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In Basra, families receive confirmation of loved ones' executions

BASRA, Iraq—After bottling up their sorrows for four years, the women of the Nasser family gave in to their worst fears. They let out a flood of tears, shrieks and wails that pierced the walls of their small house.

The eldest son, Abd al-Majeed Nasser, who fought Saddam Hussein's regime, disappeared on a violent night in March 1999. The family refused to believe he was dead. But a few days ago they obtained a list of people executed by the government.

His name was on it. It was time to lay Abd al-Majeed—and their hopes—to rest.

After years living in agony, not knowing if their loved ones were dead or alive, hundreds of Iraqis are facing the hard truth and seeking closure. Symbolic funerals without the bodies are taking place around Basra for relatives who vanished years ago at the hands of Saddam.

But the acceptance that family members are dead has sparked a hunt for those who killed them—a hunt for vengeance. A major concern of U.S. officials and policy analysts is a post-war Iraq bogged down in tit-for-tat revenge attacks that could hinder efforts to rebuild the nation.

"If I see the man who killed my son, I'll suck his blood out," Hissab Nasser said Sunday after his son's three-day funeral. "If there's 10 men who killed my son, I'll kill them all at once. It must be like this."

In the next room, the grieving women, who wore black Islamic robes called abayas, clutched each other as tears streamed down cheeks.

"Let me cry forever," one woman wailed. "A funeral without a body. Where are you now? Are you flying in the heavens? What did you do to the regime?"

Abd al-Majeed, 35, was a handsome Navy captain and father of four who visited many foreign ports. He also was a disaffected Shiite Muslim who despised Saddam's Baath government for its ban on religious freedom.

Abd al-Majeed was a disciple of the Grand Ayatollah Sadiq al-Sadr, one of the most popular Iraqi Shiite Imams who urged thousands of followers to defy the regime.

In February 1999, Baathist agents assassinated al-Sadr and his two sons as they left a mosque in Najaf. The killings sparked riots in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. By the next month the revolt spread to southern Iraq.

On March 17 that year, Abd al-Majeed picked up his Kalashnikov rifle and said goodbye to his pregnant wife, Layla. Other armed followers of al-Sadr were outside waiting in a vehicle.

"I'm going to martyr my life for the sake of Islam," Layla recalled him saying.

That night scores of Baath Party officials were killed around Basra. But by the next day Saddam's agents regained control and arrested hundreds of al-Sadr's supporters. Abd al-Majeed's family never saw him again.

The regime also arrested hundreds of relatives of al-Sadr's followers and destroyed their homes. Baathist agents rounded up fathers and grandfathers, mothers and sisters, even pregnant women and some 90 children, said witnesses. They were jailed in Basra's Central Prison for months, and in some cases two years.

Khudair al-Laiby, whose son Muhamed also vanished March 17, said he and other inmates were beaten three times a day. Some died, including an old man and a child who died at birth. Al-Laiby said he lived in the same clothes for eight months with little food or water. Others were handcuffed to iron railings.

But the worst punishment inflicted was psychological.

"They kept telling me, `We've executed your son,'" recalled al-Laiby.

When he was released, al-Laiby continued to search for his son. But he couldn't afford the $400 bribes Iraqi security officials demanded for information about Muhamed, also a Navy sailor.

It wasn't until a few days ago that al-Laiby believed what he felt deep inside. He got his hands on the list of about 200 people executed for their support of al-Sadr.

Copies of the list have been circulating around Basra since someone found it in the rubble of the bombed security directorate where people were tortured and killed. Muhamed al-Laiby, 24, was No. 6 six on the list.

His father said he was surprised to find his son's name on the list. He was an innocent young man picked up in one of the many random sweeps by Baathists, he said.

But al-Laiby's other son, Ahmed, told a different story. Muhamed, he said, kept his anti-Saddam militancy a secret from his family for their protection.

"That night, he left with a Quran in his hand," said Ahmed, referring to March 17, 1999. "I didn't tell about my brother's involvement because my family would blame me. It's a secret until now. But now there's no more need for secrets."

This week, a funeral is being planned, said Khudair al-Laiby. As per tradition, a large tent will be erected in front of their house and their tribal flag will be planted outside to announce the death. Friends and family will come to pay respects and celebrate with food and drink the life of Muhamed.

With no body to view, it will be an incomplete funeral, said his father. But already his thoughts are on finding his son's murderer.

"I will kill him," said Khudair al-Laiby, spitting out the words.

Ahmed, who was seated next to him, shook his head.

"This is dangerous," he said. "This could lead to civil war. I don't think the security force member's family will be silent. They will take revenge on the person who kills their brother."

At the Nasser family's house, preparations also were under way to find those who executed Abd al-Majeed. As mourners continued to trickle in, Abid Ali Talib, a friend, brought a folder of documents he said he found in the security directorate building.

Inside was an order by Saddam's cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majeed, known as "Chemical Ali," to execute al-Sadr followers. Other documents, said Talib, provided clues to the identities of those who killed Abd al-Majeed.

"We are going to revenge the killing of my brother and the al-Sadr followers," vowed Mussab Nasser, his brother. "We will patiently hunt for the Baathists. We know very well who they are."

Layla, Abd al-Majeed's wife, first wants to find her husband's body. She wants to bury it in the sacred Shiite burial grounds in Najaf, she said.

As she speaks, her 4-year-old, pigtailed daughter, Hawra, appears confused by all the crying and wailing. She was born after her father died, and she has started calling her uncle "Father."

This saddens Layla, but she adds she's happy her husband died fighting for his beliefs.

"I feel very proud," said Layla, clutching her pink handkerchief. "I don't regret his death."


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

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