Rule of the Death Squads: The Shooting Isn't Just between Occupying Forces and Guerrillas. the Iraqi Governing Council Is "Killing People One by One"

By Grey, Stephen | New Statesman (1996), March 15, 2004 | Go to article overview

Rule of the Death Squads: The Shooting Isn't Just between Occupying Forces and Guerrillas. the Iraqi Governing Council Is "Killing People One by One"


Grey, Stephen, New Statesman (1996)


On the morning of his death, 19 January 2004, Professor Abdullatif Ali al-Mayah left his house as he always did at 8am. Placing his Samsonite briefcase on the back seat, he took the wheel of his metallic-blue 4X4, a Hyundai Galloper II. Another professor, Sarhan Abbas, who lived in the same compound of university-owned bungalows, took the passenger seat.

Al-Mayah drove down the main road, past shops and an empty plot of rubbish-strewn land. Just before a side road leading to a motorway, the road swings to the left and he slowed down. As people do in Baghdad, he continued driving against the oncoming traffic. Staff at El Banouk (The Bank), an outdoor shish kebab restaurant, were just getting ready to open.

About a hundred metres farther on, al-Mayah was forced by a large pothole to slow again, and his attackers sprung their trap. Mohamed, who works in the restaurant, told me later: "I heard all the shots and looked out on to the road. I thought it was looters who wanted to steal his car."

Al-Mayah, 54, was a prominent human rights campaigner and an opponent of the American and British occupation of Iraq. Just 12 hours earlier, on al-Jazeera TV, he had denounced the corruption of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) and demanded universal elections as soon as possible. "I can endure any Iraqi government," he said, "but the feeling of being under occupation is terrible for me."

His friend Abbas recalled how he died. "Suddenly, a group of seven or eight men with their faces concealed appeared from a side road. Thinking they were carjackers, he was ready to hand them the keys. Then the attackers shot al-Mayah more than 20 times." Like other university staff, al-Mayah had been issued with a revolver for his protection, but he had little idea what to do with it. As a senior director, he was also given a bodyguard, who was in the car that morning. But Mohamed Sahib, 25, said he was waiting for an American licence to carry a gun and could do little to protect his boss.

Sahib remembered how the attackers, all in red keffiyehs (headscarves), with only their dark eyes visible through slits, approached from two sides. "They shouted for the car to stop ... I remember one person fired directly at al-Mayah inside the car and I think another group also fired from the other side. He was shot three times in his head just as he was opening the car door to get out. He fell dead on to the ground."

There are many such deaths in Baghdad every day: al-Mayah, director of the Baghdad Centre for Human Rights, was the fourth Mustansiriya University professor to be slain. His murder has never been properly investigated by detectives; it was left to amateurs such as myself to interview witnesses and sift through the dirt to find the shell casings of his assassins' bullets.

Al-Mayah was not a victim of the struggle between "occupying forces" and the "resistance". He was crushed as a liberal force that stood between those positions. Not everyone gets this point. A New York Times article about the same murder implied that anti-US forces were responsible. It quoted the coalition's military spokesman, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, saying: "By silencing urban professionals, the guerrillas are waging war on Iraq's fledgling institutions and on progress itself. This works against everything we're trying to do here." But typically, even for a "liberal" American paper, the Times underplayed al-Mayah's determined opposition to US occupation. It seems unlikely he was a target for the "resistance", even though he supported calls for the elections that many Sunni guerrillas fear.

So who was responsible for his murder? A senior commander at the headquarters of the new American-installed Iraqi police told me: "Dr Abdullatif was becoming more and more popular because he spoke for people on the street here. He made some politicians quite jealous." But, he said, al-Mayah's killing was just like the seven other political assassinations carried out in the previous four weeks in the same small district. …

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