There's no doubt about it -- the small-scale protests that broke out in front of Iraq's Ministry of Information earlier this week were extraordinary. No one here can recall a moment when any group of people for any reason staged a spontaneous demonstration here in Baghdad. Last week, the very idea of a demonstration that could be construed even remotely as having an anti-government tone would have sent shudders through almost any Iraqi asked the question "what if ..." It still does.
Last Sunday's announcement by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that he was granting a complete and immediate amnesty for nearly all the country's prisoners, brought stunned jubilation into the homes of thousands of citizens. Celebrations stretched for days in some neighborhoods. But for other Iraqis, the announcement brought pain and ultimately spurred them to gather in front of the Information Ministry to ask the whereabouts of their loved ones.
An unknown number of prisoners were not released last Sunday. Officially, those accused of spying for Israel or the United States (a sweeping designation) were not covered under the amnesty, nor were those people convicted of murder who had not reconciled with the families of their victims. Unofficially, it seems clear that there were other prisoners who simply did not come home. There is only speculation here as to the reasons why. Some people say that certain Shi'ite and communist political prisoners were not released and are still being held. Others say they fear that other unaccounted for prisoners had been executed. There is no way of confirming any of this.
What is clear is that several dozen people were willing to brave what many here believed would be severe consequences for engaging in an "unauthorized" demonstration. But the mothers, fathers and siblings of some unaccounted for prisoners knew what they were doing when they selected the location for their demonstration. The Information Ministry also houses the "Press Center" which is still relatively packed with foreign journalists.
They also were smart on another front. There were no anti-government banners or leaflets and the people sustained long sessions of chanting their loyalty to Saddam. "Yes, Yes to the Leader Saddam" and "Our Blood, our souls, we'll give for you Saddam." Also, "Down, down USA, down, down Israel." Some say this was all people knew how to chant; others said it was a strategy to make clear it was not anti-government protest. One Iraqi man smiled and said, "What else could they have chanted?"
But one must remember that for these people who gathered in front of the Information Ministry, desperation looms over them. They have watched thousands of families rejoice in the return of their loved ones while theirs are nowhere to be seen. It also must be stated that this demonstration was not some plot clandestinely launched in the homes of some underground dissidents. It grew out of a gathering of several hundred people inquiring about their loved ones whereabouts in front of another government building.
The government responded in a remarkably calm manner in dispersing people in front of the Information Ministry. Yes, police and "minders" ran around frantically. But largely people were simply told that they should leave -- "now." Foreign journalists were ultimately told they could not take pictures and hurried back inside the building. But it was hardly the "iron-fisted" tanks-in-the-street response one might expect from Saddam after listening to only 5 minutes of a White House press briefing.
It must be said, however, that there is no way of confirming that there will be no consequences for the people who demonstrated (many media outlets handed over copies of their videotapes from that day to the government). But there is also no way of confirming that there will be consequences. Interestingly, Babil -- the newspaper owned by Saddam's son Uday -- ran an article today on the protest, saying that officials from the Information Ministry told the families that their messages would be relayed to the president.
What is extraordinary about the last week here in Iraq is that Saddam Hussein, released almost every prisoner in the country. Not just a few hundred for the cameras, not just shoplifters and purse-snatchers. He released almost every prisoner. Regardless of the motive or reason, it was incredible, unprecedented. Only Cuba at the time of the 1980 Mariel boatlift comes even close, and that was a remote second. Remember, this is THE Saddam we're talking about.
Incredibly, New York Times correspondent John Burns reported "Many prisoners thanked President Bush for their liberty, seeing it as the government's response to Mr. Bush's description of Mr. Hussein as a murdering tyrant."
Many prisoners thanked Bush? Is he kidding? "Many" implies that thousands must have been rushing up to Burns (on the day of their "liberation" back into "Saddam's Iraq") to make sure that the Times relayed their message back to the Oval Office (which is currently threatening to destroy Iraq). Even if Burns had managed to hunt down that handful of Iraqis who do have affection for the US president, none of them would have been stupid enough on that day, when they had just hit "freedom," to come out swinging at Saddam and praising Bush to an American reporter. And "many" is a flat-out fairytale.
Then there is the issue of the salivating journalists, eager to show that "the regime" is teetering on the brink.
The Boston Globe reported, "Diplomats suggested that the protest represented a potential fissure in the government's iron grip." The paper quotes an unnamed "western diplomat" as saying the protest indicated a "lack of discipline, losing grip, losing control."
At the end of the day, the "demonstrations" by a few dozen people out-scooped the incredible story of Saddam's having just virtually emptied the country's prisons.
The press coverage of these small "protests" in Baghdad of families of the unaccounted for prisoners is probably one of the most extensive pieces of reportage ever done on families of the "disappeared." Where are these stories for the 1,300 Serbs still missing in Kosovo? Every day the families protest in Belgrade. Or the countless families in Central and South America, whose loved ones disappeared in murderous rampages by US-trained and supported security forces and paramilitary death squads? Or the countless Timorese "disappeared" by the US-backed regime in Jakarta? Or the families of prisoners now held in INS "detention" in the US and Guantanamo? If only this media blitzkrieg was applied when it does not directly pander to George W. Bush's agenda.
Jeremy Scahill is an independent journalist, who reports for the nationally syndicated Radio and TV show Democracy Now! He is currently based in Baghdad, Iraq, where he and filmmaker Jacquie Soohen are coordinating Iraqjournal.org, the only website providing regular independent reporting from the ground in Baghdad.