War hero's death an example of scarcity of hard facts in Iraq

July 30, 1995|By Knight-Ridder News Service

RAMADI, Iraq -- The first taxi driver said he didn't know the address of the most famous man in Ramadi. The second didn't know either. The third and fourth, same story.

No one would show the way to the family of Gen. Mohammed Muzloum al-Dulaimi, a hero of the Iran-Iraq war and now a dead man. And no one would say what led to his death.

General Dulaimi's death in mid-May, generally believed to have been an execution by President Saddam Hussein's enforcers, sparked an anti-Hussein uprising crushed by his security forces and widely reported abroad.

But the unrest, which sources said resulted in several deaths, also provides insight on how observers outside Iraq often exaggerate the importance of local disturbances. Why? Solid information is almost impossible to come by.

The Iraqi government this month allowed the first Westerners to visit Ramadi since the unrest in May. The government tightly restricted the trip, and many residents wouldn't talk about the incident, but one fact seemed clear: The unrest, whatever it was, barely stirred hopes for a popular rebellion against Mr. Hussein.

Here and elsewhere in Iraq, there's no hard evidence that Mr. Hussein has anything but a firm grip on power. He's omnipresent. He rules over a defeated and spooked populace. His image, several thousandfold, stares down in huge portraits from all corners of Iraq.

"I don't want to say that this country is a picture of stability, monolithic and can't be moved," said one foreign diplomat. "But these events don't mean that there is a certain shift that may lead to overthrowing the government."

For now, diplomats here and analysts elsewhere grasp for meanings about Baghdad's internal power struggles. There has been much speculation in recent days.

On July 18, Mr. Hussein replaced Defense Minister Gen. Ali Hassan al-Majid, his cousin, with former Interior Minister Gen. Sultan Hashem Ahmad. That followed the sacking of Mr. Hussein's half-brother as interior minister in June, which followed the Ramadi unrest.

"It really could show a sign of Saddam's power base becoming extremely narrow," said one diplomat. "That would be dangerous for him. It could also be an interfamily split. Or it could be nothing. We are jumping at even the vapor of a rumor."

Rumors of unrest have circulated with increased frequency in the past two months, fanned in part by opposition figures living abroad.

No proof has emerged about the tales of a mutinous army unit in June that engaged in a losing tank battle with other army troops; or about the story of street riots in Baghdad two weeks ago after the doubling of sugar prices.

In Ramadi, a city of perhaps 800,000 about 80 miles southwest of Baghdad, the government said nothing happened in May. A district government spokesman said there wasn't even anyone named Mohammed Muzloum al-Dulaimi.

But diplomats in Baghdad, as well as Iraqis with good access to government information, called the denials a clumsy cover-up.

They all said General Dulaimi was jailed and executed because he failed to report a plot against Mr. Hussein by other army officers.

They said his body was delivered to his family on May 18 with signs of torture; that a funeral was held in the street; that there was some gunfire between soldiers and Dulaimi clansmen after the funeral; that several protesters died; and that two or three days later, Mr. Hussein's forces rounded up hundreds of those who marched in the funeral.

They are still in jail.

But the story becomes murkier after that. A foreign diplomat said the dispute also has its roots in criminal activities in the region, astride the main land route between Baghdad and Jordan.

"I heard of . . . two trucks from Jordan that disappeared, robberies on the highway from Baghdad to Amman, that the scale of illegal activities in the area had increased dramatically and Saddam moved in to crush it," the diplomat said.

The sources said there was no evidence to support a report that the Dulaimi clan had pleaded with Mr. Hussein to free their jailed leader and that Mr. Hussein had agreed and urged the clan to prepare a homecoming feast, only to then deliver the body.

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