Baghdad – Arabs have never been squeamish about death. They see too much of it.
It is we Westerners – with our dangerous, all-conquering armies and our easy identification of evil – who fall over our moral sensitivities at the mere sight of a mortuary mug-shot.
I cannot think of an Iraqi – or a Palestinian, for that matter – who haven’t seen, with their own eyes, the decapitated victims of air raids and massacres, the military corpses torn to pieces by dogs in the deserts of Iraq or the mass graves of Kurdistan. Like Hieronymus Bosch and Goya, they’ve seen it all.
So on the streets of Baghdad this morning, Iraqis will pore over the all-too-soon-to-be-iconic photographs of Uday and Qusay, and their reaction will be quite unlike what many of us expect.
They will say, some of them, that, yes, that’s them, the terrible brothers, the “lion cubs” of the monster of Baghdad. That, of course, is what we, the West, want them to say. And others will ask – a good question this – why they couldn’t see them sooner.
Others will ponder the old Arab belief in the plot, the conspiracy. Did the Americans linger in order to fake the pictures? Have they digitised the brothers’ faces in order to make them appear dead while still they are live?
The bullet wound in Uday’s head, for example, the one that knocked out the teeth and part of the nose. Now there’s many an Iraqi who would like to have fired the fatal shot. But what if Uday took his own life rather than surrender to the enemy? What if he went down fighting, saving the last bullet for himself? Now that’s an idea that can appeal to the tribal nature of Iraqi society.
Iraqis have spent their lives fighting foreigners. Wasn’t Uday doing the same? And history, which has an unhappy way of reorganising the most staged of events, might just conspire to turn these photographs into those of martyrs. Which is what – to be sure – the Ba’ath militiamen will do. Cruel the brothers may have been. But cowards? That will be the message.
In other words, the publication of these photographs will prove either a stroke of genius or a historic mistake of catastrophic consequences.
The occupation authorities are pondering the idea of plastering the pictures around Baghdad. But be sure, they will soon be used as martyrs’ photographs on posters with a somewhat different message. The work of the Americans. The work of the occupiers.
And here, I suspect, will come the rub. For in Iraq, I suspect, there will a growing number of young men who will see the need in these pictures not to content themselves with regime change, but to revenge themselves upon the foreigners in Iraq, to avoid the further humiliation of occupation.
They may have hated the sons of Saddam, but after death can come a remarkable reversal of fortunes for the dead.
Because real life on the streets of Baghdad does not incline Iraqis to love their new occupiers or meekly accept the “democracy” that we wish to thrust upon them, just because we can prove that their old masters are dead.
Take the moment yesterday when Mohamed Eadem put his key in the padlock of the Kindi hospital mortuary, placed a tissue over his nose and heaved open the great freezer door to show me two sets of human remains, something infinitely worse that the last pictures of Uday and Qusay.
There on the floor lay yesterday’s forgotten victims of the Iraq war, a pile of blackened bones and incinerated flesh on plastic sheets.
As three more American soldiers were killed in an ambush outside Mosul – revenge comes swiftly in this dangerous country, for the men of the 101st Airborne died scarcely 36 hours after Saddam’s sons were killed nearby – the two shrivelled corpses in the mortuary of the Kindi hospital lay unidentified and uncared for, further reason for Iraqis to hate their occupiers.
Of course, we occupied ourselves yesterday with those photographs and with the deaths of the Americans. But no one bothered to ask about the two Iraqis gunned down by the Americans in the slums of Hay al-Gailani.
Down the road, then, at 7:00 a.m. yesterday, drove two men. They failed to stop. The Americans peppered their car with bullets. The vehicle burst into flames. And the Americans just left. For half an hour, the car blazed out of control.
What is clear is that it was the men and women of Hay al-Gailani who had to wait for the burning car to cool before they could heave the terrible remains from the embers of the front seats.
“There were just bones and flesh,” Mohamed Eadem told me. “And of course there were no identity papers left, so they hadn’t the slightest idea who these dead men were, and the Americans obviously didn’t care.”
Their car was left in the street, shredded by bullets, a crowd of angry Iraqis banging their fists on the roof. Was there a better way to enlist more men in the battle against the occupation?
Of course, the only bodies in which the Americans were interested were those of Uday and Qusay. As for the remains in the Kindi mortuary – and no photographs of them, please – Eadem was possessed of one idea. “I sometimes have a feeling about the dead who are brought here,” he said. “I have this feeling that the two men in the car were brothers. I don’t know why. It’s a feeling.”
But these were brothers whom no American was going to care about – and of whose death no Iraqi had to be told.