Ali, a 35-year-old engineer, lives in a modest two-bedroom apartment in central Tehran. I visited him last summer with Hossein, a friend of mine who had fought alongside Ali in the brutal 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. I listened as the two traded war stories while sitting cross-legged on a red Persian carpet, sipping tea and eating Persian melons. Suddenly, Ali turned to me and asked: "Do you have any children?" When I replied "No," he said, "Good. Please don't talk about children when you meet my wife. She is very depressed that we can't have any."
That's because Ali has been unable to become a father. His doctors have told him that his infertility may be the result of mild exposure to a cocktail of chemical agents that Saddam Hussein's commanders regularly used on Iranian soldiers. Sometimes a hacking cough, a common ailment of mustard gas victims, overtakes Ali. It emerged toward the end of our meeting -- sharp, raspy, choking -- and lasted a grueling five minutes. When the spasm ended, Ali gasped, his eyes wet with tears: "I'm one of the lucky ones. You should see the other victims."
He was right. In dank hospital wards across Iran, many other victims of Saddam's gases, some of whom call themselves "living martyrs," are dying slow, agonizing deaths. The Iraqi dictator's persistent use of chemical weapons on Iranian soldiers and civilians constitutes a war crime of the highest magnitude. Yet last week, in that dramatic moment when a young judge faced the battered dictator, reading the charges against him in an Iraqi courtroom, there was no mention of Iraq's 1980 invasion of Iran, nor of the chemical attacks on Iranians. There should have been.
The trial of Saddam Hussein will not be morally complete unless he is forced to confront the chemical atrocities committed against Iranian soldiers. Visiting the hospital wards last summer, I saw one of his victims shake spasmodically as he coughed up blood. "Very common," an orderly explained, as he patted the man's back. Others could barely eat, their throats and intestines lacerated by mustard gas. On one of my visits, one veteran succumbed to a chemical-induced cancer, dying shortly after watching a European soccer match. "At least his final thoughts were on football," the orderly said, "not that terrible war."
During that "terrible war," roughly a million people died or were injured on both sides. All told, up to 100,000 Iranians were affected by chemical weapons. An October 2002 CIA report estimated that roughly 20,000 Iranians were killed by Saddam's gases. Another 5,000 still remain under medical surveillance today.
In the late stages of the war, a CIA report described the "regular and recurring" Iraqi use of chemical weapons as "an integral part" of war strategy. Over a five-year period, Iraqi commanders used mustard gas, sarin gas, the nerve agent tabun and other deadly chemicals that burned body tissue, collapsed lungs, paralyzed muscles, destroyed nervous systems, rendered victims blind and caused violent vomiting convulsions often leading to death.
The indictment against Hussein listed a host of his domestic crimes, including the gassing of Kurds and the killings of dissidents. But the indictment did not confine itself to Iraq's borders. It also included his invasion and occupation of Kuwait. When that charge was read out, Saddam exclaimed that the Kuwaitis were "dogs" who had tried to turn Iraqi women into "ten dinar prostitutes." If the Iran invasion had been included, I wonder if Saddam would have reprised the remark we heard so often during the war -- that Iranians are like "insects" and his government had an "insecticide" (i.e., chemical weapons) to wipe them out.
During one of my visits with Iranian war victims last summer, one veteran -- plastic tubes pumping oxygen into his body through his nostrils -- asked me why there was no international outrage when Iraq used chemical weapons. "Why did the world look the other way?" he asked imploringly. The United States and the international community should urge the Iraqi governing council to "look the other away" no more. All victims of Saddam's foreign wars should be included in the indictment, not just those who happen to be allies of the United States.
All over the world, too many people think of Washington's human rights approach as selective, based on national interest, not moral imperative. Here's an opportunity to prove the naysayers wrong and do what is morally right -- as quaint a notion as that may be in international affairs. Now is the moment when Washington could step forward and urge the Iraqi governing council to include Iran's victims in the criminal docket in Hussein's trial.
The Iranian government is already preparing an indictment of its own against Hussein. Washington need not wait for Tehran's initiative. On this issue, unilateral action would be welcome.
Not only would it acknowledge Iranians' sufferings, but examining the "Iran chapter" of Hussein's haunting book of crimes could have another important effect: It would shine light on a vile war with too many unexplored, dark secrets. It might even unearth some of Iran's own crimes, such as the alleged killing of Iraqi prisoners of war.
Closer to home, it could reveal some uncomfortable truths, such as the post-1984 combat advisory assistance -- sharing intelligence on Iranian deployments and aerial surveillance -- that Washington provided to Iraq, despite full knowedge of the chemical weapons attacks.
Such uncomfortable truths, however, shouldn't deter us from recognizing a larger truth: Iranian victims deserve their day in court, too.
President Bush has often rightly expressed support for the Iranian people in their struggle for a better life and freedom from an oligarchic ruling elite that refuses to meet their demands for change. A statement of solidarity with Iranian victims of the war -- most of whom are civilians or rank-and-file soldiers -- would be consistent with U.S policy, which has sought to differentiate between the Iranian people and the government, two distinct entities separated by a gap that has become unbridgeable.
Saddam Hussein's trial is an extraordinary moment -- a dictator who has raped and pillaged his country and others over two generations faces a court of his own people, and the world is watching. It is a pity that one group of his victims has been left out, alone, to cough blood and silently die, wondering why the world is ignoring them again.
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