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Video of his beating by 'Chemical Ali' painful souvenir for Iraqi

Friday, April 11, 2003

By Sally Kalson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Abdullah Alkhuzai has seen himself on American TV several times this week, and each time it makes him wince. There he is, at the age of 20, sitting on the desert ground in southern Iraq, hands tied behind his back, trying not to look at the dead bodies all around him and wondering if he will be next.

Abdullah Alkhuzai of the South Hills is one of three survivors shown in a widely aired videotape of Iraqi soldiers beating Shiite Muslim captives in 1991. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

The 1991 footage has been playing on network news as a macabre souvenir of the crumbling Baathist regime. It shows Ali Hassan al-Majid and his henchmen beating Shiite opponents of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War. Majid, a cousin of Saddam, was nicknamed "Chemical Ali" for his gassing of Kurdish civilians in 1988.

The captors punch the bound men, kick and stomp them and, in some versions, put rifle barrels to their heads, all with the casual air of tormentors who have done this many times before.

That chapter of Alkhuzai's life is far away in time and distance from the one he now leads as a legal resident of the United States with an apartment in the South Hills and an American girlfriend in Overbrook. But he expects his physical and psychological scars will be with him forever.

Alkhuzai, now 32, had seen those video images before. The first time was in the Rafha refugee camp in Saudi Arabia, where he lived for four years after escaping from one of Saddam's prisons. When he arrived in Pittsburgh in 1994 as a war refugee, a friend from the camp who got here first had made him a copy of a British documentary containing the footage.

"I am one of three in that tape who survived," he said, although he is no longer in touch with the others.

Born in the southern city of Nasiriyah, Alkhuzai joined those who had tried to topple Saddam after the Gulf War, only to be left in the lurch by the American-led coalition. When Majid and his men came after them, he said, "I threw down my rifle before they saw me with it."

For some reason, he wasn't killed that day. Instead he was taken to the Abu Grabe prison in Baghdad. Once there, he gave them the fake ID that many Iraqis carried as a defense against the regime. When his real name was called he didn't answer, and the prison was so crowded that no one ever connected him with his true identity.

For 30 days, he said, he was asked questions about the opposition, accompanied by rifle butts to the head, electric shocks to the feet, cigar burns on the hands and knife wounds on the arm. He points to the marks on his body for illustration.

"It seemed like 30 years," Alkhuzai said. "I saw so many people die. Some of the prisoners were put in cement up to their knees."

Then he was sent to jail in Nasiriyah, where his family was known and his fake ID wouldn't protect him for long.

If he didn't escape, he would die. He and seven other prisoners working together managed to bend the outer bars of their cell and squeeze out into the night.

For five days they traveled only in darkness toward the Saudi Arabian border and the refugee camp, which international relief groups have denounced as a prison for its harsh conditions and mistreatment by the Saudi guards.

Alkhuzai said his parents were punished for their son's escape, spending six months in jail. They, too, were beaten, he said.

In 1994, he was accepted for entry into the United States as a war refugee. Shortly after his arrival, he spoke by telephone with his brother, who had run away rather than be drafted into Saddam's army.

"He said, 'I want to come over there with you,'" Alkhuzai said. "I tried to help him, but I could do nothing." A few days later, his brother was caught by Saddam's forces and killed.

"They made my parents pay for the bullets that they shot him with. I still hear his voice saying he wants to come here."

After that, Alkhuzai said, he kept himself too busy to think. He studied English and worked 70 hours a week at two jobs, as a machine operator at a glass company and a baker at a doughnut chain.

"Everyone here treated me real nice," he said. Then came Sept. 11, 2001.

Since then, he's been sworn at, threatened at a convenience store and had his tires slashed multiple times.

These days he is not working, he says, because of frequent hospitalizations for Crohn's disease, a chronic inflammatory bowel condition.

The ouster of Saddam's regime is a huge relief, he said, although he still worries about his parents, with whom he hasn't spoken for two months.

"I would like to go back and visit them," he said. "But not to stay. I want to become an American citizen very soon."

Sally Kalson can be reached at skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610.

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