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Of Prisons and Palaces

From the August 4 / August 11, 2003 issue: Notes from liberated Iraq.

Aug 4, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 45 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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"Many of those prisoners were charged and imprisoned for very, very serious crimes," Irvine continues. "Especially in Baghdad, the military forces have been arresting people who were actually released here. So we believe that a high percentage of the people who were released are actually involved in criminality now in Baghdad." Many Iraqis who survived their sentences here have returned since their country was liberated on April 9.

As we walk down the hall towards the dining facility, now a makeshift sleeping room for hundreds of American soldiers, one Iraqi walking with us stops me and another American. We are not quite sure what he's doing with the group--perhaps he's a contractor or a former guard. He grabs the electrical wires hanging from the wall of one cell, applies them to his body, and shakes violently, as if being shocked.

The walls of the cafeteria are decorated with pictures and tributes to Saddam Hussein. Our interpreter translates: "All love and faith to our leader, Saddam Hussein." "Say yes, yes to leader Saddam Hussein." "There's no life without the sun, and no dignity without Saddam."

On one wall, accompanied by a 15-foot mural of Saddam wearing 1970s retro-porn sunglasses, is a mock prison identification card for Iraq.

Father: Saddam Hussein

Mother: Arab Nation

Title: Leader of Victory and Peace

Date of Birth: 17th of July

Type of Blood: Arab milk

Place of Birth: Under the Shade of a Palm Tree

Distinguishing Marks: The tattoo of sincerity

Profession: Knight of the Arab nation

Address: From the Gulf to the Ocean

Place of Birth: In the heart of every Arab citizen

Ideology: Socialist Baath Arab Party

Writer of this ID: The Arab nation

"The horror of this place and the kinds of things that went on here I think can help you understand why the fear of Saddam Hussein hasn't left this country, especially because people are convinced that he's still alive," said Wolfowitz after the tour.

Bill Irvine says plans are in place to make most of the prison a memorial. "It'll be a reminder for many, many years of what happened here."

ONE MIGHT EXPECT a visit to Abu Ghirab would stir reflections on the most profound matters--the nature of evil, the existence of God. Instead, I could not shake words I'd read in the Washington Post of July 15, 2003, the day before I'd left for Iraq. Reporting on the likelihood of stepped-up attacks on coalition forces on July 17, a national holiday under the previous regime, Kevin Sullivan wrote: "Although Iraq's new Governing Council's first official action was to abolish Hussein-era holidays, July 17 still stands for Saddam in a country deeply unsure if the military occupation is better than his dictatorship."

A country deeply unsure if the military occupation is better than his dictatorship. Could this be true? What about the question put so well in a headline over a column by Michael Kelly in that same newspaper just weeks before his untimely death: "Who Would Choose Tyranny?" Could it be that Iraqis might actually prefer despotism to freedom, so long as the despot was one of their own?

Judging from dozens of interviews with Iraqis, U.S. soldiers, and representatives of humanitarian and aid groups over the course of our trip, the answer is no. Most Iraqis are overjoyed about their liberation. The American troops I spoke with, even those from units that have suffered postwar casualties, said they have received a warm welcome from their hosts. But most surprising were the strong words of praise for postwar Iraq from NGO leaders. If even some of what this delegation heard is true, the reconstruction of Iraq is going much better than reports in the American media suggest.

In Najaf on July 19, Wolfowitz met with the new city council. In this Shiite holy city, as elsewhere throughout the country, Iraqis had a two-part message. "You have done tremendous things for Iraq," said Haydar al Mayalli, the interim governor. "You still have a heavy responsibility towards our country. You have commitments that must be filled to the Iraqi people. And we are grateful that you have opened the door to democracy and freedom."

A local sheikh spoke next. "By destroying the instruments of terrorism and the Baath party, the people of Najaf breathe in relief," he said. He listed infrastructure, electricity, water, and security as Najaf's most pressing needs, before reminding Wolfowitz of the stakes. "The world is watching you to see what you do."