BASRA, Iraq—The families of the men Faisal Kinhar blames for his son's death offered him a total of $4,000, hoping to buy forgiveness—and protection. But it was too little, and too late. No amount of money, he felt, could bring back his son, Thaer, executed four years ago by Saddam Hussein's Baath regime.
Kinhar wanted to look his son's executioners in the eyes, preferably with a sharp knife in his hand. Tribal codes, however, dictated that he agree to a month-long truce to try and settle the matter.
In the absence of laws and courts, the families of Baathist officials and their victims are using the centuries-old tribal practice of blood money payments to settle the crimes of Saddam Hussein's regime.
If they work, such compensations could help prevent a mass bloodletting that could destabilize the new Iraq at a time when revenge attacks against Baathists are beginning to surface.
"Our family will respect the truce," said Abdallah Kinhar, 45, Faisal's brother, who was seated on a red carpet inside their family home. "We will not go to their house for one month."
If the men surrender, Faisal Kinhar will let a court decide their fate when the judicial system is resurrected. If they don't, the Kinhars plan to take matters in their own hands.
During the Saddam regime, blood money was secretly used to deal with killings and disputes ranging from car accidents to theft. Influential tribal elders would mediate privately between families until a deal was reached, bypassing Iraq's legal system.
There was a practical reason for this: police officers and judges were corrupt, and sentences were excessively harsh. A trip to one of Iraq's miserable prisons often meant torture—or death.
But most powerful Baathists were above the law. They never thought of paying blood money for their crimes. And no one dared commit revenge attacks against them because the regime would kill them, and destroy their homes and families. For years the families of those killed by Baathists kept silent, unable to act on what they felt in their hearts.
Hundreds of Baathists have fled their homes, fearing revenge attacks. Their relatives left behind are now desperately trying to evoke the very tribal codes they found no need for during 35 years of power.
Three days after Baathist agents arrested him in May 1999, Thaer passed a message through a family friend who was a Baathist, detailing what happened.
He had been picked up for being a follower of the Grand Ayatollah Sadiq al-Sadr, a revered Iraqi Shiite Imam who openly defied the regime. Two months earlier, Baathist agents murdered al-Sadr and his two sons in the central city of Najaf, sparking riots and anti-Baathist killings in many parts of the country.
In his message, Thaer also revealed the Baathists who had reported him, said Abdallah Kinhar. They were: a Baath security official who wrote the report; an officer of Mukhabbarat, the Iraqi intelligence service; and an informant.
The Kinhar family never saw their son again. He was 22. They knew the families of two of the men named by their son in his message, but they were too scared to confront them. Besides, the Kinhars refused to believe their son was dead.
About 10 days ago, they saw Thaer's name on a list of those executed by the regime. They went to the houses of the men their son had named.
"We wanted their blood," said Abdallah Kinhar, a soft-spoken engineer with black rectangular spectacles.
Hours later, two of the families made their offers for blood money, said Abdallah Kinhar. By then, the other man and his family had fled.
Efforts to contact the three families for comment were unsuccessful.
The house of the intelligence official burned down last week. The family has fled. And now the family of the alleged informant is nowhere to be found, said neighbors.
The Kinhar family insists they did not burn down the intelligence official's house. He had many enemies, they said. And they're not worried if they don't hear back from either family when the truce ends.
They will have more justification to do what they feel in their hearts.
"If they don't turn them over next month, we'll find them and kill them," said Faisal Kinhar, clenching his jaw in determination.
Muhamed Hafidh Nasser's name also was on the execution list. His family paid a visit to the most powerful Baathist in their neighborhood on April 21.
They had no proof that he was behind their son's killing, but they were convinced he played some role, said Ali Hafidh Nasser, 36, his brother.
"Many of us broke into the house," he said. "The women started screaming, and the neighbors came and begged us to leave the house. We checked inside and there were only women and children and then we left. The man of the party had fled."
After holding back their anger for four years, they felt liberated. After Muhamed Nasser, then 27, disappeared in March 1999, the Baathists destroyed their family house.
"Imagine what would have happened if we hurt the man of the party then," said Ali Nasser. "The party would have taken revenge on our whole family."
After the break-in, elders from three different Shiite Muslim tribes came to negotiate a truce between the Nassers' Al-Tamimi tribe and the Baathist's Abu-Sulainy tribe. They brought along two Muslim holy men called Saids who were descendants of the Prophet Mohammed and greatly respected in the community.
The tribal elders sat on carpets, ate dates and discussed the matter. The younger members of the Nasser family were furious. They refused to grant a truce.
"We told them it was a matter of killing, a matter of blood," said Ali Nasser, a burly taxi driver with sun-leathered skin. "Then the elders calmed us down and said to us we should act reasonably and logically. They came to us asking for a truce. Our duty, they said, is to give them the truce."
They were also convinced by an appeal for calm by some senior Shiite clerics in the holy city of Najaf, who urged that all actions against Baathists be taken legally when Iraq has a new government, said Ali Nasser.
The Nassers agreed to the truce. They also took an oath to keep the identity of the Baathist a secret and not to harm him or his family.
In the next month, the Baathist's family is expected to find him. If he denies a role in Muhamed Nasser's execution, they will make him swear by the Holy Koran. If he did do it, they will start gathering the blood money.
The younger Nassers are taking no chances. Despite their oath, they are closely watching the Baathist house in order to catch him. But they also respect the codes of their tribe. The tribe protects them—and can punish them.
"If I see him, I won't do anything," said Ali Nasser. "I'll respect the truce. But I do not guarantee I'm going to control myself, I might catch him and kill him."
When the month is over, the younger Nassers plan to convince their elders to force the Baathist's family to hand him over.
"To respect our tribal principles we'll sit and listen to them," said Ali Nasser. "Then we'll ask for impossible conditions. Let's say 10 million dinars ($4,000) and 5 or 6 of their women."
And what if the Baathist has fled the country?
"We will kill one of his brothers, or one of his cousins, unless his tribe pays that impossible condition," he added. "Even though he escaped his tribe should pay. Blood is cured with blood."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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