In Iraq, a rare chance to be heard

Iraqis continued to gather at the information ministry to find out the fate of relatives.

In a country as politically locked down as Iraq, a hundred or so people demonstrating at a government building is a remarkable thing.

For the second straight day, scores of protesters appeared at the offices of Iraq's Ministry of Information Wednesday demanding to know the fate of relatives who failed to emerge from prisons following a general amnesty decreed last weekend.

Other Iraqis reportedly have camped out since Sunday at a secret police headquarters on the outskirts of Baghdad to register the same grievance, although with less vehemence.The protesters at the Ministry of Information mixed their complaints with shouts of praise for President Saddam Hussein, but in the context of a regime that tolerates no organized dissent, theirs is an unprecedented act of defiance.

"This has never happened," says Saadoun Khalifeh, a former member of the National Assembly who heads the Iraqi Family Planning Association.

Who's behind the protests?

Wamid Nadhmi, a political science professor at the University of Baghdad, is eager to know more about those pulling the strings behind the embittered women and young men who are demanding official accountability.

While the concern for missing relatives is doubtless genuine, he says, one has to wonder about the protesters' choice of venue. Given the subject of their grievance, they might have addressed themselves to the ministry of interior, the police, or even the president himself.

"To come to the Ministry of Information, which had nothing to do with the problem, that means [the protesters] are trying to make their voice heard by foreign and domestic correspondents," Mr. Nadhmi says.

Their voice may be registering overseas, but at home, it is a tree falling in an empty forest. The official media – many of which are based in the Information Ministry building – has so far ignored the story.

Both Nadhmi and Mr. Khalifeh say their only source of information about the protests has been foreign journalists who have called them seeking comment. But word will spread as foreign broadcasters beam the news into the country in Arabic.

Foreign journalists witnessed the protests that occurred Wednesday and Tuesday, although ministry officials and soldiers inhibited contact between protesters and reporters.

The general amnesty, decreed by Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council on Sunday, followed a popular referendum last week in which 100 percent of Iraq's electorate, according to the government, voted in favor of another seven-year term for Mr. Hussein. He has been president since 1979 and the main power behind the office for several years before that.

With some exceptions – murderers unforgiven by the families of their victims, those with unpaid debts to the state, and those convicted of spying for Israel or the US – the jails were abruptly cleared of their inmates. The government indicated that political prisoners were also being freed, constituting a rare admission that such prisoners exist.

But by emptying the jails, the government has effectively acknowledged that some of those it has detained are in fact dead.

Many people suspected of unauthorized political activity are abducted without formal arrest and then executed, according to Iraqis interviewed in recent days. They say that families of those detained for political reasons count themselves fortunate even to receive a death certificate, since many simply disappear without a trace.

Said Boumedouha, of the international human rights organization Amnesty International, told the BBC this week that "no one knows how many political prisoners are held in Iraq, but over the years there must be thousands and thousands of people from a wide range of political persuasions."

Groups targeted for repression include those that promote the rights of Iraq's largely disenfranchised Shiite majority or its Kurdish minority. The government has also jailed disloyal members of the armed forces and those pressing for a more Islamist government, human rights groups say.

Conversations in private

The protests are taking place at a time when it seems easier than ever before to raise one's voice against the government in general and Hussein in particular. Correspondents visiting Baghdad to cover the referendum have found themselves listening, in private, to heartfelt, sometimes angry critiques of the regime.

This phenomenon may be a matter of opportunity. Having admitted hundreds of journalists, the government evidently has found it impossible to assign each one an official guide, or "minder," meaning that foreign journalists have been able to wander the capital without obvious escorts.

It is the government's usual practice to shepherd every visiting journalist and to discourage any unsanctioned contact with Iraqis. But it may also be that people feel the foundations shifting under the regime and that now is the time to make their voice heard. The amnesty itself may have been seen as a sign of political weakness. If indeed the president has the support of the entire electorate, some wonder why the government would feel the need to empty the jails.

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