- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 28, 2004

HOUSTON - Seven Iraqi men, whose lives were shattered by a brutal dictator who tried to blame them and others like them for the near collapse of the country’s economy after the 1991 Gulf war, are in the midst of a reawakening in a city unfamiliar to most of them until a few months ago.

The Iraqi businessmen were imprisoned in the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad in 1994. Saddam Hussein ordered that the men’s right hands be cut off — “to show what happens to those who undermine our economy.”

Saddam reportedly pinpointed them and accused them of “trading in foreign currency” because Iraq’s currency — the dinar — had lost so much value that there was concern of an uprising against the regime.

“People were starving, people were talking. It’s fair to say some were plotting,” wrote one Canadian reporter. “Saddam had to find some scapegoats.”

The men eventually returned to their families. All were married except one, and several had children. All were ostracized to some extent. Business opportunities became minimal.

“Nobody wanted to act like they were our friends. It just wasn’t safe for them” said Al-a’a Abdul Hassein, at 35 the youngest of the group. It was difficult to rebuild their lives financially as well as psychologically.

“Besides losing our hands,” Mr. Hassein continued, “we were scarred on our foreheads. The regime wanted us to be psychologically scarred forever.”

Those marks resemble small crosslike tattoos.

The men might have faded into history and been forgotten, but some of the doctors who were assigned to amputate the men’s hands decided they should make a record of the ceremony, to ingratiate themselves with Saddam. So they hired a photographer to videotape the amputations.

Saddam repeatedly showed the video of the amputations as a threat to those who might oppose his regime. But after U.S. troops liberated Baghdad, the video helped bring the men’s plight to public attention and brought them to Houston.

Within the next few days, the seven will be fitted with state-of-the-art prostheses — $50,000 bionic hands — and be given extensive rehabilitation.

The men are undergoing reconstructive surgery and working with prosthetic specialists in customizing the hands.

On May 29, the seven men, plus an Iraqi doctor who has accompanied them and a small entourage of others who made the venture possible, will come to Washington.

The seven have been treated as martyrs or heroes as they visited sites around Houston, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, various museums, an international fair, the zoo.

But their hero is Don North, 65, a longtime TV reporter and producer for ABC, NBC and the Public Broadcasting Service. Last spring, Mr. North obtained the videotape of the amputations from an Iraqi newsman who knew the photographer. Mr. North, a Canadian citizen, immediately began to locate the victims.

“I had never seen anything like it in my entire life,” Mr. North said. “I had to find the men and get their story.”

As he talked with the men and learned more about the situation — concluding there was no evidence they were guilty — Mr. North decided to make a documentary about the torture and how it had affected these men. He told them he would explore the prospect of getting them help.

Reporter Marvin Zindler at Houston’s KTRK-TV, who offered to help, introduced Mr. North to his longtime friend, plastic surgeon Dr. Joseph Agris.

Dr. Agris enlisted the aid of a well-known hand surgeon, Dr. Fred Kestler, then with Mr. Zindler’s help they persuaded Methodist Hospital to donate its facilities.

Continental Airlines offered to fly the men here, and the Otto Bock Co. of Minneapolis, a leading manufacturer of prosthetic limbs, donated the artificial hands and paid for therapists to help the men become accustomed to them.

“It still amazes me that all these people, all these Americans, would donate their time and all this expense to help somebody they had never heard of,” Nazaar Joudi, a former jeweler, said through an interpreter.

Laith Agar, 42, also a former jeweler, said he couldn’t believe the generosity, either.

Iraqi officials “charged me 25,000 dinar [about $50] after they removed my hand,” Mr. Agar said. “Then they made me sign papers that I would restrain from attempting to use any prosthetic or try to cover up the amputation.”

Doctors here have expressed outrage at the Iraqi surgeons who took part in the amputations.

“What kind of surgeons were they?” asked Dr. Kestler. “What was going through their minds?”

Dr. Agris, who donates considerable time to philanthropic medical endeavors, said there was no way he could refuse when he learned of the Iraqi men’s plight.

“I couldn’t hesitate, even a moment,” he said. “It was my privilege.”

“I was shocked,” he added, “that in this 21st century people were still cutting hands off and that it was done by a physician. And I thought maybe if we could send these people back to their neighborhoods with something good, they’d see that Americans are like them. Maybe it’ll save some Americans lives by improving the perception.”

All the Iraqi amputees strongly support the U.S.-led coalition’s war to oust Saddam’s regime and hope peace and prosperity will return to their homeland.

In Mr. North’s documentary, “Remembering Saddam,” the men discuss the hardships that their friends and neighbors have borne.

“Only thing I wonder,” said Qasim Kadim, “is why the Americans didn’t come in 1993. They could have walked in and taken Baghdad with 100 men. We’ve been waiting all these years.”

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