torture saddam style.

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    March 3 2003

    Julius Strauss was sceptical about the merits of war - but then he met some of Saddam's victims.

    There is something singular about a man who has been severely tortured. Maybe it is the way he struggles against failing eyesight caused by repeated blows to the kidneys. Or his lopsided posture, the result of multiple broken bones that have failed to mend properly. Sometimes there is a tremor in the hands or a twitch, a minuscule outer sign of the torment within.

    The man who sat opposite me in a small, bare room at the Kurdish border post last week had all the symptoms of a man who had been systematically broken. Slowly, sometimes reluctantly, he relived for me the terror of the 21 months he spent in Saddam Hussein's torture chambers.

    "They put me in a cell at the secret police headquarters, tied my hands together with wire and then suspended me from the ceiling," he said quietly. "Then they beat me with batons and cables and ran electric shocks through my fingers and genitals. It went on for months. They never told me what my crime was."

    I had seen such men before. When Serb forces unleashed a wave of expulsions, beatings and killings on the ethnic Albanians in 1999, I met a teacher in a refugee camp on the Macedonian border I had known before the war. He was quiet and modest and had counselled moderation to the hotter heads in his village. When the war began, the Serbs had arrested him and beaten him within an inch of his life. So great were the physical changes they wrought on him that it was several minutes before I made the leap of recognition.

    When I came to autonomous northern Iraq - which, since 1991, has been protected from Saddam's reach by American and British warplanes - I was intensely sceptical of the wisdom of Washington's insistence on deposing Saddam. Its claims of links between al-Qaeda and Baghdad seemed tenuous. As for the assertion that Saddam will soon have the bomb, well, the evidence was pretty flimsy.

    Indeed, I could have reeled off a host of counter-arguments. At a time when the Western world is entering a long drawn-out struggle against Islamist terrorism, it made little sense to fritter away resources to oust a man whose regime was weaker than ever. A war also risked alienating tens of millions of moderate Muslims whose support would be essential if the threat of Islamist extremism was to be neutered.

    I agreed with the quietly spoken Muslim men I met in Pakistan, Afghanistan and central Asia who said a Middle East peace deal was a greater priority than ousting Saddam. As long as Palestinians continued to die in the streets, they said, the fires of Islamist extremism would keep burning.

    I have not renounced these arguments entirely. But after little more than a week in northern Iraq, my eyes have been opened to the sheer scale of savagery that Saddam has unleashed on his people.

    I have visited villages, refugee camps, tea houses and bazaars. Over tiny cups of strong, sweet tea I have listened to the stories of the many people who live in this mountainous refuge. Some are Kurds who have flourished under 12 years of self-rule, others recent arrivals who were expelled or fled Saddam's territories to the south. In Sulaimania, where I am based, Arabs, Turkomans and Assyrians now coexist peacefully with the Kurdish majority, but they all have terrible tales to tell: it is as if the entire land and all its inhabitants have been visited by a calamity of biblical proportions.

    As a journalist I have seen the "ethnic cleansing" of Bosnia and the burning villages of Kosovo. I watched as Slobodan Milosevic's stormtroopers, their minds addled by paranoia and hatred, levelled entire villages with little more than a cigarette lighter and a few cans of petrol. In Sierra Leone, I saw children - arms or legs hacked off by drugged-up thugs - struggle to haul themselves into broken wheelchairs. I even interviewed the thugs that maimed them, 15 and 16-year-olds with glazed eyes and heads full of demons. In Afghanistan and Chechnya, the misery and suffering wrought often beggared description.

    But nothing could have prepared me for the odious evil of Saddam's rule.

    In the 1980s, while the West railed against Nicolae Ceausescu's plan to destroy 3000 villages, Saddam actually did it. Then he murdered 180,000 Kurdish men above the age of 15 simply because he thought they might one day turn against him.

    Backed by Western governments who feared the spread of the Ayatollah's Islamist revolution, he launched a speculative war against Iran that left the better part of a million men dead.

    Nor has the killing stopped since. Thousands of Iraqis are still being executed without trial, and tens of thousands routinely tortured. Millions live in a state of numb fear.

    As I stood last week watching the dispossessed coming across the border into Kurdistan, I spoke to Kak Adil, the officer in charge of the Kurdish post. "They all have stories of beatings and brutal killings at the hands of Saddam," he said. "Only his servants live without fear." I have met grown men who say they pray every day for the dictator's death.

    The evil is there for all to see in Halabja, a small town the Iraqis gassed in 1988. It is in the wheezing chests of women seeing out the remainder of their miserable lives and the red eyes of men who cannot forget the sight of blood dribbling from the mouths of dying children. Halabja has rates of leukaemia, cancer and congenital conditions many times the Iraqi norm.

    One doctor who works in the town told me: "A woman came to see me two months ago. She had given birth to a little girl who had no feet." Who could argue with taking action against the regime responsible for such outrages?

    Assos Hardi, the editor of Hawalati, the liberal newspaper in Sulaimania, was more mathematical in his appraisal. He said: "How many people do you think will die if America attacks Saddam? It will probably be less than the number of people he kills in a single month."

    As the drums of war beat ever louder, I am still unsure of the strategic wisdom of opening a second front in the war against terror. But of the moral rectitude of such a course, there can be no doubt.

    Julius Strauss writes for The Daily Telegraph.
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