Robert Fisk: What Iraqis will think about the photos of Uday and Qusay
The Americans peppered their car with bullets. The vehicle burst into flames. And the Americans just left. For half an hour, the car blazed out of control. Whether the Iraqi occupants had already died of their wounds or were burnt alive, no one knows.
What Iraqis will think about the photos of Uday and Qusay
Robert Fisk in Baghdad
25 July 2003
Arabs have never been squeamish about death. They see too much of it. It is we Westerners with our dangerous, all-conquering armies and our easy identification of evil who agonise over our moral sensitivities at the mere sight of a mortuary mugshot. I cannot think of an Iraqi or a Palestinian or a Lebanese, for that matter who hasn't seen, with their own eyes, the decapitated victims of air raids and massacres, the military corpses torn to pieces by dogs in the deserts of Iraq or the mass graves of Kurdistan. Like Hieronymus Bosch and Goya, they've seen it all. So on the streets of Baghdad this morning, Iraqis will pore over the all-too-soon-to-be-iconic photographs of Uday and Qusay, and their reaction will be quite unlike what many of us expect.
They will say, some of them, that yes, that's them, the terrible brothers, the "lion cubs" of the monster of Baghdad. That, of course, is what we, the West, want them to say.
And we want the guerrillas attacking the American army with such ferocious efficiency - the so-called "remnants" of Saddam's regime, though most are anything but that - to throw in the towel. You can almost hear the comic-book narrative in which this idea was dreamt up in the Baghdad marble palace from which the occupation authorities run Iraq: "Look! It's true, Mohammed - They're dead! It's all over for us!''
Other Iraqis will ask - a good question this - why they couldn't see these pictures on Wednesday, or indeed the day before? Others still will ponder the old Arab belief in the moamarer, the plot, the conspiracy. Did the Americans linger to fake the pictures? Have they digitalised the brothers' faces to make them appear dead while still they live?
The bullet wound in Uday's head, for example, the one that knocked out the teeth and part of the nose. Now there's many an Iraqi who would like to have fired the fatal shot. But what if Uday took his own life? What if he went down fighting, saving the last bullet for himself? Now that is an idea which can appeal to the tribal nature of Iraqi society. Iraqis have spent their lives fighting foreigners. Wasn't Uday doing the same?
And history, which has an unhappy way of reorganising the most staged of events, might just conspire to turn these photographs into those of martyrs. Which is what the Baath militiamen will do. Cruel the brothers may have been. But cowards? That will be the message.
During the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, Iraqis became anaesthetised to death. It arrived at their homes in coffins from the battlefront. More to the point, it arrived every morning in their newspapers, page after page of photographs of Iranian corpses from the front line, month after month, strewn across the sand, cut in half by shellfire, decapitated, eaten by dogs. They were the hated enemy and the pictures proved that they were finished. But after some years, Saddam's government realised that Iraqis felt sympathy for all these dead men, realised that they were some other mothers' sons, not unlike their own. Then the pictures ceased to appear.
So the publication of the Uday and Qusay photographs will prove to be either a stroke of genius or a historic mistake of catastrophic consequences.
The occupation authorities are pondering the idea of plastering the pictures around Baghdad. But be sure, they will soon be used as martyrs' photographs on posters with a somewhat different message. The work of the Americans. The work of the occupiers. And here, I suspect, will come the rub.
We like to show proof that our enemies are vanquished. We published photographs of Himmler's body to prove to the Germans that the SS Reichsführer had indeed committed suicide. Note here, by the way, how we always called the monsters of Nazi Germany by their family names, how we chummily call the monsters of Iraq by their first names, horrible cousins rather than wicked murderers. But even this is not the point.
For in Iraq, I suspect, there will be a growing number of young men who will see the need in these pictures not to content themselves with regime change, with the realisation that they can believe in a new future, but to revenge themselves upon the foreigners in Iraq, to avoid the further humiliation of occupation. They may not have been Baathists. They may have hated the sons of Saddam. But after death can come a remarkable reversal of fortunes for the dead.
For real life on the streets of Baghdad does not incline Iraqis to love their new occupiers or meekly accept the "democracy'' which we wish to thrust upon them, just because we can prove that their old masters are dead.
Take the moment yesterday when Mohamed Eaden put his key in the padlock of the Kindi Hospital mortuary, placed a tissue over his nose and heaved open the great freezer door to show me two sets of human remains, something infinitely worse than the last pictures of Uday and Qusay. For there lay on the floor yesterday's forgotten victims of the Iraq war, a pile of blackened bones and incinerated flesh on plastic sheets.
As three more American soldiers were killed in an ambush outside Mosul - revenge comes swiftly in this dangerous country, for the men of the 101st Airborne died scarcely 36 hours after Saddam's sons were killed near by - the two shrivelled corpses in the mortuary of the Kindi Hospital lay unidentified and uncared for, further reason for Iraqis to hate their occupiers.
Of course, we occupied ourselves yesterday with those photographs and with the deaths of the Americans. The 101st was the same unit that killed Uday and Qusay Hussein on Tuesday and there was a fair chance that the guerrillas who ambushed their convoy near Qayara did so in retaliation; indeed, yesterday evening came reports of another ambush on the Americans in the Baghdad suburb of Doura, a Humvee military vehicle blown up by a mine.
Newly painted on the walls of the Doura highway yesterday I found the following words: "The al-Juboura tribe [loyal to Saddam's Tikriti family] promises 75,000 warriors to strike the American criminals."
But no one bothered to ask about the two Iraqis gunned down by the Americans in the slums of Hay al-Gailani.
Down the road yesterday morning drove two men. Their crime was to drive into a barbed wire entanglement on a road where American troops had mounted a sudden barrage. "Failed to stop at a checkpoint", was the reason given for the deaths - under daily attack, the Americans regard that as a lethal mistake - though few people could imagine the horror that lay behind those words yesterday.
Hay al-Gailani houses the poorest of the poor in Baghdad, a place of decaying wooden huts and 19th-century mud houses, of open sewers where children with matted hair walk in bare feet. Down the road, then, at 7am drove the pair. They failed to stop. The Americans peppered their car with bullets. The vehicle burst into flames. And the Americans just left. For half an hour, the car blazed out of control. Whether the Iraqi occupants had already died of their wounds or were burnt alive, no one knows.
What is clear is that it was the men and women of Hay al-Gailani who had to wait for the burning car to cool before they could heave the terrible remains from the embers of the front seats. "There were just bones and flesh," Mr Eaden told me. "And of course there were no identity papers left and even the number plate had been turned to molten metal so they hadn't the slightest idea who these dead men were and the Americans obviously didn't care."
Four local men from Hay al-Gailani turned up at the hospital at 10.30am with plastic bags containing the remains. No American troops visited the mortuary or called to inquire about the identity of the men they had just killed, although somewhere in Baghdad last night there must have been relatives wondering why their loved ones had not come home.
Their car was left in the street, shredded by bullets, a crowd of angry Iraqis banging their fists on the roof. The Americans had even left their barbed wire tangled round the front of the incinerated vehicle. Was there a better way to enlist more men in the battle against the occupation?
Of course, the only bodies in which the Americans were interested were those of Uday and Qusay. As for the remains in the Kindi mortuary - and no photographs of them, please - old Mohamed Eaden was possessed of one idea.
"I sometimes have a feeling about the dead who are brought here," he said. "I have this feeling that the two men in the car were brothers. I don't know why. It's a feeling." But these were brothers whom no American was going to care about - and of whose death no Iraqi had to be informed.
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