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FOCUS ON THE GULF

Rare Rally Takes Place in Baghdad

Protesters demand news of jailed loved ones who did not return home after prisoner amnesty decreed by Hussein.

October 23, 2002|Michael Slackman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD -- More than 100 Iraqis held an unusual street demonstration here Tuesday, seeking information about jailed relatives who did not return home after President Saddam Hussein declared a general amnesty and all but emptied the country's jails.

Although the group was small, and demonstrators chanted pro-government, pro-Hussein slogans, just the fact of such a protest was remarkable for a society as tightly controlled as this one.

Whether it was an emotional response to the dramatic events of two days earlier, when the nation's prisons were virtually cleared of all political and criminal detainees, or a sign of budding discontent depended on who was doing the interpreting.

"I think this is a very unusual thing to happen," said Wamidh Nadhmi, a political science professor at Baghdad University. Although he said that the regime remains strong and in control, he said it appeared that "there must be some kind of organization behind it that knows what they are doing."

The demonstration began in the early afternoon, when men and women carrying pictures and chanting slogans presented the presidential office in Baghdad with a petition asking for information about missing relatives. The government said all inmates had been let go -- including all political prisoners -- except for spies for Israel and America.

Tens of thousands of inmates poured out of the nation's prisons Sunday, often rushing into the arms of loved ones. But some people who had earlier entered Iraq's prisons didn't come out. They may have died or been executed or, perhaps, are still being held. It was some of their relatives who decided to take to the streets.

"My son was arrested 10 years ago, and I haven't heard anything of him since," said a woman in the crowd in Baghdad. "They took him with no explanation. Now I want to know where he is and when he will be released."

Especially unusual was the group's decision to gather outside the Information Ministry, a nondescript building on a busy street. It is the place where journalists from foreign news organizations often work.

This prompted some, like Nadhmi, to conclude that a group was behind the event. If he was right, it would mark the first time in years that an opposition group has attempted to operate openly inside Hussein's Iraq. Nadhmi said that if those organizers stuck to reasonable demands, it would be healthy, but if they believed the regime is weak, they would be wrong.

"It is an opposition," he said.

Not everyone agreed. One European diplomat said, "I am not sure it is significant enough to draw any conclusions."

Whether organized or not, the group was clever in its approach. Its members not only chanted pro-presidential slogans but carried pictures of the president -- while also demanding information. The dual message seemed to put off the police who responded. Often, when the authorities tried to shoo the protesters away, they chanted, "Yes, yes, President Saddam Hussein," and the police backed off.

The authorities eventually fired shots over the protesters' heads, and they dispersed. Their demands were reportedly given to Information Minister Mohammed Said Sahaf, who had announced the amnesty on TV.

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