The 4700 block of Davenport Street NW, when I was growing up, was usually tranquil to a fault, but one morning in 1957, fire engines arrived with sirens screaming. The firefighters found no emergency, just a distressed woman who explained in broken English that she had been trying to mail a letter. She had pulled down the handle of the red box on the pole, and suddenly bells had started ringing.
This was our introduction to the new neighbors, the Ammashes. Maj. Salih Madhi Ammash, a military attache in the Iraqi Embassy, learned that I collected stamps, and brought me envelopes from his office, postmarked Baghdad and bearing the return address, "Iraqi Defence Ministry." An amiable man, he would water his lawn with a garden hose and discuss Middle East politics with me, notwithstanding that I was Jewish, firmly pro-Israel, and with an 11-year-old's confidence in his own opinions.
The Ammash daughters, Huda and Nada, were the family members we saw most often. Too young to be in school, they stayed at home, absorbing American television. Huda, the elder child, then about 4, spent every pretty day dancing and singing by herself on the sidewalk in front of her house. As she pirouetted, she would sing the same song again and again: "Lestoil, Lestoil, the liquid detergent modern as today, there's less toil with Lestoil, so clean the Lestoil way."
In July 1958, the newspapers reported that an army coup, led by Abdel Karim Kassem, had overthrown the Iraqi government. The young king had been murdered and the hated prime minister lynched by a mob. I fretted for poor Maj. Ammash: What would become of this loyal servant of the Iraqi monarchy, now that it had ceased to exist?
After several days, I ventured to say something to Mrs. Ammash, who flashed a big smile and said, "So you heard!" It had not occurred to me until then that our neighbor might have been in on the plot.
The family soon returned to Iraq, and we lost all contact with them. Maj. Ammash's career prospered; he rose to be defense minister. In 1981, however, Saddam Hussein convened a meeting of party leaders and tearfully read out the names of those of his old comrades who were to be led from the hall and shot on the spot. Salih Madhi Ammash was among them.
By then, his daughter Huda, with a PhD from the University of Missouri, was a biologist working for the Iraqi government, reportedly in the germ warfare program. How it felt to go on working for the man who had ordered her father's execution, one can only imagine. It seems unlikely that she had much choice.
Two years ago, when the United States invaded Iraq, Huda Ammash was the only woman on the list of most-wanted Iraqis. As the supposed "Mrs. Anthrax," creator of weapons of mass destruction for Saddam Hussein, she was the five of hearts in the famous 55-card deck. She gave herself up to the American authorities and has been in custody since.
Six months ago, a White House spokesman confirmed that a team of American experts had concluded, after two years of searching, that there was no evidence of any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The leader of the team, Charles A. Duelfer, reported that Huda Ammash and two other scientists had cooperated fully with the investigators, and he urged their release. It's only sensible: If you find that no crime has been committed, it's hard to justify keeping the suspected perpetrator of that crime behind bars.
Huda Ammash's case is all the more pressing because she is gravely ill with a recurrence of breast cancer. The Pentagon contends that she is receiving adequate medical care. Even assuming that is true, humanity demands more. At such a time, access to doctors is no substitute for access to loved ones. Her detention is unjust and heartless.
Cruelty begets cruelty; decency begets decency. Freeing Huda Ammash is not only the right thing to do, it might also help save the lives of Western civilians in Iraq. Compassion and mercy are central tenets of Islam, but principles tend to be forgotten in the cycle of revenge. If our own weapons experts continue to be ignored, and Huda Ammash dies in prison, it may be innocent Westerners who pay the price.
The writer, a retired government lawyer, now lives in Seattle. He will be available to answer questions tomorrow at 2 p.m. on www.washingtonpost.com.