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The World

Hussein Graves Give Rise to Myths

Some mourners say that before burial, the dictator's sons and grandson had appeared to be alive and smelled 'like flowers.'

August 04, 2003|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

AL AUJA, Iraq — Near a bending palm tree and a line of young eucalyptus with leaves seared by the sun, the two sons of Saddam Hussein and his grandson Mustafa rested silently Sunday in the baked earth of a village desert cemetery.

But around them, the myth-making had already begun.

Killed in a shootout with U.S. troops nearly two weeks ago, embalmed and kept in a makeshift American morgue, then hastily buried Saturday at the insistence of the occupying powers, Uday and Qusai Hussein were feared and despised by much of Iraq during their lives.

In death, they are being elevated to near-sainthood by the hardscrabble people here in Al Auja, Hussein's home village near Tikrit, where they are now interred.

"They appeared as though they were alive," said Ahmad Saab, a school administrator who called himself a distant relative, describing a sort of miracle that he asserts had occurred with their remains. "Their smell was very nice, like perfume, even though it is 10 days that they were kept. The scent was like flowers."

"I opened the coffin of Mustafa. The smell of his body was like a rose," agreed Salam Faris, a 41-year-old unemployed civil servant. "He looked as though he was asleep, and I had only to wake him."

Such fables, of course, are far from the reality -- other accounts of the burial indicated that the bodies were too decomposed even to wrap in shrouds and that they let off an awful odor. But the stories give an idea of the extent to which people in Al Auja wish to exalt the fallen brothers.

The U.S.-led occupation authority, after consultation with Iraq's nascent governing council, agreed to relinquish the bodies to the Iraqi Red Crescent Society for burial. The holding of the bodies for so long after their deaths was seen by many people as a violation of Islamic customs -- which call for a corpse to be buried as soon as possible -- as was the work of morticians to repair the damage caused by dozens of bullets that struck the two brothers in the shootout in the northern city of Mosul.

American authorities held the bodies, and displayed the bullet-riddled remains to journalists and some Iraqi politicians and associates, so there would be no doubts among a skeptical public that Hussein's sons had indeed been killed. All arguments about their death seemingly have vanished now that Hussein himself, from hiding, has issued an audiotape proclaiming his sons and grandson to be martyrs.

A brief statement issued by the occupation authority said that it handed over the bodies to the Iraqi Ministry of Health, and its Medical Legal Institute, which issued death certificates. At the ministry's request, the bodies were taken to Tikrit by helicopter and turned over to the Red Crescent, which in turn sent them to the cemetery where Hussein family members are buried.

On Sunday, the cemetery was empty except for three men riding in a white Toyota who grudgingly agreed to show the graves to journalists. A squad of U.S. soldiers, armed with heavy machine guns, guarded the gate.

As these troops stood guard, others were rounding up suspected Hussein regime loyalists in the so-called Sunni Triangle northwest of Baghdad. Twenty people, including a "targeted leader," were detained, according to a statement from U.S. Central Command.

The three men at the cemetery said that they were cousins of the deceased. One agreed to give his name, Ali Mohammed, and claimed that "thousands of people" would like to come and see the graves.

"The Americans put limits," he said. "Only 20 cars were allowed" at Saturday's funeral. If not for that, he said, whole tribes of supporters would have been on hand.

"No one can deny that they were martyrs, because they were fighting heroically to the end," he said.

On Sunday, an Iraqi flag covered Mustafa's grave, but those of Uday and Qusai were unmarked mounds of dirt. At the burial, all three had been covered in flags. "We don't know who carried the other flags off," Mohammed said.

At a small farmhouse just outside the cemetery's fence, several men gathered in the afternoon and talked of Uday and Qusai. They were attended by a pair of teenage boys who passed around a steel bowl filled with cool water, and an old tattooed woman in tribal dress who criticized U.S. forces for not capturing the brothers.

"Why did they kill them? It would have been very easy to capture them alive," agreed Saab, the school administrator. "They deserved to have a trial. If they had done anything wrong, at least we would have known."

The consensus in Al Auja seemed to be that Uday and Qusai were innocent of any crimes and were persecuted by the Americans.

That is far from the view of the rest of Iraq, particularly in Shiite-majority areas, which remember Qusai as the executioner who suppressed the 1991 uprising of Shiites in Iraq and Uday as a capricious rapist, playboy and killer.

Faris, the unemployed civil servant, said the two brothers gained stature because they died fighting against the American forces.

"In other countries, when the rulers have trouble, they escape to another country," Faris said. "But these two did not escape because they believed they should stay in their own country. Their father too. Isn't he fighting the Americans even now?"

The sons have earned the title of "martyr" no matter what they did while alive, both men agreed.

"Of course they are in paradise," Faris said. "That is what we win when we fight a foreign invader, and it was a glorious battle."

Saab, who said he was arrested and held 24 days in Tikrit by U.S. forces because he was suspected of actively supporting the old regime, spoke as though the battle is not yet over.

He proudly recounted the chants he heard at the burial: "By our soul, and by our blood, we will sacrifice for you Saddam!" and "Down with America!"

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