Iraqi Imam Imprisoned and Tortured Under Ba’ath Regime Blasts U.S. Abuse of Prisoners

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In his appearance on two Arab-language networks, President Bush failed to apologize for the torture and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by the U.S. military. We speak with Ibrahim Kazerooni, an imam at the Islamic Center in Denver who fled Iraq in 1974 at the age of 15 after being repeatedly imprisoned and tortured for his religious beliefs and his brother, cousin and uncle killed by the Baathist regime. [includes rush transcript]

Compelled to publicly condemn the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by the US military, President Bush appeared on two Arab-language television networks Wednesday in an unprecedented damage-limitation exercise.

Amid growing national and international furor over the torture and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners, Washington was reeling yesterday after the Army revealed that 25 prisoners had died in Iraq and Afghanistan while in U.S. custody. Soon after the news came out, Bush appeared on the U.S.-sponsored al-Hurra television network and the Dubai-based al-Arabiya to address the Arab world. He did not speak to al-Jazeera, the most widely-watched Arabic channel. Each interview lasted a brief 10 minutes.

It was the first time Bush made direct mention of the prisoner abuse since photographs first surfaced a week ago. In the interviews, the president stopped short of making a direct apology.

  • Ibrahim Kazerooni, Shia imam of the Islamic Center of Ahl Al-Beit in Denver. He fled his native Iraq in 1974 at the age of 15 after being repeatedly imprisoned and tortured by the Baathist regime for his beliefs. His brother, uncle and cousin were also killed.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, as we turn now to our first guest. Ibrahim Kazerooni, an imam of the Islamic Center of Ahl Al-Beit in Denver. He fled his native Iraq in 1974 after being imprisoned and tortured by the Ba’athist regime for his beliefs. Welcome to Democracy Now!.

IBRAHIM KAZEROONI: Thank you very much, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Good to have you with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Can you start off by responding to President Bush, what he said on television, and most importantly, what has happened in Iraq?

IBRAHIM KAZEROONI: Well, first of all, it fits the overall pattern of publicity stunt that this administration has become so accustomed to. But as far as having an effect in the Middle East, in damage limitation, I don’t think they are going to achieve anything because painfully, this lack of apology, in my opinion, was a golden opportunity missed to show to the Arab world, and specifically to the Iraqis, that what this administration was telling them was not just lip service, but they really felt sorry for what was going on, and unfortunately, they missed this opportunity too, like all other opportunities that have been missed before.

AMY GOODMAN: When you hear these descriptions, a lot of people said, how will the Arab world react? But do you think — I mean, living in Denver here for as long as you have, living in the United States, the Arab world any differently from any other human being in the world?

IBRAHIM KAZEROONI: There are two issues, Amy, that one has to look at. Number one, issues to do with all human beings. They would react like everybody else. We have reports coming out that American people, the rest of the world are feeling outraged for the prison abuses and human right violations in Iraq, and naturally, the Iraqis would react and the Arabs in general would reject act in the same way. However, there are issues to do with Iraq specifically, the Arab world specifically, and they have their own way of analysis and conclusion, which could be different from the rest of the world.


IBRAHIM KAZEROONI: The issue, for example, we in the West — the American administration, specifically in the United States, constantly, even know, we saw the clip of George Bush talking about Americans being there as liberators. Still, the narrative of liberation is being used constantly. As far as the Arab world is concerned, and the Iraqis, they are occupiers. They are not seeing the Americans as liberators at all. And this is a fundamentally different perspective with what the administration has in mind. America is not being seen in the Middle East, in the Muslim world in general and the Arabs in particular, as liberators. They’re seen at occupiers. What is happening in Iraq just consolidates and compounds that belief that the United States, they preach and practice two different things.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about your own experience, when you talk about the US not being involved with liberation. We’re talking to Ibrahim Kazerooni, an imam at the Islamic Center in Denver. You left Iraq in 1974, after being imprisoned and tortured under the Ba’ath regime. Can you talk about what happened you, to your brother, your uncle, your cousins?

IBRAHIM KAZEROONI: Amy, this issue of prison abuse, to me, and the thousands of people who survived torture under Saddam, brings back painful memories that we try to somehow not talk about it, and even forget as much as we can. For American administration to go back in Iraq under the promise of liberty and then, even in some cases we have had prisoners who say, in comparison to Saddam’s era, this is worse torture than those that they had gone through. I was imprisoned and I was just randomly picked up from the street in Najaf when I was about 15, 15-and-a-half, and taken to Baghdad to the … headquarter, the fifth section, they call it.

AMY GOODMAN: The secret police.

IBRAHIM KAZEROONI: Yes. In Baghdad. The usual treatment of beating up and other kinds of torture existed, and finally, I was taken from one prison to another, and ultimately, I was released after many months, and I went back to Najaf. However, they came after me again, and I was fortunate — fortunately, I was out of the theological school, and I decided to go into hiding and gradually leave Iraq secretly, and through friends, they took me to the western desert and they took me across the) Iraqi-Syrian border. What is happening in Iraq at the moment has the repercussion in a number of kinds of scenarios. First, it could destabilize — and I predicted this would happen before even America went to war with Iraq. A lack of understanding of Iraqi culture specifically, and the Middle East culture in general, would lead to destabilization of the entire region. People accused me of being anti-American, naive and whatever, unpatriotic. But now we are getting the things that others could not foresee happening in Iraq. As far as stability in Iraq, there is no stability. You only need to listen to some of the comments that a few weeks ago Jack Straw, the British Foreign Secretary said, that I never envisioned or imagined in my wildest dreams that Iraq after a year of going in would be less secure and less stable. So, I really don’t see any opportunity — any future for Iraq unless the United States comes out immediately.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Ibrahim Kazerooni, a local imam in Denver about his experience in Iraq under the Ba’ath regime, tortured and imprisoned, family members killed, and also about the invasion and occupation. You write a column in the “Denver Post.” How did that come to be?

