27 December 2003
Ali Salman Ali was the first victim of Saddam's capture, but he died on Christmas Day. As his father Salman Ghazi, 71, tells it, Ali must have been among the first of Iraq's Shia Muslims to scream his delight in the street after the former dictator emerged from his hole in the ground.
"He shouted that the Americans had come to save us and liberated us from that terrible regime," Mr Ghazi said yesterday, his sun-blasted, lined face and dark eyes staring at my notebook.
Behind me, the 12 cousins of Ali Salman Ali were heaving his cheap wooden coffin from the Baghdad mortuary on to the back of a rusting white pick-up with a cracked windscreen and a toy rabbit swinging from a chain over the mirror.
The Baghdad morgue is a grim enough place at any hour, let alone on a grey, greasy, wet Boxing Day and - though Christmas would have had no place in the family's observances - there was a kind of weariness among the men in their damp tribal robes with frayed golden fringes standing in the mud yesterday.
It had taken Ali Salman Ali two weeks to die.
"That same afternoon, they came for him," his father said. "He had gone out shopping to Kaddamiya in his car and they were in another car that caught him and overtook him and opened fire on him with rifles." And who were "they"', I asked? The father looked at another of his sons and then at a cousin who had muttered the word "wahabis". The Sunni Muslim "wahabi" sect in Iraq is at the centre of the anti-American insurgency; a purist, ascetic faith which was, in the last years of Saddam's rule, allowed an existence as the "committees of the faith".
As a Shia, Ali Salman Ali was, of course, the victim of a sectarian killing - which is why his family were so uneasy about blaming the Sunnis for his murder. Then his father pointed a finger at my notebook. "We shall call his killers 'the terrorists'," he said. And who was I to disagree?
As usual, there was no mention of Ali Salman Ali's death by the occupation authorities who list only Western victims of Iraqi violence. But, for the record, he was 52 and had two wives, six boys and four girls from the first wife, two girls and a boy from the second. He was one of Mr Ghazi's nine children. Three of them were killed as soldiers in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, along with five of Mr Ghazi's cousins, all military men struck down in the same conflict. No wonder they hated Saddam.
All had grown up on the family farm at Najaf and it was to Najaf that the family took him for burial yesterday afternoon, not far from the shrine of the 7th-century Shia martyr Ali.
His father said I could take photographs of the coffin as it was placed crossways on the back of the pick-up and one of the cousins broke down in tears and kissed the wooden box. "Today, this place, Iraq, is filled with such carelessness," his father said. "There is no path to follow, no authority and no one to take care of the people."
In a parallel street yesterday, an American-paid Iraqi cop was guarding the crumbling brick house in which the bodies of the newly dead are washed before being taken to the morgue. Inside were two new corpses, the dead of Christmas Eve, newly arrived from the town of Beiji.
"Don't talk to the relatives," the policeman said. "Both men were killed by the Americans. One worked in a factory and was caught in the open when the resistance fired at American soldiers. The Americans shot everyone they saw. The people are angry because you look like an American." But they all shook hands and stood in front of us with their heads bowed and asked why the tragedy of Iraq was growing worse. The cop wanted the last word. "Saddam brought us to this tragedy and the Americans used it," he said. "You want to know who is to blame? I say this: Fuck Saddam and fuck the USA."
And the men stood there, more tribal men in black robes with the same grey-gold fringes, Sunni Muslims this time but with the same look of hopelessness as the Shia family 100m away. And it rained heavily until the water splashed off their shoulders and streamed down the front of their robes and the cop took refuge in the brick house where they washed the bodies.