“Majnoon” is what they call the marshes on the border that divides Iran and Iraq just below the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. It’s the Arabic word for “madness.” And in the spring of 1984, when the Majnoon marshes became the latest battlefield in the prolonged Iran-Iraq War, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein redefined the word.
As one of only a handful of European and American journalists who managed to reach the actual fighting at the time, I watched Hussein’s army slaughter thousands of Iranian soldiers in a rare and little-known military operation that combined high technology, hatred and the horrors of war into a blend of brutality almost beyond comprehension.
What we saw was vintage Saddam Hussein, the efficient and surgical military muscle that made the Persian Gulf War one of the bloodiest in the history of man and made Hussein himself the most awesome leader in the Arab world.
And it left behind haunting images that now help define America’s newest enemy in the Middle East and graphically underscore the ruthless dedication of his million-strong war machine.
The Battle of Majnoon wasn’t nearly as widely documented as Hussein’s use of vast chemical weapons arsenals on Iraq’s rebellious Kurds, whose poisoned bodies littering the roadsides have been shown time and again on Western television during the past 10 days. Nor was it as well publicized as the Iraqi leader’s devastating “War of the Cities” missile attacks on schools, homes and mosques throughout Iran during the eight-year war.
In fact, there were very few shots fired, and only a handful of artillery barrages. They were hardly needed, given the creative killing methods devised by the Iraqi army for the occasion.
“You wait until nighttime, and you will see how we are killing these Iranian dogs,” an Iraqi officer said with a broad grin. “We are frying them like eggplants.”
He then took us on a tour of dozens of thick electrical cables his troops had lain through the marshy battlefield, a spaghetti network that snaked in and out of the patchwork of lagoons. He showed us the mammoth electric generators that fed the exposed power lines from positions just behind the Iraqi front lines. And, when the Iranian Revolutionary Guards made their regular evening advance, the officer and his men demonstrated the macabre genius of their invention.
Iraqi gun batteries fired just enough artillery to force the Revolutionary Guards from their marsh boats, and, when hundreds of them had been forced to continue their advance through the lagoons on foot, the men manning the Iraqi generators flipped a few switches and sent thousands of volts of electricity surging through the marshland.
Within seconds, hundreds of Iranians were electrocuted.
But the horror show did not end there. The following morning, Iraqi troops began another grisly routine that the officer called “the morning road detail.”
They made their way through the marshes, gathering up the dead Iranian soldiers like dynamite fishermen harvesting a day’s catch. Working methodically, the Iraqis piled the corpses on top of one another in the water in head-to-toe stacks, five bodies high and five across.
Together, the human piles formed long rows, the width of a troop truck, the top layers above the water’s surface. Each row extended in a straight line through the marshes from the Iraqis’ positions toward the Iranian border. Finally, the rows were sprinkled with lime and covered over with a foot-thick tier of desert sand.
It was the Iraqi method of road building, using the bodies of their enemies to construct assault routes for tanks and trucks.
There are other grisly anecdotes from the Iran-Iraq War that help define Saddam Hussein--glimpses of an enigmatic leader who in the last 12 days has sealed his nation to all outside journalists and crafted his image through Iraqi government television clips.
For Saddam Hussein, a teen-aged assassin who led his splinter faction of the Arab Baath Party to power in a ruthless July 30, 1968, coup, the pursuit of physical power and military might has been as much a characteristic as his penchant for security.
During three meetings with Hussein in small press conferences or interviews in 1984, I was led through three metal detectors each time and thoroughly body-searched twice by his personal guards. Throughout the rambling sessions, Hussein turned answers into political diatribes and always referred to himself in the third person.
Every trip he made outside his presidential palace was an unscheduled, surprise visit. Foreign journalists were never permitted to accompany him. And he would travel in a convoy in which several limousines were used as decoys.
It was during another rural journey through the Iraqi countryside that it became clear Hussein’s troops were capable of using on their own people the very same ruthlessness they show their enemies.
There were three of us that day, journalists from the United States, Britain and Canada, traveling by civilian bus on an unauthorized trip from the capital of Baghdad to the southernmost war-front city of Basra. Every 20 or 30 miles, our bus was stopped at military checkpoints. At first, we were afraid for ourselves. We were traveling out of Baghdad without permission. But, each time, the soldiers who boarded the bus approached us only with genuine smiles and awkward greetings in broken English. And each time, they left the bus with several young men in civilian clothes.
Finally, at a checkpoint near Basra, we learned all too clearly the purpose of the searches.
A young man who had been pulled off the bus by the troops turned suddenly from the checkpoint and started running from the soldiers. As we watched through the bus window, three of the soldiers calmly knelt, took aim and shot him several times in the back.
Noting the horror in our eyes, an elderly passenger sitting nearby turned to us, brushed the air with her hand, as if swatting away a fly, and said, “Deserter.”