IBRAHIM KAZEROONI: I was approached. They asked me to be part of the compass group. Occasionally, I used to respond to various headlines or something that I really felt deeply about, and then I was approached by “Denver Post” for at least a trial period of three months, I could write some articles, which I did.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the articles you have written is about Wahhabism.


AMY GOODMAN: And you talk about it being a threat.

IBRAHIM KAZEROONI: I do. I do believe that.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what Wahhabism is?

IBRAHIM KAZEROONI: Within Islam there are two major schools of theology, Shia and the Sunnis. And they have most things in common, however, there are minor differences between the two. But the Sunni community, or Sunni school of theology, is divided into four different minor groups. One of the groups is considered to be a kind of very orthodox. Wahhabis are a very small minority of the Muslim community, dominant in Saudi Arabia, which is an offshoot of the one school of theology. Extremely intolerant of others and very, very orthodox in their definition and interpretation of Islam. They consider most of the Muslim world to be not Muslim, truly. And at the moment, they are going around the world with the money that is being — they are being financed by Saudi Arabia, and propagating this narrow interpretation of Islam wherever they can, even in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: You write that while Sunnis believe the prophet’s successor should be chosen by people, Shiites believe in the prophetic appointment of successors. Then you talk about Wahhabism, the state religion of Saudi Arabia, the most austere and regressive, saying that the Wahhabist Saudi Institute teaches Shiite Muslims are, quote, “Jewish agents and not real Muslims.” This can be seen from a letter circulated in Cairo recently by al- Qaeda, reported by the associated press, quote, “The American troops have carried out a massacre to kill Shiites in Karbala, their infidel city, and in Baghdad.”

IBRAHIM KAZEROONI: Yes. Indeed. It is a well known fact, no matter how hard the Wahhabis are trying to deny it, the Shiite’s treatment within Saudi Arabia, whether the local native Shiites or those who go there for pilgrimage, is extremely bad and local mosques within the Shiite communities are being destroyed, and the whole structure is being demeaned and undermined. And when you go there as a Shiite, you do not have the freedom to express yourself, and do your religious duties the way you are supposed to, constantly being harassed by the so-called Wahhabi propagators.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re a Shia?


AMY GOODMAN: And the Shia and the Sunni, and for that matter, the Sufis, coming together now in Iraq. George Bush managing to do something Saddam Hussein never could do, and that was unite all of these groups. How significant is this?

IBRAHIM KAZEROONI: Well, as far as the Shiites and Sunnis, they have always worked together and lived together as one community. It has been outside forces that have tried to divide them and put one against the other. If you go back to the history of Iraq, you see the British trying to do this, part of the overall pattern of divide and rule. They divided the Iraqi community into Shiites and Sunnis and used one against the other. Saddam tried to do the same thing. However, immediately, it is worth noticing, immediately after the fall of Baghdad, there was a rally in downtown Baghdad that everybody came together, and whether they we Shiites, Sunnis or anything else, and they demanded one country for the whole Iraqi people, irrespective of their religious affiliation. Unfortunately, what is happening again, out of lack of understanding the Iraqi culture and religion, we seem to be oversimplifying the whole thing, and dividing the community into Shiites and Sunnis and saying, well, it is strange they are coming together. They were living together from the beginning.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that the Bush family’s close relationship with the Saudi royal family is elevating Wahhabism, protecting it?

IBRAHIM KAZEROONI: Well, one can reach a conclusion during the first few days of after 9-11 where the entire commercial flights were not permitted to fly, and we had three or four flights going around picking up Saudis, particularly Bin Laden families and everybody else. They are the financiers of these movements. They were flown out of the United States. They knew full well that 15 of the 19 terrorists were Saudis and they had links to Bin Laden. That says a lot about the link and the relationship of this administration with the Saudis.

AMY GOODMAN: You also write an article entitled, “The One State Solution in the Middle East.” What is it?

IBRAHIM KAZEROONI: I used to feel that somehow we can get a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli crisis by having — going back to the United Nations resolutions and getting two-state solutions. I wasn’t the first one that suggested it. After the 1967 War, the PLO suggested in 1969, Menachem Begin suggested it in 1978, and Friedman, a New York article writer even suggested it lately. Unfortunately, the turn of events, and particularly Bush acting as a surrogate mother for the Palestinians, and negotiating with Sharon and condoning whatever he does is making the prospect of a two-state solution for the Palestinian and the Israelis practically impossible. And we have to go back to one-state solution where the present United States model of a kind of liberal pluralistic society where people can live side by side irrespective of their faiths and gender and so on could be the ultimate solution because if you support the Israelis in their illegal settlements and you condone them and say, let them stay and support the war and so on, it’s not going to create the possibility of two state solution. Ultimately, it has to be a one-state solution.

AMY GOODMAN: But practically?

IBRAHIM KAZEROONI: Like everything else, only history will tell, only time will tell in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for be with us. Ibrahim Kazerooni is an imam of the Islamic Center of Ahl Al-Beit in Denver, fled Iraq in 1974 after being imprisoned and tortured under the Ba’ath regime. Now he writes a column for the “Denver Post.” Thank you very much for joining us.

IBRAHIM KAZEROONI: Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure.

AMY GOODMAN: From the imam to the doctor. We’ll be back with a doctor who has returned from Germany after treating thousands of US soldiers. Stay with us.

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