World spurns Iraqi who defied Saddam

A teenager who joined the Basra revolt has paid a heavy price for his courage, reports Robert Fisk
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WHEN the United States, Britain, and their allies called upon the people of Iraq to rise up against Saddam Hussein in 1991, 17-year- old Haidar al-Assadi put a Kalashnikov rifle over his shoulder and walked the streets of Basra, tearing pictures of the hated dictator off the walls. The price of his obedience to the Allied appeal was exile, torture, imprisonment and - finally and ironically - to be marooned in Beirut today by a United Nations office that is frightened of upsetting the Lebanese government.

Only days before the uprising in the Shia Muslim southern Iraqi city of Basra, Mr al-Assadi's home was destroyed when a US jet fired a missile into several buildings in the city, leaving his brother with shrapnel wounds to the shoulder. But like many other Iraqis who suffered under Allied bombardment, he heeded the call to arms. "I joined in because ever since I opened my eyes, people around me hated Saddam - both my uncles were imprisoned for 12 years for saying that the Iran-Iraq war would not end without the death of Saddam. I was expecting the Allies to liberate Iraq and rid us of this criminal. I remember listening to the Arabic service of the `Voice of America', which told us that the uprising was large and we would be liberated."

Five days later, with the Iraqi army closing in on the abandoned rebels, Mr al-Assadi fled across the Shatt al-Arab waterway to Iran. But his purgatory had only just begun. Housed at first in insanitary refugee camps in southern Iran - he claims the camp guards stole many of the inmates' Red Crescent food packages - he later moved to Qom, where he was associated with the Iraqi opposition Al-Wahda (Unification) party. "I wasn't a member, but I knew a lot of the party officials - we even met President Khamenei of Iran," Mr al-Assadi says, producing from his pocket an old copy of the party newspaper in which a photograph shows him standing beside the turbaned Iranian leader.

"Then the Iranians started to think that Al Wahda was really working for the United States, and they arrested lots of them. They picked me up on 24 September 1995, and took me to their intelligence headquarters near the Qom railway station where they beat me and tried to break my knees. I was forced to admit that the Al-Wahda group was a spy network, an illegal group that wanted to overthrow the Iranian government. It was false, but my `revelations' were all videotaped. I said what I did under torture."

On 27 March 1996, Mr al-Assadi says, he was sentenced to three years imprisonment, but after the Iranians asked him to collaborate with the Tehran government he was allowed 15 days out of jail, and he made his escape. He bribed his way across the border to Kurdish-held northern Iraq, received residence papers from Massoud Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party and asked local UN officials for help. He says they could not help him resettle abroad because he was back in his own country. "I said to them: `If I travel to another country, can you give me assistance?' They said `Yes'."

So Mr al-Assadi set off again, this time across the Tigris river to Syria and on to Lebanon. He had another brother, Riad, who was living legally in Finland and who offered to help him move to Scandinavia. And within months, officials of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Beirut had received a letter from a Finnish asylum organisation asking them to recommend Haidar al-Assadi for Finland's next refugee quota. But that is when Mr al-Assadi found out that the UN has other, far more important priorities than a mere refugee with hope of a new life.

First the UN refused to give Mr al-Assadi official protection as a refugee. Hafid Aloui, senior liaison officer with the UNHCR in Beirut, confirmed to the Independent on Sunday last week that this was true - he had later reviewed the case and signed UN protection papers for him. But he was unmoved by Mr al-Assadi's demand to leave Lebanon for Finland. "There are 3,000 refugees in Lebanon at the moment - and of these, 2,000 are Iraqis," Mr Aloui said. "We have provided this man with the necessary protection certificate and we process claims for resettlement. But we have firstly to preserve good relations with the Lebanese authorities. If I help him now, I would have 500,000 Iraqi refugees coming to Lebanon."

The problem, it quickly became apparent, is that Lebanon is not a signatory to the 1951 refugee convention - since the country is already host to 400,000 Palestinian refugees - and the UNHCR operates in Beirut only with the goodwill of the government. "We get excellent co-operation from the Lebanese authorities - providing our refugee load doesn't exceed 3,000," Mr Aloui said. "If we resettle people within a year or 18 months, there will be many more refugees coming here from Iraq: there would be a `pull' factor. We don't want to give the wrong signal because the patience of the Lebanese authorities is very, very limited. It would destabilise this office."

Mr Aloui, who is Moroccan, said that Mr al-Assadi, a single man, was in any case not a first priority. "We are trying to find homes abroad for Iraqi families who have six children," he says. "Mr al-Assadi cannot jump the queue. I am not saying there is no hope for him, only that he must wait longer. He has been given our protection. But I have my priorities." At the Finnish embassy in Beirut, a spokeswoman confirmed that she knew of the al-Assadi case. "If he wants to apply for a place in our refugee quota, he must have the recommendation of the UNHCR," she said. "That is the way the system works. There is no other way."

It is not an argument that Haidar al-Assadi understands. The Basra boy who tore pictures of Saddam off the walls of his home town is learning the hard way that the path to freedom is not straight or simple.