Campaign of mutilation terrorises Iraqis

Patrick Cockburn discloses how Baghdad has resorted to maiming and bran ding to deal with petty thieves, army draft dodgers and deserters

Saddam Hussein has started the mass mutilation of army deserters, draft evaders and petty offenders by cutting off hands and ears and branding them on the forehead. Doctors, some of whom have fled Iraq rather than carry out such operations, say th ey areforced to amputate even if there is no anaesthetic available.

An official decree in August specifies the exact size of of the X-brand, seared into the flesh with a hot iron, which is to be placed "between the eyebrows. Each intersecting line of the cross shall be 1 centimetre in length and 1 millimetre thick." Medical personnel who carry out cosmetic surgery on an amputee or try to erase a brand mark are threatened with the loss of a hand or ear.

Victims of the new policy, introduced last June, who have fled to Kurdistan and Iran confirm that several thousand Iraqis have been mutilated over the last six months. To increase the impact of the punishment, never before inflicted in Iraq, Baghdad tel e vision showed a gruesome film of a terrified-looking man called Ali Ubaid Abed Ali, whose hand was cut off after he stole a television set and 250 Iraqi dinars (about 30 pence).

"We had to perform the operation whether or not local anaesthetic was available," a doctor who called himself Kamal told a reporter after he fled from Baghdad to Salahudin in Kurdistan. "They come to us tied up, their hair cut. Some panic and scream, some are just too scared to.

"They are unclean and unhealthy, many are psychologically ill and suffer from disease such as scabies. They are denied medical treatment even when there is severe bleeding."

Hassan Abdullah Hussein, an army deserter from Kirkuk who escaped to Kurdistan last month, was one of a group of 85 men who had the top half of their of ears cut off at al-Rashid camp near Mosul. He said he only suffered partial mutilation because several members of an earlier batch of deserters and draft evaders had died after they became severely infected when whole ears were cut off.

The mutilations began with a decree signed by Saddam Hussein as chairman of the ruling Revolution Command Council on 4 June last year. It said that for certain crimes the penalty would be "amputation of the right hand from the wrist". If the crime was repeated, the offender would lose his left foot from the ankle.

The target was anybody convicted of theft, increasingly common as sanctions impoverish the country, and men evading military service. The Iraqi government appears to have decided in the middle of last year that it was safer, in the face of growing discontent, to draft young men into the 300,000-strong army to keep them in barracks under the eye of the security forces, and as a source of labour for public works. To end widespread draft evasion and desertion, the Iraqi leadership introduced measures whichincluded cutting off of the right ear and branding.

The families of deserters also had their rations cut and were forced to move to so-called "cowards' assembly areas" to be kept under surveillance.

Brian Owsley of the New York-based Human Rights Watch - Middle East, who is writing a study of the mutilations, says plans to cut off the left foot of offenders were dropped after protests from Iraqi veterans who had suffered similar injuries in battle. They said they feared people might think that their wounds meant they too were deserters.

Since first promulgated, the decrees on amputations have become more severe and wide-ranging. At first the punishment was to consist of amputation and tattooing of the forehead, but UN Security Council Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, Max van der Stoel, says that "subsequent reports have indicated that the punishment is rather one of branding with a hot iron."

At first only those who stole more than 5,000 Iraqi dinars were to suffer amputation but on 9 September, Iraqi state television, in a brief segment monitored in Jordan and cited by Mr van der Stoel but never seen in the West, showed the fate of Ali UbaidAbed Ali, a man in his mid-thirties. The film starts with his severed hand and then shows his pain-wracked figure in a hospital bed nursing the stump of his arm.

The announcer, a prim man in a neat suit and tie, after reading a verse of the Koran about cutting off the hands of thieves, says that Ali Ubaid had taken the keys of his cousin's house from one of her children. When she returned home, she found that it had been rifled and the television set gone, along with 250 Iraqi dinars. She reported the theft and he was sentenced to lose his hand.

Almost all Iraqis are vulnerable to the punishments. The Trade Minister, Mohammed Mohammed Mahdi Salih, has even warned bakers they are liable to have a hand amputated if they do not follow regulations on the making of bread. The numbers affected run into thousands. Dr Kamal, who worked in a Baghdad military hospital, said there had been 1,700 mutilations to mid-September.

Doctors who resist or refuse to carry out operations are arrested. Those who co-operate are not necessarily safe since relatives of amputees sometimes attack them - and on one occasion are reported to have killed a surgeon who had cut off the ear of one of their family.

Laith Kubba, a leader of the opposition Iraqi National Congress , says: "People retaliate by attacking doctors or their offices. Saddam has always ruled through money and terror but now he has little money and must rely on terror alone."

There are signs that this is proving effective. Mr van der Stoel says: "The systematic maiming of deserters, evaders and thieves has reportedly instilled sufficient fear into the population so as to evoke better compliance with conscription orders."

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