Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

The Missing Rebels

A key reason Iraqis have not risen up against Saddam Hussein is that hundreds of thousands were "disappeared" the last time they did.
By Dr. Sahib

The United States is surprised that Iraqis are not rising up to overthrow Saddam Hussein. A popular uprising, it seems, was part of President Bush's war plan.


Many reasons have already been given to explain why Iraqis are not rebelling against the Ba'athist structures that maintain Saddam Hussein power today. They recall that President Bush the father urged Iraqis to rise up in 1991 and then allowed them to be put down with overwhelming force. They warn that Washington has misunderstood the Iraqi character: no Iraqi wants a military governor, or even a civilian governor, imposed from outside.


But so far no-one has mentioned the reason which, I believe, is the most important: in crushing the 1991 uprising, Saddam Hussein "disappeared" more than 250,000 Iraqis - by our count and by that of other, international, human rights groups. Virtually all of them are missing to this day. Among them are many who could have given leadership and direction both during this war and when - if - Saddam's regime is finally overthrown.


On 20 October last year, in an apparent attempt to win popular support for a war he knew was threatening, Saddam Hussein amnestied all Iraq's common criminals. He released one political prisoner - Sayyed Mohammed el-Tabatabai, a Shia cleric from the holy city of Kerbala. The release of el-Tabatabai, an octogenarian, grabbed the headlines. Overlooked was the fact that all the other political prisoners, including the hundreds of thousands who were "disappeared" in 1991, remained behind bars.


Shortly before the outbreak of war, the Iraqi government invited journalists gathering in Baghdad to visit the notorious abu Ghraib jail. They found it empty. This, again, made headlines. But again there was an omission: no mention of the fact that another, even more notorious jail - Radwaniyah - was not opened for public scrutiny. Not Radwaniyah - and not any of jails run by Iraq's feared Amn security services.


What happened to the men and women taken from abu Ghraib? Where are they now? Are they dead? Or transferred to some jail deep in the Iraqi desert? We are very much afraid that they have all been killed.


Although it is not possible to gather exact figures, investigations in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces by the Organisation of Human Rights in Iraq suggest that as many as 400,000 Iraqis could have been "disappeared" in or immediately after the 1991 uprising. The majority are Shias and Kurds. As well as many ordinary men and women, they include more than 100 clerics on the staff of the late Grand Ayatollah abu al-Qasm al-Khoei; two brothers, sons and nephews of Sayyed Mohammed Bahr el-Uluum; and Mohammed Ridha el-Hakim, detained in the holy city of Najaf in March 1991 and never seen since.


Mohammed Ridha is one of dozens of members of the el-Hakim family who have gone missing without trace since Saddam rose to power. Another 27 have been murdered by the regime.


Today the concern of human rights activists and of Shias in Iraq and all across the Shia world is that Saddam, in an attempt to rally the Shias of Iraq behind him, will shell the holy shrines in Najaf and Kerbala and blame it on British and American forces.


Exactly this happened in 1991, on the orders of Hussein Kamel, one of Saddam's sons-in-law. Today the man in charge of the war in southern Iraq is Ali Hassan el-Magid, one of Saddam's most brutal henchmen and the "Chemical Ali" of Kurdish legend - a man who will stop at nothing to prevent Shias from rising up against the regime.


Around the holy cities, the armies of both sides are attacking and retreating. No reliable news from inside is reaching the outside world. There are no words to express our concern and our fear.


Sahib el-Hakim is a human rights activist and head of the London-based Organisation of Human Rights Organisation in Iraq.


More IWPR's Global Voices