UM QASR, IRAQ — The men line up, dirty but happy. Most wear blue flip-flops. They carry a variety of boxes, cheap suitcases, and plastic bags stuffed with their belongings. Some have wrapped towels around their heads like traditional Arab headdresses; one incongruously sports a straw hat.
Chartered buses line up to carry the men to local cities. They are given food, cigarettes, and $5 to speed them on their way.
It is Camp Bucca, named after a New York fireman who died on September 11. Once home to some 7,000 Iraqi POWs, the camp will is steadily completing its business. The prisoners started going home on April 24. Only a few Iraqis suspected of war crimes or believed to have useful intelligence will remain.
It is characteristic not just of America’s swift victory but American society that the U.S. began releasing prisoners before the war had officially ended. The war may not have been necessary for U.S. security, but Washington does fight with extraordinary humaneness, especially compared to a totalitarian hellhole like Iraq.
The contrast is painfully evident in Kuwait. More than a decade ago 605 Kuwaitis disappeared into Iraqi custody and have yet to return. Declares one poignant banner on the side of an office building near the Kuwait City’s center, hung between American and British flags: “Thanks Coalition Forces. Bring Back Our P.O.W.’s.”
Unfortunately, it isn’t within Washington’s power to do that. But America can help.
The story goes back to August 2, 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Iraqi forces captured some 7,000 Kuwaitis and a smattering of other nationals during the attack and occupation. More than three-fourths were civilians.
Many were seized in an attempt to destroy any resistance to Iraq’s occupation. One 14-year-old was arrested for simply writing “I love Kuwait” on a wall.
Most of those detained were released when the war ended and during the Shiite uprising in southern Iraq. However, “once allied forces left, Iraq stopped releasing” the POWs, explains Ali H. Murad of the National Committee for Missing and POWs Affairs. Baghdad didn’t appear to single out victims to hold. “It was just bad luck for them,” says Murad. Which may explain why 33 citizens from a handful of other Mideast states and India also remain in Iraqi custody.
Naturally, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq denied holding any POWs. Yet the vast majority of the missing were seen at least once by eyewitnesses. Abdul Hameed al-Attar, who works with the Committee, tells the story of his 28-year-old son, Jamal, who worked for Kuwaiti television.
Jamal “couldn’t bear to see the atrocities” being committed against Kuwaitis and sought to work against the occupation. He, along with three friends were arrested in December 1990. Hameed was called by someone who witnessed the arrest and went to the police station, where he heard his son “yelling and screaming.” His son called to him by name, but the Iraqi police denied it was Jamal. That was “the last time I heard his voice,” says al-Attar, who now can only wait, “like all the fathers of other POWs, who believe they will see their loved ones alive.” Says al-Attar softly, “It is very, very hard. He was a young man. He loved his country very much.”
For years Baghdad simply boycotted the Tripartite Commission and Technical Sub-Committee, which met under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross and dealt with the POW issue. Iraq rebuffed the U.N. coordinator appointed to help resolve the issue. In an effort to appear more cooperative internationally, Baghdad resumed Committee participation earlier this year and allowed the U.N. coordinator to visit, but continued to stonewall regarding the fate of the POWs. “Our only hope was for the regime to be toppled,” said al-Attar.
One can only imagine the agony of the families involved. Every six months or so a parent dies. About 2,000 kids have effectively lost a parent; 68 children were born after the disappearance of their fathers.
Khaled al-Muthen, who numbers several classmates among the missing, said of the committee’s headquarters, which exhibits photos of all of the missing: “I’m glad there are no ladies here. If they tell their stories, you just get sick.”
The families’ hopes naturally rose with the collapse of Hussein’s regime. “We were very hopeful that once this regime was deposed, our POWs would be released,” says Murad.
Kuwait has been sending officials into Iraq to search for the POWs, but without success. Their work has been hampered by the dangerous circumstances in the chaotic aftermath of the war, and they have yet to unearth any evidence as to the fate of the missing. “Unfortunately, till now all the information we received is incorrect — we go to places people mention and find no Kuwaiti POWs.” says Murad.
The discovery of mass graves frightens the families, admits al-Attar. But there is still hope. Al-Muthen points out that Iraq released 200 Iranian POWs more than a decade after the end of the Iraqi-Iranian war ended, and “they were healthy.” He hopes that the Hussein regime similarly kept its Kuwaiti POWs alive as bargaining chips. In early May the ICRC repatriated 59 Iraqi captives from Iran — 15 years after that war ended.
Families have been applying pressure on the Kuwaiti government. They recently demonstrated in front of Kuwait’s parliament, for instance, “demanding that the government exact more effort to find them,” said al-Attar. And though the government has sent official missions to Iraq, it has so far refused to allow family members to travel there, since their safety cannot be guaranteed.
Murad notes that “after the freedom of Iraq, Kuwait has coordinated and cooperated with allied forces to search for Kuwaiti POWs.” But the frustration of the families has spilled over against America.
As exemplified by the banner in Kuwait City and similar signs elsewhere around the city, many families hope Washington will rescue their loved ones. Notes al-Attar, some families “believe that our prisoners are not a priority for the Americans, that the Americans are not serious in looking for our prisoners.”
He understands that the U.S. has other priorities. “I know that Americans have more important jobs to do.” Thus, the families will probably have to wait for the inauguration of a new Iraqi government: “Without a new government, new authorities, without having a new Iraqi regime it will be difficult for us to find them. We need Iraqi help; they must lead us. They know where the prisons are, where the tunnels are,” he says. “We hope after a new government is found in Iraq we will have someone to talk to.”
Although the frustration of relatives of Kuwaiti POWs is understandable, Washington obviously can’t simply conjure up the missing ex nihilo. But it can help. First, as U.S. forces search for weapons of mass destruction, they should look for prisons or any other facilities in which Kuwaitis might have been detained. And in sorting through evidence of atrocities and crimes committed by the deposed regime they should look for anything pertaining to the detainees.
Second, in searching for and arresting criminal members of the Hussein regime, the U.S. should include questions as to the missing and involve Kuwaiti officials in the interrogations. Helping resolve the status of the POWs should be considered a mitigating factor in the final disposition of their cases. “We are now waiting to find a well-informed Iraqi officials, highly informed. They may have some information about our POWs,” said al-Attar.
Third, in setting up a new government, Washington should indicate that one test of its success and fulfilling its responsibilities is cooperating with Kuwait on the issue. Baghdad must regularize its relations with its neighbors, most obviously Kuwait. And that requires releasing any surviving POWs and accounting for the rest.
“Thank God to the countries that assisted Kuwait in its liberation. But our happiness is not complete due to the existence of 605 POWs,” says Murad. As the releases at Camp Bucca demonstrate, there will be no Iraqi POWs in custody 12 months, let along 12 years, from now. In contrast, the Kuwaiti POWs remain tragic unfinished business. Washington should help Kuwaitis complete their happiness.
— Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.