- The Washington Times - Monday, October 21, 2002

CAIRO With a U.S. invasion looming, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein reached out to his people yesterday, issuing a decree meant to empty his prisons of everyone from pickpockets to political prisoners.
Freshly amnestied inmates were seen streaming out of Iraqi prisons carrying their belongings in plastic shopping bags and some chanting: "We sacrifice our blood and souls for Saddam."
The government called the amnesty a way of thanking the nation for re-electing Saddam last week in a referendum, but exiled Iraqis said the hearts-and-minds move was too little, too late.
U.S. officials dismissed it as a ploy to rally domestic and international support.
"They better watch out where the next door is that puts them right back in prison. I mean, this is typical of this man's use of human beings for these political purposes of his," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday on ABC's "This Week."
Wahid Abdel Meguid of the Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, a Cairo-based think tank, said Saddam's move is an attempt to buy time. "Saddam has zero credibility. Nobody will trust him," Mr. Abdel Meguid said in an interview.
Saddam's decree, read on national television, said the "full and complete and final amnesty" applied to "anyone imprisoned or arrested for political or any other reason."
In another broadcast, Justice Minister Munthir al-Shawi described the amnesty as "the leader's bounty bestowed on those who walked in the path of sin and wrongdoing in order to give them the chance to return to the nation's folds."
Al-Shawi said the amnesty will not cover those who spied "for the Zionist entity," referring to Israel, and the United States.
Amnesty International accuses Iraq of holding tens of thousands of political prisoners and of torturing and executing its opponents. There was no figure available as to how many inmates the amnesty would involve.
Saddam has made a number of recent attempts to rally public support. Several weeks ago, he ordered a series of measures designed to consolidate his shaky power base through gifts and stipends.
Under these new regulations, plots of land have been allocated to loyalists in the army, government and the ruling party. A mortgage bank, which closed years ago, was reopened to provide interest-free loans to selected officials. Cars, mostly French Peugeots, were sold at discount prices.
Since Saddam's re-election, his lieutenants known for their sharp tongues have softened their diatribes against opposition activists in exile and urged them to return to Iraq.
But Iraqi dissidents were quick to dismiss the invitation as "arrogant, scornful and meaningless."
"This is not an attempt to revise his catastrophic policy, but rather to humiliate those who fought his dictatorship and oppression," said Ali Abdel Amir, editor of Al-Massala, the periodical of the Iraqi Writers' Union in exile.
Akram al Hakim, a member of the steering committee preparing an opposition conference on a post-Saddam Iraq, said the amnesty was a sign of "weakness and deep frustration."
He noted that similar weaknesses by the late shah of Iran led to his speedy downfall in 1979.
"If Saddam had known even with little certainty that he could stay in power, he wouldn't have taken this step," Mr. Hakim said in an interview from London. "For the first time, Saddam realizes that it's serious, and this time he has got to go."
According to Mr. Abdel Meguid, of the Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, Saddam made such concessions because he thinks he can buy time and drive a wedge between President Bush and U.S. public opinion on the one hand, and the United States and its Arab allies on the other.
Iraqi opposition groups, such as the Center for Human Rights, which is linked to the Iraqi Communist Party, have claimed that at least 2,000 to 3,000 inmates were executed from 1997 to 1999 during what the regime dubbed the "Cleaning the Prisons Campaign" supervised by Saddam's youngest son, Qusai. The reports could not be independently confirmed. The Iraqi government does not comment on such charges.
Some 3 million Iraqis have fled the country since Saddam came to power in 1979, most of them after Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
Mr. Bush has called for Saddam to be toppled, accusing him of stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and harboring terrorists. The British government said the Iraqi regime has probably the worst human rights record anywhere in the world.

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