Did Saddam Hussein really use industrial shredders to kill his enemies? Brendan O’Neill is not persuaded that he did
Forget the no-show of Saddam Hussein’s WMD. Even George Bush no longer believes that they are there. Ask instead what happened to Saddam’s ‘people shredder’, into which his son Qusay reportedly fed opponents of the Baathist regime. Ann Clwyd, Labour MP for Cynon Valley and chair of Indict, a group that has been campaigning since 1996 for the creation of an international criminal tribunal to try the Baathists, wrote of the shredder in the Times on 18 March — the day of the Iraq debate in the House of Commons and three days before the start of the war. Clwyd described an Iraqi’s claims that male prisoners were dropped into a machine ‘designed for shredding plastic’, before their minced remains were ‘placed in plastic bags’ so they could later be used as ‘fish food’. Sometimes the victims were dropped in feet first, reported Clwyd, so they could briefly behold their own mutilation before death.
Not surprisingly the story made a huge impact. Two days after Clwyd’s article was published, the Australian Prime Minister John Howard addressed his nation to explain why he was sending troops to support the coalition in Iraq; he talked of the Baathists’ many crimes, including the ‘human-shredding machine’ that was used ‘as a vehicle for putting to death critics of Saddam Hussein’. Clwyd received an email from the US deputy defence secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, who expressed admiration for her work and invited her to meet him at the Pentagon. Her Times article on the shredder is still on the US State Department’s website, under the heading ‘Issues of International Security’.
Others, too, made good use of the story. Andrew Sullivan, the British-born journalist who writes a weekly column from Washington for the Sunday Times, said Clwyd’s report showed ‘clearly, unforgettably, indelibly’ that ‘the Saddam regime is evil’ and that ‘leading theologians and moralists and politicians’ ought to back the war. The Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips wrote of the shredder in which ‘bodies got chewed up from foot to head’, and said: ‘This is the evil that the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican bishops refuse to fight.’ In the Telegraph, Mark Steyn used the spectre of the shredder to chastise the anti-war movement: ‘If it’s a choice between letting some carbonated-beverage crony of Dick Cheney get a piece of the Nasiriyah soft-drinks market or allowing Saddam to go on feeding his subjects feet-first into the industrial shredder for another decade or three, then the “peace” activists will take the lesser of two evils — i.e., crank up the shredder.’
In his book Allies: The United States, Britain, Europe and the War in Iraq, published in December 2003, William Shawcross wrote of a regime that ‘fed people into huge shredders, feet first to prolong the agony’. Earlier this month, Trevor Kavanagh, political editor of the Sun, claimed that ‘British resistance to war changed last year when we learned how sadist Saddam personally supervised the horrific torture of Iraqis. Public opinion swung behind Tony Blair as voters learned how Saddam fed dissidents feet first into industrial shredders.’
Nobody doubts that Saddam was a cruel and ruthless tyrant who murdered many thousands of his own people (at least 17,000 according to Amnesty; 290,000 according to Human Rights Watch) and that the vast majority of Iraqis are glad he’s gone. But did his regime have a human-shredding machine that made mincemeat of men? The evidence is far from compelling
The shredding machine was first mentioned in public by James Mahon, then head of research at Indict, at a meeting at the House of Commons on 12 March. Mahon had just returned from northern Iraq, where Indict researchers, along with Ann Clwyd, interviewed Iraqis who had suffered under Saddam’s regime. One of them said Iraqis had been fed into a shredder. ‘Sometimes they were put in feet first and died screaming. It was horrible. I saw 30 die like this…. On one occasion I saw Qusay Hussein personally supervising these murders.’ In subsequent interviews and articles, Clwyd said this shredding machine was in Abu Ghraib prison, Saddam’s most notorious jail.
What was done to corroborate the Iraqi’s claims? Apparently nothing. Indict refuses to tell me the names of the researchers who were in Iraq with Mahon and Clwyd; and, I am told, Mahon, who no longer works at Indict, ‘does not want to speak to journalists about his work with us’. But Clwyd tells me: ‘We heard it from a victim; we heard it and we believed it.’ So nothing was done to check the truth of what the victim said, against other witness statements or other evidence for a shredding machine? ‘Well, no,’ says Clwyd. ‘[Indict researchers] didn’t have to do that; they were just taking witness statements.’
But surely, before going public with so shocking a story, facts ought to have been checked and double-checked? Clwyd clearly doesn’t think so. ‘We heard it from someone who had been released from the Abu Ghraib prison….I heard his account of what went on in the prison. I was there when [Indict’s] cross-examination of the witness took place, and I am satisfied from what I heard that shredding was a method of execution. We knew he wasn’t making it up.’
This is all that Indict had to go on — uncorroborated and quite amazing claims made by a single person from northern Iraq. When I suggest that this does not constitute proof of the existence of a human shredder, Clwyd responds: ‘We heard a victim say it; who are you to say that chap is a liar?’ Yet to call for witness statements to be corroborated before being turned into the subject of national newspaper articles is not to accuse the witnesses involved of being liars; it is to follow good practice in the collection of evidence, particularly evidence with which Indict hopes to ‘seek indictments by national prosecutors’ against former Baathists.
