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Iraqi President Saddam Hussein released thousands of political and other prisoners from jails across his country last Sunday, including from the notorious Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad. The broad amnesty was no doubt welcomed by many Iraqi families whose loved ones disappeared years, if not decades, ago because of their real or suspected opposition to his regime. Hussein’s spokesmen said he freed the prisoners in gratitude, after Iraqis allegedly voted unanimously to reaffirm their support for his rule. But the act of amnesty only angered some families, whose relatives remain missing.
Many regimes around the world have brutalized their own citizens, but few have tortured and killed as many people as Hussein’s has. Eleven years ago a French photographer, Alain Buu, and myself, then a stringer for CBS News radio, spent two weeks in Abu Ghraib after we were captured traveling with Iraqi rebels during anti-Hussein uprisings following the Persian Gulf War. In prison, we saw Hussein’s guards select individual Iraqi captives, ranging from men to even one frail boy, to torture for fun at night, while intelligence operatives painfully interrogated the same prisoners during the day. Hussein’s amnesty seems to show that he is concerned about his political image as the Bush administration marches toward war. The Iraqi leader may be trying to avoid a military contest that even he, this time, knows he cannot win, and he is showing his alleged compassion to Iraqis and others whom he finally sees he could use on his side.
Ironically, he now has something in common with President George W. Bush. Each leader has recently betrayed his own instincts to try to broaden his own respective political coalition: While Bush previously announced his goal to change the Iraqi regime unilaterally if necessary, lately the administration has been negotiating with France and Russia in the UN Security Council over the terms for UN arms inspectors to return to Iraq. Not unlike Hussein, the Bush administration seems to be learning the hard way that more allies are better than one or none.
There is no need for Bush to act alone. Hussein is more widely despised than almost any other world leader, with enemies spread not only around the globe but within Iraq as well. His Iraqi enemies go far beyond the relatively few Iraqis associated with the U.S.-backed opposition based in London. The U.S. Defense Department is training 500 Iraqis recommended by the Iraqi National Congress, led by ex-monarchists.
Hussein’s opponents cut across Iraqi politics, ethnicity and religion. Human rights abuses by Hussein’s regime against his people have been widely documented, and even the Iraqi Communist Party’s Web site includes many reports about torture and mass executions at Abu Ghraib. Emptying his largest gulags may only backfire; Shia women in particular have become emboldened to demand information about their disappeared sons.
One Hussein detractor outside Iraq includes none other than Osama Bin Laden. Whether or not any ties between Bin Laden’s Al-Qaida organization and Hussein’s regime are ever firmly established, these two anti-American leaders are indeed enemies. In the summer before Sept. 11, bin Laden broadcast his contempt for Hussein through Al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite television network, in the video that Al-Qaida released last year. Bin Laden calls Hussein “a false Muslim,” who only worships himself and his ruling Ba’ath party. It wasn’t until the eve of the Gulf War when Hussein for the first time raised an Islamic banner, adding the words “God is Great” — written in his own handwriting — to the Iraqi tricolor. According to Bin Laden, the Iraqi leader is a cynic, not a fundamentalist.
As Bush talks about regime change in Iraq, the administration and its supporters should keep in mind that Iraqis have heard it all before. In 1991, during the Gulf crisis, then-President George H.W. Bush urged “the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands to force Saddam … to step aside.” Millions of Shias in the south and Kurds in the north did just that, joining thousands of defecting regular Iraqi troops and officers against his regime. At different times, Iraqi rebels controlled 14 out of 17 Iraqi cities, including the outskirts of Baghdad. But the former Bush administration was hoping for a coup and not a popular insurrection, so it ordered American troops that were then in southern Iraq to stand by — and Hussein’s elite forces crushed the rebels in four weeks.
Many of the prisoners whom Hussein just released have been jailed since that spring, and most of them are either Shi’as or Kurds. Despite his professed gratitude, this was a calculated act by a threatened despot newly willing to play any card in his hand. The freed prisoners include many Iraqis who have fought his regime in the past, and letting them go remains a gamble. No one should underestimate what he might do next.