detailing torture by Saddam's regime, along with links to material on the Web about human-rights abuses in Iraq.