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Blacklisted Shiite family wants retribution

SHUAIBA, Iraq—Mazen Abbas carries his father's death certificate in a pocket just above his heart. The frayed, aging document reads: Hanged till death.

When Abbas' family went to collect his father's tortured body, they were ordered to pay 30 Iraqi dinars—a month's salary—for what the executioners said were the bullets used to kill him. The family paid.

In death, as in life, millions of Shiite Muslims were denied even a shred of dignity under Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime. While thousands were brutally murdered, their families were also thrown into a living, bottomless hell.

Generation after generation was blacklisted from jobs and schooling, and monitored by neighborhood Baathist spies.

"There are millions of families like us," said Abbas, 23, a tall, unemployed construction worker.

Iraq has been a center of Shiite learning and worship for centuries. But under Saddam, Shiite culture and traditions were suppressed. He has long promoted the Sunnis, the other branch of Islam, to counter the clout of the Shiites, who comprise about 65 percent of Iraq's 24 million people.

Today, as the Saddam regime crumbles, the Abbas family finally feels a freedom it never felt before. They openly talk about their suffering to strangers. They rip apart and stomp red T-shirts with Saddam's face.

And they want those who murdered the patriarch of their tightly knit family to face justice.

"If the new regime does not do something to find this person, I'll do something," said Abbas firmly. "He destroyed my whole family."

Abbas' father was an opinionated man who did not veil his contempt for the Baathists, said his family. He was also a strong local Shiite leader at a time when Iraq was at war with Shiite-ruled Iran, and Sunni Muslims dominated Saddam's regime.

"He was brave," said Abbas' Uncle Hamza, breaking down in tears inside his mud-walled house where 20 family members live crammed into two small rooms.

Baathist agents picked up Naji Abbas in 1985 as he left a mosque in this dusty southern Iraqi village where donkey carts ply the streets. He was never seen again.

Thirteen months later, another Baathist agent walked into the mosque and told Naji's father to pick up his son's body. It was missing an eye. An arm was broken. And on his chest were burn marks from electric shocks. Naji Abbas was 25 years old at the time of his death.

His devastated father died of a heart attack soon afterward, said the family

In Shiite culture, burials must be done immediately. Naji's corpse, however, was 40 days old and had lain coffin-less in the open before it was claimed.

But the Abbas family felt fortunate. Many torture victims were buried in mass graves or dumped into chemical vats that swallow bodies and bones. At least his father got a proper burial, said Mazen Abbas, who was 6 when his father died.

His mother, Rashima Abd el Kazem, wanted their four children, then aged 2 through 7, to know who killed their father. Now 40, she never hid the truth.

"They heard and they understood," she said. "They hated Saddam Hussein right away."

And the regime wasn't satisfied with killing Naji Abbas. It had all his relatives fired from their jobs, then blacklisted them and their children forever from government jobs.

Hamza Abbas, 53, was a French-trained professor of mechanical engineering. Like many Iraqis, he joined the Baath party to get a job and a good education. He was forced to inform on peers in order to get ahead.

But even his solid Baath credentials couldn't help him after his brother's execution. He was stripped of his university job and made a storage clerk. He was later demoted to night gatekeeper until the Baathists pushed him out of that job, too.

Today, Hamza Abbas, small and frail, is a night gatekeeper at an electrical plant, a position he said he finds humiliating.

"I applied for many jobs," he said in a soft, subdued voice. "But that's the only one I got because of my brother."

Mazen Abbas wasn't allowed to join clubs in his college and could never apply for any government jobs. It didn't matter. He never finished college.

In their village, friends and neighbors shunned them. Baath officials, who were paid well and given nice cars by Saddam for their loyalty, routinely brought them in for questioning. They also ordered the Abbas family to put up pro-Saddam banners at their house.

Life got worse after the 1991 Gulf War, when a Shiite uprising was crushed by Iraqi troops. Artillery shells from coalition forces fell on the Abbas family house, forcing them to move to a smaller rented house.

Saddam helped rebuild the houses of Sunni Muslims and some Shiites in the village. But he didn't give any reparations to the Abbases and other blacklisted families. And the Baathists scrutinized Shiites even more.

The Abbas family barely makes ends meet. They depend on the meager $11 monthly gatekeeper salary of Hamza Abbas and credit from local stores. They got rations from the United Nations oil-for-food program, but that stopped before the war began.

They hope for change.

Inside the Abbas house, a picture of a Shiite holy warrior hangs on the peeling wall. On a white horse and clutching the green Islamic flag, he is charging across the Euphrates River leaving dead bodies in his wake.

Only two days ago, the picture was hidden inside a drawer along with Shiite religious tapes and war, brought out only on certain Shiite holidays. Even then, worship took place behind closed doors and windows.

But the Baathists in Shuaiba have fled or melted away. Some have even taken down the very banners they ordered at the Abbas house, said the family.

This has given Mazen Abbas the confidence to dig out his father's graying death certificate and tuck it in his pocket. By reviving the past, he wants a better future.

"It's to prove I'm an enemy of Saddam and that I'm trying to get back my rights and retribution," he said. "With Saddam gone this can happen."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+basra