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Iraqis Recall Golden Age

Arab   Kurdish

Discovery of ex-leader's body unleashes flood of memories and emotions.

By Hussein Ali in Baghdad (ICR No. 75, 20-Jul-04)

Amir Alawi, 46, burst into tears of joy when he heard that the body of former president Abd al-Kareem Qassem had been found.

Killed in 1963 during a coup organised by members of the Baathist party, Qassem's body was recently discovered by a news team associated with Baghdad's Radio Dijla.

"The Baath regime was bloody and criminal from the beginning. Saddam was a coward and he was afraid of the dead, so he hid the tomb of al-Zaeem, the leader," Alawi told IWPR.

Saddam was outside Iraq when the coup overthrew Qassem, and he did not rise to power for another five years. And - if recently released testimony is to be believed - his regime did not even know where its former nemesis was buried.

Alawi's statements underline the feelings of many Iraqis - particularly those persecuted under Saddam - that the former president was a martyr to Baathist brutality.

For many Iraqis - especially the poor - Qassem's short-lived regime was a golden age, the first time they had a president who cared about them.

They see his rule as a time free of the neglect that preceded it as well as the wars and repression that came after.

Poor Iraqis recall his land reform programme and construction of the massive urban development of Madinat al-Thawra, or Revolution City, to provide low-cost housing.

"The leader Abd al-Karim deserves to be honoured, and now that we know where he is buried we must build him a shrine and a statue in the middle of Baghdad," Alawi said.

Although no monument to Qassem exists, mementos of his rule are on sale throughout Iraq.

Among them are photographs of him kneeling by the sickbed of former Grand Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim.

That picture is seen as evidence of why many Shia identified with Qassem, who was Sunni but whose mother was from Iraq's majority faith.

He famously did not own his own home, and as president spent his nights sleeping at the ministry of defence.

Other pictures on sale in downtown Baghdad's al-Mutanabbi street show the former leader sleeping stretched out on the floor of his office.

But many Iraqis also recall a grimmer image that has appeared in newspapers since the fall of the Baath.

That image shows Qassem's bullet-ridden body, lying in the same office.

The Radio Dijla team announced the discovery of the former leader's body at press conference on July 14, which marked the 46th anniversary of the coup that Qassem led to overthrow Iraq's monarchy.

Dijla reporter Saif al-Khayat said the former president's grave was discovered after a three-month investigation, assisted by the children of the men who helped bury him and witnesses of the burial.

The grave also contained the bodies of three of Qassem's fellow "Free Officers" who participated in the 1958 coup, and who later held positions of authority: Fadhel al-Mahdawi, Taha al-Sheikh Ahmed and Abd al-Kareem al-Jada.

The four bodies were dressed in military uniform.

Iraq's human rights minister Bakhtiar Amin, who attended the press conference, said the remains would be subjected to DNA testing to confirm the bodies' identities.

The radio station had not made the location of the grave public, claiming that it needed time to organise protection for the area.

However, Dijla sources said the site is located in an agricultural area north of Baghdad, on the road to the town of Baaqouba.

According to witness statements produced by Dijla, the bodies were originally dumped in a field by coup participants, and covered with a layer of dirt.

But local Qassem supporters decided to rebury the bodies to prevent the plotters from returning and destroying them.

"A pick-up driven by military intelligence dumped the bodies in our area in the middle of a farm," said one witness.

"By coincidence there were some residents passing through and saw the incident but the security men threatened them not to come near," said the witnesses, whose remarks were tape-recorded and played at the Dijla press conference.

"However, they came back again, and removed the dirt, and recognised the four martyrs who they wrapped in funeral shrouds and buried," the witness said.

"They held the mourning ceremony for the four martyrs, and walked out chanting, 'We want Abdulkarim, be he dead or alive.'"

The graves then lay hidden for more than forty years.

"The reason the residents did not reveal the graves was because they were afraid the regime would pursue and torture them," said poet Naji Najih.

The poet himself was alerted to the graves' presence by a resident of the area who had overheard him discussing Qassem's fate with colleagues.

Najih spent three months investigating and questioning residents of the area before revealing the graves' discovery.

The regime of Saddam Hussein - who personally participated in a 1959 assassination attempt on Qassem - depicted the former president as a tyrant.

But many Iraqis, even those too young to have any direct memory of him, acquired a more positive view from their parents.

Ameen Muhammad, 43, has hung a large black and white poster of Qassem on his coffeehouse in downtown Baghdad's al-Rashid street in honour of his father, a supporter of the former president.

"My father talked about Qassem all his life. He told me that no president ruled Iraq like Zaeem," he said.

He recalled one of his father's anecdotes: Qassem visiting a bakery and seeing a picture of himself on the wall.

"He told the baker to make the picture smaller and make the bread bigger," Muhammad said.

Muhammad Kadhem, 50, living in the Bab al-Shekh district, recalls how as a boy he used to run behind the Qassem's motorcade.

"When the leader's car passed, we used to run behind it repeating, 'The Zaeem is coming, the Zaeem is coming,'" he said. "The Zaeem was honest, and he loved his people."

Hussein Ali is an IWPR trainee.

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