A timely primer

Posted: Mar 07, 2003 12:00 AM

The solid reasons for going to war with Iraq -- and rebuilding that nation as a democracy -- are cogently and succinctly sketched in Lawrence Kaplan and William Kristol's slim volume "The War Against Iraq." The case does not rest upon humanitarian concerns alone, but if it did, it would still be powerful.

The tyranny that Saddam has imposed on Iraq has few equals in the world today. International human rights groups, as well as the United Nations, report that some 16,000 Iraqis have disappeared, never to be accounted for. Saddam's agents are everywhere searching out evidence of disloyalty. The British Index on Censorship, Kaplan and Kristol recount, reported a case in which a Baath Party member was present at a gathering where jokes at Saddam's expense were exchanged. The party member -- along with all of the other males in his family, was executed -- and the family home was bulldozed. Another man had his tongue sliced off for "slandering" the Iraqi leader.

One of Saddam's first acts after coming to power in 1979 was to declare the existence of a "Zionist spy ring." Fourteen people, including 11 Iraqi Jews, were strung up before a crowd of thousands in Baghdad, and over the course of the next several months, hundreds of Muslims said to have collaborated in the plot were also executed. Saddam had the "plotters" executed on live television and their bodies hung from lampposts in the city.

In 1992, Saddam arrested 500 of Baghdad's most successful businessmen on charges of "profiteering." Forty-two were executed, their bodies left hanging outside their stores with signs around their necks saying "Greedy Merchant." In 1994, the regime issued a new decree announcing that anyone found guilty of stealing an item worth more than $12 would have his hand amputated. For a second offense, the thief would be branded.

Many regimes practice torture on their enemies. But Saddam tortures the children of his enemies before their eyes. Kristol and Kaplan quote testimony from a former political prisoner provided by Middle East Watch: "Each hour, security men opened the door and chose three to five of the prisoners -- children or men -- and removed them for torture. Later, their tortured bodies were thrown back into the cell. They were often bleeding and carried obvious signs of whipping and electric shock. ..."

Twenty-nine of the children mentioned in that particular report were eventually killed. Their bodies were returned to their parents with the eyes gouged out. Saddam often took his own sons to the nation's prisons to have them observe the torture -- the better to "toughen them up."

During the war with Iran (which is predominantly Shiite), Iraq's own Shiite population came in for especially brutal treatment. Thirty-five thousand Iraqi Shiites were driven out of the country at the start of the Iran/Iraq war, and thousands more were tortured and murdered before the war was finished. Following the Gulf War, Saddam's genocidal fury was even worse. When the Shiites in southern Iraq rose up in rebellion, Saddam determined to kill as many as he could. An Iraqi army document, obtained by the U.S. State Department, showed that Iraq's military was under orders to "withhold all foodstuffs, ban the sale of fish, poison the water and burn the villages." As many as 100,000 Iraqis were murdered by the regime in the months following the Gulf War.

Saddam's treatment of the Kurds was, if possible, worse. The Kurds are a non-Arab minority living in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia. Saddam accused the Kurds, who are Sunni Muslims, of collaborating with the Iranians and gave orders for their extermination. The Iraqi air force used chemical weapons to gas the towns of Halabja, Goktapa and two hundred smaller villages, killing as many as 200,000. Mothers were found with their scarves wrapped around their babies' faces, hoping to protect them.

The humanitarian one is not the only case to be made for intervention in Iraq. But it should be kept in mind as America's enemies, both foreign and domestic, seek to put the most sinister possible spin on President Bush's policy. It's a war for oil, or for hegemony, or for empire, they cry. In searching for ways to discredit and undermine the case the war, they are propping up the butcher of Baghdad.