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Actor’s new role: Iraqi hangman

Times Staff Writer

Basam Ridha traded the business of Hollywood for the business of hanging.

The Los Angeles resident, an Iraqi who fled Saddam Hussein’s regime 25 years ago, is a member of the Screen Actors Guild with a smattering of small parts alongside the likes of George Clooney and Omar Sharif. But he’d rather be known for his current role: as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s advisor on judicial matters and executions and the go-to man for all things gallows.

Life in the concrete-and-dustbowl environment of Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone is far different from his time in Southern California. Ridha speaks longingly of his hillside home in San Dimas: the panoramic view toward Los Angeles, the yard full of fruit trees, and the pleasure he used to take driving his children to school, without a coterie of bodyguards.

But he has no regrets. Each time the noose tightens around the neck of a Hussein aide and the platform falls away, Ridha thinks of the tens of thousands of Iraqis -- including his brothers, Bashar and Qazem -- who were killed by Hussein.

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“The blood of my brothers will not go in vain,” said Ridha, a longtime Iraqi American activist who was asked to return to Baghdad in 2005 to work with the first post-Hussein Iraqi government. When Maliki took over the following year, he asked Ridha to stay on.

“I feel like I deliver something to the Iraqi people, and I feel good about it when I take these people and send them to the gallows,” said Ridha, whose office is in a dilapidated high-rise that once housed Hussein’s ministers. “It is not a nice thing to see someone being killed or dying in front of you, but I look at them and say, ‘These are the people who killed my people.’ ”

In a land of perpetual insecurity, Ridha may have one of the most secure jobs around. He has a firm future keeping watch on the high-profile trials of Hussein’s aides on charges of human rights abuse and arranging the logistics of executions.

“All the details, from A to Z,” Ridha says proudly.

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The deposed president and three close associates already have been convicted of murder and hanged, but more than 115 other people are still awaiting trial in connection with Hussein-era crimes.

For now, Ridha’s preoccupation is with the anticipated execution of the man whom he and many Iraqis consider the worst offender after Hussein: Ali Hassan Majid, also known as Chemical Ali. Majid was convicted of genocide on June 24 and sentenced to death for overseeing the use of chemical weapons against tens of thousands of Kurdish civilians in northern Iraq in 1988.

Majid and five codefendants said they were defending Iraq against Kurdish rebels. Five were convicted, and three were ordered hanged. The sixth was freed after the special tribunal hearing the case determined there was insufficient evidence against him.

Majid’s conviction and sentence were appealed, but if this case is like others involving close Hussein associates, the ruling will be upheld and he will hang.

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“We’d like to get it over with, because this is an important case for Iraq,” said Ridha, who already is preparing for the event.

It is not an easy task. There are regional sentiments to consider, security issues, and Iraq’s reputation, which some human rights groups have said is suffering as a result of its use of the death penalty. At least 100 people have been hanged since a moratorium on executions was lifted in 2005.

Majid’s case is especially sensitive because his crimes occurred in northern Iraq, and people there are clamoring to have the hanging carried out in that region. It is Ridha’s job to weigh the pros and cons of moving the execution from Baghdad and to make a recommendation to Maliki. At this point, he is in favor of the shift, despite the ruckus it could create.

“You’d get human rights organizations saying this is revenge, that it doesn’t look pretty if you execute the guy up there,” Ridha said. But on the positive side, he said it would make people in the north happy and foster harmony between Kurds and the Shiite-led government.

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“These are our people. These are the people who belong to Iraq,” he said. “It looks like if we execute him up north, it is better for Iraq.”

On paper, at least, Ridha seems an unlikely candidate for his job. His expertise is in mechanical engineering, which he studied in Ohio and Louisiana. His Louisiana State University bachelor’s degree is displayed on a shelf in his office, where the air conditioner is set at a chilly 64.4 degrees. Ridha, a young-looking 44 who would look younger still without the white streak jetting through his black hair, sits behind a large desk and sips hot, sweet tea from a delicate glass cup.

