Conjuring the Ghosts of Iraq’s Brutal Past
By Tim Arango, NY Times, September 2, 2013
BAGHDAD—These days in Iraq, state-supported reminders of the horrors of Saddam Hussein’s rule are always close at hand.
One of Iraqi state television’s biggest recent hits was a dramatic series about the Baath Party’s crimes under Mr. Hussein. In the office of the human rights minister, glass-enclosed cases display soiled clothing recovered from mass graves. Soon, the government plans to open a museum that will memorialize victims of the former regime and chronicle past abuses.
It might all seem to be an admirable attempt to help Iraqis come to grips with their country’s painful past of sectarian violence—if so many similar, horrific actions weren’t taking place across the country this year, human rights advocates say.
As security has deteriorated, Iraqis say it has become clearer with each bombing attack, each spasm of vigilante violence, that Iraq’s American-trained security forces have been ineffective and, worse, a growing source of abuses themselves. And the hope for stability under Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who has vowed to be a leader for all Iraqis, is giving way to fears that his government is mimicking many of the repressive tactics that his Shiite constituency suffered under the past Sunni minority regime.
As Sunni jihadist groups have staged ever more deadly bombings this year, Mr. Maliki’s forces have responded with their harshest security crackdowns yet—including, rights advocates say, indiscriminate roundups of Sunnis, the use of torture to extract confessions, the tainted use of secret informant testimony to secure convictions and frequent demands for bribes from the families of detainees.
A powerful notion of revenge, a subtext to much of the current turmoil across the Middle East, underlies the increasingly systemic violence in Iraq. Sunni bombings bring Shiite crackdowns as payback, driving more Sunnis toward extremism. Each fuels the other, again and again.
Citizens, frustrated by the inability of their security forces to keep them safe, are beginning to take matters into their own hands, suggesting a new element of instability in the country. As Baghdad suffered through another day of bombings last week, an angry mob in a Shiite neighborhood attacked a man its members suspected of placing a car bomb. They beat and stabbed him to death and then strung his body from a pole and set it on fire. A cellphone video that emerged online showed security forces looking on, doing nothing to intervene.
Further, as more Iraqis, Sunni and Shiite, answer the call to join opposing sides in Syria’s civil war next door, back home it has become easier to think that sectarian loyalty might even trump national boundaries. The violence seems closer than ever, many Iraqis say, as the notion of a unified society drifts away.
Through it all, the government has increasingly engaged in the creative application of history, analysts say.
Earlier this year, after a bloody crackdown on a Sunni protest camp in northern Iraq left dozens dead and set off pitched battles between government security forces and Sunni militias, state television aired documentaries about Baath Party crimes, prompting critics to accuse the government of merely trying to divert attention from its own heavy-handed tactics.
Hamid Fhadil, a political science professor at Baghdad University, said the government’s constant references to the horrors of living under Mr. Hussein’s regime were part of a public relations strategy to mask Mr. Maliki’s failures to provide basic services like electricity and security.
"The government tries to show that the other option to his democratic government will be the return of the Baathists and the torturing of civilians," Mr. Fhadil said.
Yet Human Rights Watch and other organizations, including the State Department, have consistently documented torture and human rights abuses on the current Iraqi government’s watch.
Recently, the International Crisis Group warned of a “revived sectarian civil war” and said a strategy of “tougher security measures has every chance of worsening the situation.”
Mr. Maliki has claimed the mantle of a fighter against terrorism, doing what he must. In a recent speech, he vowed, “We will not go easy in facing the terrorists.”
He said the government had recently arrested 800 people, and “killed tens of others in clashes with the security forces, who also destroyed the infrastructure that they use in manufacturing the tools of killing and bombing, and they seized large numbers of sophisticated weapons and explosive devices.”
By now, many Sunnis say, they have become accustomed to feeling like second-class citizens, much as Shiites felt under the past regime.
"I’m not surprised by what’s happening," said Hakem al-Adhami, who is 54 and unemployed, and who lives in Adhamiya, a Sunni enclave in Baghdad. "They are seizing the Sunnis and increasing their political enemies."
He said the government pressured Sunnis to provide intelligence on terrorist activity. “And then there are explosions, and then the Sunnis are accused of being terrorists, and they start arresting them,” he said.