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I had just come back from a trip to Iraq, and I told Nasser about my visit. I had covered Saddam's so-called loyalty referendum, in which millions of Iraqis had been herded to polling stations around the country and told to sign either yes or no on ballot papers approving Saddam for another seven-year term in office. I had spent voting day in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, where I witnessed groups of men dancing and chanting, "Yes, yes, yes to Saddam!" and then slashing their thumbs with razor blades in order to cast their yes votes in blood. I asked one of the polling officials what he thought the yes percentage would be. "All," he replied confidently. "Why?" I asked him. "Because the people are in love with Saddam Hussein," he explained. "Saddam Hussein is our spirit, our hearts, and the air we breathe. If the air goes, we will all die."
That same evening the polling results were ecstatically announced by Saddam's information minister: The dictator had received a resounding 100 percent yes vote. A day or two later Saddam expressed his gratitude to the Iraqi people for their loyalty by ordering the immediate release of all the prisoners held in the country's jails, except those accused of spying for the United States or the "Zionist entity," Israel. I had rushed out to Abu Ghraib, Iraq's largest and most notorious prison, near the city of Fallujah, and watched as thousands of bewildered inmates, some of whom had been held for many years, stumbled out of the horrid place into a melee of shouting, weeping people searching frantically for their relatives.
When I arrived, the prison gates were still shut, and a few prison officials stood around outside, still apparently unsure what they were supposed to do. A huge painting of an unsmiling Saddam Hussein wearing a fedora and firing off a rifle with one hand adorned a great concrete billboard at the main entrance. Within minutes, however, large numbers of Iraqi civilians, relatives of prisoners, began gathering on the road outside the entrance. Within an hour there were many hundreds of them. Most were yelling excitedly and jumping up and down and chanting praises to Saddam Hussein. A woman with white hair explained in fluent English that her husband was inside. He had served six months of a 30-year sentence, she said, but she refused to say what he had been charged with. What were her feelings toward Saddam? "We love him, because he knows how to forgive the mistakes of his people," she replied, and moved away, looking worried. Behind her, the crowd was chanting, "Saddam, Saddam, we give our lives and blood for you," their fists pumping in the air. Some men were beating on drums. As I watched, a huge flatbed truck moved slowly past the throng on the road. On the flatbed lay a long cylindrical tube coated in green military paint, about the size of a Scud missile. No one seemed to notice. A man emerged from an administrative building and introduced himself to reporters as a judge, the chairman of the "prisoner release committee." Someone asked about the threat to society posed by such large numbers of released criminals, and he replied: "The state is like a father and will deal with this problem." Nearby, a man in a dishdasha robe began shooting a Kalashnikov repeatedly into the air.
Then the mob of relatives overcame the prison guards who had been trying to keep control at the gates and swept through into Abu Ghraib. I was carried along by the force of the crowd. Inside I could see the cellblocks in the distance, several hundred yards away across a vast empty space of rubbishy desert covered with mounds of earth and open holes. The relatives tore across this space, heading in different directions, everyone yelling and chanting. Seagulls wheeled around in the sky above. A repulsive stench hung in the air. I joined a group heading for a building directly across from the main gates of the prison. As I drew nearer, the stench intensified. Here and there were prisoners, wearing dishdashas and looking gaunt, bearing bundles of clothing, trudging out toward the gates. Some were accompanied by healthy-looking people who must have been their relatives, many of whom were weeping and kissing and embracing them. One man came past me carrying a wasted-looking young man, perhaps his brother, who looked to be near death. A couple of old men came past, looking completely lost and disoriented, dragging their belongings on the ground behind them by ropes.
At the end of the great dirt space, the crowd I was in came to a large wall with an arched tunnel-like driveway, and we moved through it to the other side. I found myself in a rectangle of filthy desert surrounded by walls and caged entrances leading to cellblocks on all sides. To one side, I saw the source of the stench. It was a gigantic mound of garbage. It was, I calculated, about the size of a very large family house and looked as though it had been piling up for years. The odor it gave off was stomach-churning.
The scene inside was one of complete anarchy. Men and boys ran across the yard, climbing onto cellblock roofs, tearing aside loops of razor wire to gain access, all the while yelling at the top of their lungs. Confused groups of men and women ran back and forth, and a few guards also ran around waving and yelling in Arabic. It was difficult to know whether the men on the rooftops were prisoners or relatives. I caught glimpses of some prisoners staring out from the bars of upper stories of the cellblocks. Human shit clung like caked mud to the razor wire that was looped outside their barred windows. As I stood watching, Giovanna Botteri, an attractive blond reporter for RAI 3 television, came up to me. She was wearing skintight white Armani jeans and a white shirt. Her cameraman was caught up in the mob, she told me, and she was getting felt up by the men. She asked me to help her. A plainclothes Iraqi agent of some sort approached; clearly agitated about Giovanna's presence, he told me to get her out of there. Groups of young men had quickly gathered around us, like wolves, commenting and laughing and pointing at Giovanna excitedly. She hooked one hand into the belt at the back of my trousers, and we began to move through the mob, as the agent moved protectively ahead of us, pointing to openings in the throng and shouting at the men around us. Now and then some of the men moved in, and I could feel Giovanna flinch, or yell, as they grabbed her. At one point she quipped, "I don't think it was a good day to wear Armani."
We found ourselves back near the tunnel-like opening in the wall. It was blocked by a mob of men. The helpful plainclothes agent had vanished. There were some guards there, beating men back to clear the driveway, and they began to scatter. When we approached, one of the guards began pushing me. I pushed him back and yelled at him, and he pushed me again. A pickup truck appeared with a couple of soldiers on the back, and I forced my way onto it, with Giovanna still attached. The pickup accelerated and braked crazily into the tunnel. On the other side of the wall, one of the soldiers forced us off. A minute or two later, after more scuffling, we emerged from the mob and back out into the great open space, where hundreds of prisoners were moving toward the open gates of the entrance. We joined them.
In Baghdad, a couple of days later, a crowd of Iraqis who said they were the relatives of missing prisoners gathered in front of the Information Ministry, where the Foreign Press Office was located. They had made their way through Baghdad's streets shouting praises of Saddam, but when they came within earshot of journalists, they made it clear that they were upset their relatives had not appeared when the others were freed. Such a protest was an unprecedented event in Saddam's Iraq. Before journalists were able to interview anyone, however, the officials at the ministry mustered guards with guns to disperse the group. The next day guards were posted around the ministry, and the ministry's senior officials were all in a foul mood. They were especially furious with CNN, which had transmitted a live broadcast of the protest. Within days the network's bureau chief, Jane Arraf, was ordered out of the country.
A night or two later, in an interview with Saddam's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, I questioned the wisdom of suddenly releasing so many prisoners, including thousands of common criminals, onto Iraq's streets. In between puffs on a Cuban cigar, Aziz replied smoothly: "The families of those prisoners had demonstrated their loyalty to the president, you see, and so we had to reciprocate their faithfulness. The president has asked their families to correct these men, and I am sure many of them will support him and fight for him. A president like Saddam Hussein would not release tens of thousands of prisoners if he felt threatened by them. If we were afraid of the prisoners, we could surround the prison with tanks and massacre everyone. But we didn't. We believe in God. We are like Jesus Christ, who pardoned the people who crucified him."
Jon Lee Anderson is a staff writer at The New Yorker. This is excerpted from The Fall of Baghdad, by Jon Lee Anderson. Copyright © 2004 by Jon Lee Anderson and published by The Penguin Press, New York. Excerpted with the permission of the publisher. You can buy this book at Amazon.com.