July 6, 2004
Najeeb Abbas Al-Shami is 59 years old. His health is fragile: he has a history of heart trouble. On June 26, Najeeb sat in a bare room in Kerbala, Iraq, and shared his story.
In 2003, after the fall of Saddam, he worked for the then-governor of Kerbala. Najeeb said the governor was illegally selling government cars that had been looted. On May 15, the governor asked him to visit Ayatollah Sistani's office to handle a problem concerning conflicts between Iraqi tribes and Iranians who had recently moved back to the area of Al Kut and wanted to reclaim lands seized by Iraq during the Iran-Iraq conflict.
When Najeeb returned to the governor's office, two U.S. intelligence officers waited for him and wanted to ask him questions. To this day, Najeeb does not know why the Iraqi governor wanted to get rid of him. Perhaps because he had criticized local corruption. Najeeb said they called themselves Brown and David. They took him into the parking lot where they frisked him in public. They tied his hands behind his back, put him in their hummer and drove him to Camp Lima.
At Lima, three soldiers questioned Najeeb. They claimed he was a Ba'a'thist and a spy. They claimed he was an Islamic militant. They also claimed his assistant was Qasim Mohammed Musleh, who suffered under Saddam. They said they had documents but they did not show them to him. They threatened to arrest him if he did not give these people over to coalition forces. Najeeb said he did not know any of the people they mentioned. The soldiers then arrested him. They lay him face down on the ground, stepped on his head and tied his hands behind his back. Brown gave several soldiers orders to watch over Najeeb, and ordered them not to give him anything to eat for 48 hours.
Najeeb held back tears as he told us about his first night at the military base at Kerbala University. "The soldiers there threw a party to make fun of me," he said. "They beat me and spit in my face. When I asked for water, they poured it over my head." One soldier put his foot on his head. Another taped stuffed animals to him and took pictures. They kicked him in the back and the back of the neck, and spit in his face. He hesitated, apologized for what he was about to say, and then told how one soldier opened his own pants, put his penis in Najeeb's mouth, and said, "Now you can drink!" They stretched Najeeb face-down on the ground and danced around him, yelling obscenities and shouting, "Tomorrow, Guantanamo!"
At 5 a.m., soldiers took Najeeb to the base at Kerbala University. A physician there named Garrett took off his plastic ties and massaged the blood back into his wrists. "He treated me like a human being," Najeeb said. The doctor gave him cigarettes and water but said he could not give him food.
That first night was the beginning of a nine-month agony in and out of different prison camps, hospitals, and military bases. At Bucca Camp in blistering southern Iraq, Najeeb ate a spare two meals per day, sweated in 110-degree heat, and was often escorted to the bathroom by women soldiers. Nearly two months after his arrest, the authorities decided he was not a threat and released him.
This was one of the most painful times, he said. His only son, 22-year-old Ahmed, came one day and begged the staff, "Please release my father. He is sick. Please help him."
The U.S. detention officers did not release Najeeb. They sent him from place to place: first to a military hospital in Baghdad, then to the detention center at the airport where he again suffered beatings and verbal abuse, then finally to Abu Ghraib prison. One morning just after midnight, he suffered a stroke and temporarily lost the use of the left side of his body. Another heart attack followed.
Here, at last, the story changes. Najeeb met his other son.
"There was a doctor there, a soldier from the U.S. He was so noble and so kind. He was crying when he heard about my story. When I saw him, I saw my son. He hugged me, and his tears fell on my cheek. Some of the soldiers were so harsh. Dr. Jasy treated me with kindness. He would sneak me cigarettes and call me `my father Najeeb.'" Dr. Jasy became a lifeline.
Some time between Oct. 10 and 15, CBS News interviewed Najeeb's son about his father, and then met with Gen. Janice Karpinski, the head of Abu Ghraib prison at the time. In the interview with Gen. Karpinski, CBS asked her how long coalition forces held detainees before deciding if they were innocent or guilty. She replied that they are only held for 72 hours. CBS then asked her to look up a number and gave her Najeeb's. She typed it into the computer, but when the file came up on the screen, she covered it up with her hand so the camera could not see it.
The CBS reporters later gave Najeeb's family footage of this interview. At that time, interrogators at Abu Ghraib informed Najeeb and those working for his release that they did not have any incriminating evidence against him and that his release depended on the Kerbala police.
The CBS interview with Gen. Karpinski aired in the United States on Dec. 24. On Dec. 28 at 1 a.m., Najeeb awoke to find one of his tent-mates overjoyed because of his own release. Najeeb congratulated him. "You are going home too!" the prisoner cried.
At this point in his story, Najeeb's face glowed with joy. He waved his arms to describe what happened next. "All of a sudden the door burst open, and Dr. Jasy and others came in singing, `Happy Biiiiirthday Baba Najeeb! You're goooooing home!'" The long torment was over.
Hours later as we rode home from Kerbala to Baghdad, our translator spoke. "It is as if the terrible weight of all that suffering is somehow balanced by his great love for the young doctor." Or more than balanced. Najeeb wept for Dr. Jasy and for his son Ahmed more than he did when recounting his days of torture.
His love does not erase the wound, but outweighs it by far.