Human rights group shifts focus

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BAGHDAD, Iraq - Officially, it is the Committee of War Rejecters, but its members prefer to call themselves the men with cut ears.

Its chairman is a homeless 29-year-old named Saad Kadim, who joined the National Society for the Defense of Human Rights last year to document three decades of abuses committed by the regime of dictator Saddam Hussein.

Kadim is missing the top half of his right ear, the punishment inflicted for deserting the army in 1994, branding him a traitor. Three thousand men are registered with the committee, and Kadim believes there are thousands more yet to be found.

But he has lost interest in searching. The rights society, established to document mass graves and other atrocities from Hussein's era, has shifted from recording the horrors of the past to documenting abuses of the present.

Locked in a cabinet in the organization's decrepit offices are two binders listing what it calls extrajudicial killings, arrests of innocents, destruction of homes and mistreatment of prisoners. One is labeled "Saddam." The other is labeled "Americans."

"We are by no means done figuring out all that Saddam did," said Hussein Mohammed el-Saadi, the founder of the society. "It is indeed unfinished business. But because of what is going on in our streets right now, we have for the time being postponed our earlier work, such as looking for mass graves."

The deliverance from a brutal regime to an unwanted occupation has created a surplus of unexpected work for human rights organizations.

The offices of the National Society for the Defense of Human Rights are on the second floor of a building without doors and windows. Sand is piled in many of the rooms, and an otherwise attractive view of the Tigris River is obscured by mounds of trash and twisted metal.

The walls are decorated with posters of Iraqi prisoners screaming in agony. The desks were salvaged from a garbage dump. The most modern piece of equipment is the single telephone; the typewriter is manual. Still, the files are well-kept and neatly arranged, with victims sorted by name and the type of injury or death, along with letters from U.S. commanders rejecting claims for compensation.

One day last week, a cross section of Iraqis in need of help came into the office. Each had been aggrieved by both old and new governments. Each had been traumatized by the past but was angered by the present. Each professed to enjoy his new freedoms but missed the old order.

Kadim was angrier with the "American oppressors" than those who cut his ear. Rajaa Rashid blamed Americans for the death of her son, a bystander who died in a roadside explosion aimed at U.S. troops, and is seeking money to feed her family.

Col. Hussein Abdul Wahid Jadooa, police chief of the Baghdad slum known as Sadr City, wanted compensation for his house, which was blown up by insurgents.

"We Iraqis seem to be judged by history to live with tragedy," said el-Saadi, who worked as a clerk in the Justice Ministry before the war. "But that doesn't mean we will surrender. We are grateful for what the Americans did, but we're not happy with what they are doing now.

"After Iraq is stable and is being run by Iraqis, it will be easier for us to find all of Saddam's abuses," he said. "For now, we must discover the new abuses before they disappear. The Americans can't come in here promoting democracy and values and then justify their own abuses by saying what Saddam did was worse."

Kadim said he hasn't had a job since deserting from the army in 1994, when he refused to obey orders to shoot unarmed Kurds in the north. He said he was thrown into jail and subjected to electric shocks through his fingers, which are curled and deformed.

Freed after a few months, Kadim said he sought out his jailers and beat them. His stepmother turned him in, and he was sent to prison and beaten again. After his release, Kadim said, he was taken to a doctor to have the top of his right ear cut off, a mark preventing him from finding even a menial job.

"My fate was never the will of God," he said, "but the will of Saddam."

He still has no paying job, and he is no longer interested in tracking down others with cut ears, because there is new work to do.

"The Americans saved us from a dictator but took away our humanity," he said. "Day after day it dissolves. It is freedom with no meaning."

Rashid, a quiet woman of 53 dressed in a traditional black abaya that covered her from head to sandals, walked into the rights office clutching a frayed blue folder and a plastic identification card. It was a photo of her son, Oan Jabar Mizil.

Mizil was among four people killed by a roadside bomb that damaged an Army vehicle and wounded three soldiers. It happened Dec. 5, according to the handwritten Iraqi police report she brought.

Rashid said that her husband died years ago and that Mizil was her only son old enough to work. She came to the rights group to file a claim with the Army for compensation.

"I know the Americans did not kill him directly," she said, waiting two hours for a lawyer. "But if they weren't here, the bomb wouldn't have gone off and my son would still be alive. They should pay me."

Life under Hussein was better, she said, because "we had money. Now, no one in my family has a job and I'm minus a son. I thought it would be better, but there is nothing."

A lawyer eventually came, listened patiently to her story and read the report. He promised to write to the Army but told her not to expect anything.

The rights group couldn't help Jadooa either. He is the police chief of Sadr City, where insurgents have battled U.S. troops. Jadooa obtained his crisp blue uniform, his rank and his gun from the Americans, and that makes him a target.

On March 28, as he, his wife and their four children slept, a bomb containing 14 pounds of TNT went off at his house in western Baghdad, sheering off the front but not injuring anyone. Like Rashid, Jadooa came to the rights group seeking money. He, too, brought a file with reports and photos of his ruined home. He, too, was sent away.

"They told me they only help people hurt by the Americans," he said, shaking his head as he left, his armed bodyguard trailing closely.

A few weeks ago, he said, he was in a police car behind an Army Humvee that came under fire. He said soldiers shot back on a crowded street. Minutes later, a small car crashed into his vehicle.

"We jumped out, expecting an attack, and found that the driver was dead, shot in the head," he said. "The soldiers just drove off. How do I explain that to people?"

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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