IRAQ: A Story IPS Never Wanted to Tell

SAN FRANCISCO, California, Jul 5 2006 (IPS) - IPS contributor Alaa Hassan was killed on his way to work last Wednesday. He was 35 years old. He is survived by his mother, five brothers, five sisters and his wife who is pregnant with their first child.

Alaa was not killed for being a reporter. Indeed, he had only just begun helping IPS gather news. When fighters ambushed him and machine-gunned his car, it was simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time – one of so many people killed seemingly for no reason in Iraq each day.

The same day Alaa was killed, Reuters reports 11 other violent incidents in Iraq – including the car bombings of day labourers in Baquba 50km north-east of Baghdad, and of shoppers in the Shia Qadamiya district of Baghdad.

At least four Iraqi policemen and a U.S. soldier died in separate attacks across the country. In Baquba, the U.S. military admitted to killing a “non-combatant” during a raid on a civilian home.

Most of the people killed Jun. 28 (along with the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians who have died over the last three years) will remain only numbers. Because we knew Alaa so well, we can tell his story.

Alaa lived in al-Tajiyyat neighbourhood in northeast Baghdad. He managed the inventory of a stationery store in Baghdad’s famed book market on Mutanabe Street.

He lived near the Tigris river in housing that had been reserved for employees of the ministry of industry when Saddam Hussein was president.

He lived next door to what was once an electronics factory and across the street from the former building of the Institute of Arab National Oil Studies. Both were looted after the U.S. invasion. After that, the U.S. government turned them into military bases. So Alaa’s neighbourhood was regularly attacked by insurgents.

The only way from his neighbourhood to central Baghdad was to cross the al-Muthana bridge over the Tigris river, a regular spot for insurgent attacks. Because of an Iraqi police checkpoint and a bend, every car passing over the bridge has to slow down. Killings occur here many times a week.

When Alaa crossed the bridge Jun. 28, gunmen sprayed his car with machine-gun fire, killing him with six bullets. A second passenger was seriously injured.

The day he died, Alaa had worried aloud about crossing the bridge. A good friend, Abu Laith, had just been killed there. “He was just coming home from work and randomly someone showed up and shot and killed him,” Alaa had said.

“I know it’s dangerous to leave the house,” he told his brother Salam over the phone. “But what can I do? I have to go on living.”

Alaa was always in a difficult situation. “The Americans built a base that’s in front of my house that used to be a government institute, and another one across the street,” he told his brother.

“Now when we go out the Americans are right there at our front door. The wall for the American base is exactly in front of the house. Now it’s not safe to go from the house to the main road just a half a kilometre away.”

Alaa Hassan was born near ancient Babylon, one of 11 children. His father was a courthouse clerk and his mother a housewife. As a young man, he moved to an area just outside Baghdad and worked as a computer programmer in the ministry of industry. He got married in 2000.

Under Saddam’s reign, one could not get married (or open a shop or business for that matter) without security clearance. But Alaa apparently married without following proper procedures. He and his wife ran into difficulties with the marriage; eventually someone reported his illegal marriage to the government. Alaa was held in a torture centre for nine months in 2000.

“The family had to pay a bribe to find him,” his brother Salam recalls. “He was held in a warehouse near the law college. They beat his hands and his body. He had bruises everywhere.”

Salam recalls visiting Alaa where he was detained. “It was a big warehouse with a lot of rooms on the top floor. They would do the torture in an open area so all the other prisoners could see. Eventually, they decided to put him on trial. They sentenced him to 25 years in jail but we paid a bribe so it was reduced to three years.”

Alaa served his sentence at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, among hardened criminals and political prisoners. He was incarcerated there until just before the U.S. invasion in 2003, when Saddam Hussein announced a general amnesty for all prisoners.

Alaa emerged from prison traumatised. He divorced his wife and moved back to Babylon.

He continued living with his family there for three months after the fall of Saddam, but eventually he decided to look for a job again. When a cousin found him a job in a stationery shop on Mutinabe street, he moved back to Baghdad.

He remarried three months before he was killed. He had just learnt his wife was pregnant.

As with many Iraqi casualties, it has been difficult for Alaa’s family to grieve his death. When one of his brothers called the Baghdad morgue about retrieving his body, an employee advised them not to come because he said the area around the morgue is controlled by insurgents.

So his extended family and friends gathered together – all armed – and walked to the morgue together through firing to retrieve the body. When they arrived, they had to pick their way through corpses to find Alaa.

Alaa was buried in the holy city of Najaf last Wednesday. It was a difficult trip for the family because the roads are unsafe. The family obtained guards from the Mehdi Army of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who escorted the family on the highway to Najaf and provided security for the funeral.

Alaa’s family will be observing the traditional 40 days mourning at their home in Babylon. His whole family is now moving out of Baghdad.

“If this continues for another three or four years every single family in Iraq will be affected by this war,” Alaa’s brother Salam says. “It will put us on another path in the future and it will be very difficult to make it a peaceful country again.”

*With colleague Alaa Hassan, Aaron Glantz covered the increasing violence and sectarian divisions swallowing up Basra in the south of Iraq; the untold stories of Haditha, raided by the U.S. army last year; and the local reactions over the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

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