An Iraqi who worked as a doctor in the hospital attached to Abu Ghraib prison tells me there was no shredding machine in the prison. The Iraqi, who wishes to remain anonymous, worked at Abu Ghraib in late 1997 and early 1998; he left Iraq in 2002 and now lives in Britain, where he is taking further medical examinations so that he can practise as a doctor here. He describes Saddam’s regime as ‘very, very terrible, one of the worst regimes ever’, and Abu Ghraib prison as ‘horrific’. Part of a doctor’s job at Abu Ghraib was to attend to those who had been executed. ‘We had to see to the dead prisoners, to make sure that they were dead. Then we would write a death certificate for them.’ Doctors did not witness executions; after an execution had taken place the victim would be ‘dropped into a kind of hole, and the doctor would go downstairs with the policemen or the security guards, into the hole, to confirm the death’.
Did he ever attend to, or hear of, prisoners who had been shredded? ‘No.’ Did any of the other doctors at Abu Ghraib speak of a shredding machine used to execute prisoners? ‘No, no, never.’ He says: ‘The method of execution was hanging; as far as I know that was the only form of execution used in Abu Ghraib. Maybe sometimes there were shootings, but I think these were rare.’ However, the doctor tells me that he did once hear a story about a shredding machine, from a friend who had nothing to do with Abu Ghraib — but in the version he heard, the shredder was in ‘one of Saddam’s main palaces’. Does he think this was a rumour, or an accurate descripti
on of a method of execution used in Saddam’s palaces? ‘Because of what the Saddam regime was like, anything is possible,’ he says. ‘It might be a rumour, it might be true.’
Cryptically, Ann Clwyd tells me: ‘I heard other people talk about a shredding machine, but I can’t tell you who they are.’ However, one other person who talked about a shredder was Kenneth Joseph, an American who claimed to have visited Iraq as an antiwar human shield before concluding that he was wrong and the war was right. Joseph’s Damascene conversion was first reported by United Press International (UPI) on 21 March. He told Arnaud de Borchgrave, UPI’s editor-at-large, that what he had heard in Iraq had ‘shocked me back to reality’, that Iraqis’ tales ‘of slow torture and killing made me ill, such as people put in a huge shredder for plastic products, feet first so they could hear their screams as their bodies got chewed up’. He also claimed to have ‘made it across the border’ with 14 hours of uncensored video containing interviews with Iraqis.
Yet many have since questioned Joseph’s claims. When Carol Lipton, an American journalist, investigated his story in April for CounterPunch, she reported that ‘none of the human shield groups whom I contacted had ever heard of Joseph’. She also noted that ‘incredibly, nowhere has a single photo or segment from [Joseph’s] 14 hours of interviews been published’. These discrepancies led some to speculate whether the Reverend Sun Myung Moon played a part in ‘the Joseph story’. Moon, head of the Unification Church (Moonies), owns UPI. Private Eye suggested that Joseph’s story was ‘a propaganda fabrication by right-wingers associated with the Revd Moon’s Unification Church’. Even Johann Hari, a pro-war columnist on the Independent who wrote a sycophantic account of Joseph’s conversion, has since declared that Joseph ‘was probably a bullshitter’.
Clwyd insists that corroboration of the shredder story came three months after her first Times article, when she was shown a dossier by a reporter from Fox TV. On 18 June, Clwyd wrote a second article for the Times, describing a ‘chillingly meticulous record book’ from Saddam’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison, which described one of the methods of execution as ‘mincing’. Can she say who compiled this book? ‘No, I can’t.’ Where is it now? ‘I don’t know.’ What was the name of the Fox reporter who showed it to her? ‘I have no idea.’ Did Clwyd read the entire thing? ‘No! It was in Arabic! I only saw it briefly.’ Curiously, there is no mention of the book or of ‘mincing’ as a method of execution on the Fox News website. Robert Zimmerman, a spokesman for Fox News in New York, tells me: ‘That story does not ring a bell with our foreign editor here, and it is something you expect would ring a bell. It sounds like something we would have gone to town with, in terms of promotion and PR.’
And there you have the long and short of the available evidence for a human-shredding machine — an uncorroborated statement made by an individual in northern Iraq, hearsay comments made by someone widely suspected of being a ‘bullshitter’ (who, like the Australian Prime Minister, made his comments about the shredder shortly after Clwyd first wrote of it in the Times), and a record book, in Arabic, that mentions ‘mincing’ but whose whereabouts are presently unknown. Other groups have no recorded accounts of a human shredder. A spokesman at Amnesty International tells me that his inquiries into the shredder story ‘drew a blank’. ‘We checked it with our people here, and we have no information about a shredder.’ Widney Brown, deputy programme director of Human Rights Watch, says: ‘We don’t know anything about a shredder, and have not heard of that particular form of execution or torture.’
It remains to be seen whether this uncorroborated story turns out to be nothing more than war propaganda — like the stories on the eve of the first Gulf war of Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait taking babies from incubators and leaving them to die on hospital floors. What can be said, however, is that the alleged shredder provided those in favour of the war — by no means an overwhelming majority in Britain last March — with a useful propaganda tool. The headline on Ann Clwyd’s 18 March story in the Times was: ‘See men shredded, then say you don’t back war’.