Privileged youth

Twenty-seven years ago, Ridha was one of eight privileged children of a wealthy jeweler. Their family name was Husseini, and they were Shiite Muslims who refused to join Hussein’s Sunni-dominated Baath Party. That was grounds for arrest under the regime, and in 1980, Ridha’s two older brothers were taken away by security forces. Ridha, then a teenager, knew he could be next.

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Ridha left Iraq in 1982. He bribed officials to get a passport and dropped the Husseini from his name to hide his identity. Even today, his American passport reads “Ridha,” he notes, pulling it out and showing it to a visitor.

In his senior year at LSU, Ridha visited Los Angeles and was hooked. Six days after graduating in 1987, he bought a truck and drove west.

He worked for several years as an engineer for the state of California and eventually built his own business doing home inspections. He bought the San Dimas home, got married, and started a family. Ridha also remained active in the Iraqi American community and frequently spoke out against the atrocities in his homeland.

When Hollywood was looking for a cultural advisor to work on “Three Kings,” a George Clooney film set just after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, it called on Ridha. He took the job and also got an on-screen part. In the credits, Ridha is the Black Robe Leader.

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That got him his SAG credentials, and more jobs followed: in the 2004 movie “Hidalgo” with Omar Sharif and Viggo Mortensen, the TV show “24,” and others.

Ridha plays down his Hollywood experience but admits it was lucrative. He still collects residuals.

“I’m not talking about extra work,” he says of his parts. “I’m not going to make $6 an hour just to get fed and wait around all day. It was pretty good.”

On April 9, 2003, Hussein’s rule came to an end. “This was like a dream come true,” said Ridha. “I said, ‘I hope I’ll be a part of it.’ ”

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By then, his business and Hollywood work were thriving. His son and daughter had become fans of McDonald’s, Universal Studios and the Raging Waters park near their home. So had he. But Ridha, who sounds more Californian than Iraqi when he speaks English, did not hesitate when he was invited to join the prime minister’s staff.

He expected to be gone about three months. More than two years later, he still is in Baghdad, making occasional visits to his family in California but mostly living in the Green Zone.

Brothers’ fate

Like thousands of Iraqis, his siblings began searching for evidence of their missing brothers’ whereabouts after Hussein was toppled. Each day, Ridha’s sisters would scour intelligence agency records. Their mother would wait at the doorstep of the family’s home in the upscale Mansour neighborhood of west Baghdad, hoping for good news.

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After 11 days, they found a list of names of young men executed by security forces in the early 1980s. Both his brothers’ names were on it.

“We have not found their graves,” Ridha said bitterly. “Those mass graves that everybody talks about -- I have two brothers somewhere out there.”

His desire for retribution helps drive Ridha, and he makes no apologies. Hanging those who have done harm will help Iraqis recover from the past, he said, citing the idea of moving Majid’s execution to the north.

This could require building a new gallows in the region, if the two there are not deemed up to standards. The last thing Ridha wants is a debacle similar to that surrounding the hanging of Hussein’s half brother, Barzan Ibrahim Hasan, whose head was torn off during his execution in Baghdad.

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That followed Hussein’s hanging Dec. 30, 2006, during which onlookers taunted the former dictator on the gallows. The scene was captured on video taken with a cellphone.

Ridha blames the problems on his government’s inexperience in executing people. He also is convinced that if he had been present for Hussein’s hanging, it would have been a smoother operation.

Instead, Ridha was in the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai, teaching his son to ski on the man-made slopes after having been assured that U.S. officials would not hand Hussein over to Iraq’s government until after the New Year.

“I was pretty upset,” said Ridha, who had spent months planning the operation.

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After Hasan’s botched execution, Ridha had new gallows built. Since then, executions have gone without a hitch.

“The whole idea is they don’t stick around for long,” Ridha said. “They die instantly.”

tina.susman@latimes.com


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