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Actor's new role: Iraqi hangman

Basam Ridha has no regrets about leaving his Southern California life behind to help bring killers to justice in Iraq.

July 22, 2007|Tina Susman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Basam Ridha traded the business of Hollywood for the business of hanging.

The Los Angeles resident, an Iraqi who fled Saddam Hussein's regime 25 years ago, is a member of the Screen Actors Guild with a smattering of small parts alongside the likes of George Clooney and Omar Sharif. But he'd rather be known for his current role: as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's advisor on judicial matters and executions and the go-to man for all things gallows.

Life in the concrete-and-dustbowl environment of Baghdad's fortified Green Zone is far different from his time in Southern California. Ridha speaks longingly of his hillside home in San Dimas: the panoramic view toward Los Angeles, the yard full of fruit trees, and the pleasure he used to take driving his children to school, without a coterie of bodyguards.

But he has no regrets. Each time the noose tightens around the neck of a Hussein aide and the platform falls away, Ridha thinks of the tens of thousands of Iraqis -- including his brothers, Bashar and Qazem -- who were killed by Hussein.

"The blood of my brothers will not go in vain," said Ridha, a longtime Iraqi American activist who was asked to return to Baghdad in 2005 to work with the first post-Hussein Iraqi government. When Maliki took over the following year, he asked Ridha to stay on.

"I feel like I deliver something to the Iraqi people, and I feel good about it when I take these people and send them to the gallows," said Ridha, whose office is in a dilapidated high-rise that once housed Hussein's ministers. "It is not a nice thing to see someone being killed or dying in front of you, but I look at them and say, 'These are the people who killed my people.' "

In a land of perpetual insecurity, Ridha may have one of the most secure jobs around. He has a firm future keeping watch on the high-profile trials of Hussein's aides on charges of human rights abuse and arranging the logistics of executions.

"All the details, from A to Z," Ridha says proudly.

The deposed president and three close associates already have been convicted of murder and hanged, but more than 115 other people are still awaiting trial in connection with Hussein-era crimes.

For now, Ridha's preoccupation is with the anticipated execution of the man whom he and many Iraqis consider the worst offender after Hussein: Ali Hassan Majid, also known as Chemical Ali. Majid was convicted of genocide on June 24 and sentenced to death for overseeing the use of chemical weapons against tens of thousands of Kurdish civilians in northern Iraq in 1988.

Majid and five codefendants said they were defending Iraq against Kurdish rebels. Five were convicted, and three were ordered hanged. The sixth was freed after the special tribunal hearing the case determined there was insufficient evidence against him.

Majid's conviction and sentence were appealed, but if this case is like others involving close Hussein associates, the ruling will be upheld and he will hang.

"We'd like to get it over with, because this is an important case for Iraq," said Ridha, who already is preparing for the event.

It is not an easy task. There are regional sentiments to consider, security issues, and Iraq's reputation, which some human rights groups have said is suffering as a result of its use of the death penalty. At least 100 people have been hanged since a moratorium on executions was lifted in 2005.

Majid's case is especially sensitive because his crimes occurred in northern Iraq, and people there are clamoring to have the hanging carried out in that region. It is Ridha's job to weigh the pros and cons of moving the execution from Baghdad and to make a recommendation to Maliki. At this point, he is in favor of the shift, despite the ruckus it could create.

"You'd get human rights organizations saying this is revenge, that it doesn't look pretty if you execute the guy up there," Ridha said. But on the positive side, he said it would make people in the north happy and foster harmony between Kurds and the Shiite-led government.

"These are our people. These are the people who belong to Iraq," he said. "It looks like if we execute him up north, it is better for Iraq."

On paper, at least, Ridha seems an unlikely candidate for his job. His expertise is in mechanical engineering, which he studied in Ohio and Louisiana. His Louisiana State University bachelor's degree is displayed on a shelf in his office, where the air conditioner is set at a chilly 64.4 degrees. Ridha, a young-looking 44 who would look younger still without the white streak jetting through his black hair, sits behind a large desk and sips hot, sweet tea from a delicate glass cup.

Privileged youth

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