Saddam builds a tomb for martyrs

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PRIVATE Ahmed Katem's name has been neatly carved on the marble slab. Saddam's martyrs are worthy of nothing but the highest honours, so the Arabic script is inlaid with gold paint. A team of Iraqi stonemasons is chipping away at the marble all day, each slice - and there are thousands of them - containing the names of 16 Iraqis who never returned from the titanic war against Iran. So alongside Private Katem, you will find the names of Mohamed Jadi, Abdullah Ahmed and 'combatant' Salah Yunis. In Baghdad, they are building Saddam Hussein's 'Vietnam wall'.

True, the marble is pale yellow rather than the black of Washington's tribute to those who died in the Vietnam war. True, it is being constructed around the circular wall of a vault deep beneath Baghdad's Martyrs' Memorial - a hollow onion-dome split down the middle - rather than near a presidential palace. True, the Iraqi wall is said to be Saddam Hussein's brainchild. But America's dead in Vietnam numbered a mere 56,555; Saddam's, between 1980 and 1988, may reach a conservative half a million.

The 'martyrs' wall' remains an official secret in Iraq. No one has been told of its construction - Iraqi architects began work on the project two years ago - and the wall will be revealed only at its completion in at least two years' time, when the families of Saddam's 500,000 dead are invited to grieve before the names of their loved ones.

'It is forbidden for you to take photographs,' a polite but resolute young woman from the memorial's executive announced uncompromisingly when I gingerly requested a snapshot of the unfinished palisade of names. 'We may give you no information. We cannot talk to you about this. We have no details, no figures. Nothing must be said until this is completed. This instruction comes from the highest authority.' No doubt who that might be.

But could one not perhaps know how many names would appear on the wall? No Iraqi, of course, has ever dared to suggest the true death toll of what began, in Saddam's words, as 'the whirlwind war'. The woman was adamant. 'It is impossible to give any figure while so many of our soldiers remain prisoners of Iran, even five years after this war ended.'

The dead of the second Gulf war, between Iraq and the American-led coalition in 1991, are unlikely to be commemorated here. Nowhere in Baghdad are they officially remembered. It is the nine-year Iraq-Iran war that has been enshrined in Baathist history as the most important, the most strategic, the most historic, the most glorious - more to the point, the most necessary - battle in Iraq's recent history. The more the second Gulf war is questioned by Iraqis, the more the first Gulf war is off-limits to all criticism.

Even the 1990 Iraqi draft constitution demands that any future president must accept that the Iran-Iraq war 'was the only way to guarantee the integrity of Iraq and the safety of its sacred places'. Thus may history be safely locked up.

There are whole families, brothers, fathers and sons, listed together on the marble slabs of Saddam's martyrs' wall, the monstrous death toll broken up by carved quotations from the Koran guaranteeing - as no constitution can - eternal paradise for those who were cut down by shells and bullets, or who drowned in the mud at Howeiza, Ahvaz, Khorramshahr, Qasr-e-Shirin and Fao. In the defence of the Fao peninsula, Iraq lost, according to an Iraqi official last week, no fewer than 58,000 men.

Just one of the half-million has been preserved - in chemicals that will prevent his decomposition for 100 years - in a coffin suspended above the Unknown Soldier's Museum three miles away, draped in an Iraqi flag. Below, stained uniforms, ripped open by surgeons in their vain attempts to save Iraqi lives, are encased in glass, along with the long-dried bloody bandages of the dead.

'There are 17 swords above us here - you see?' The young curator pointed to the Arab blades suspended in black stone above the uniforms. 'They represent the 17 July revolution, and the stone represents the black hearts of our enemies.' Plaques are displayed around the hall, donated by the military attaches of Romania, East Germany, the Soviet Union, Somalia: socialist republics that have died as miserably as any soldiers commemorated here.

It is all so simple, like the exhibition that lies before the new martyrs' wall. It portrays in photographs the life - as attempted assassin, guerrilla fighter and leader - of one Saddam Hussein. There he is as schoolboy, as Cairo student, as wanted man and as president, beaming into the camera while behind him the hammers and chisels chip away at their thousands of names.

Rarely has a president been so close to the identities of those he sent to their deaths. In an allusion to the 17th-century battle in which a Muslim army defeated Persia, they are even called 'Saddam's Qadassiyat Martyrs'. His personal property.

The sunlight outside the great vault is blinding. Only after a few seconds does the visitor notice, to the right, a huge courtyard filled with many thousands more slabs, all awaiting the stonemasons' testimony of blood.

(Photograph omitted)