A Murder Victim's Father Seeks Justice In Iraq

In a house on a dusty Green Zone street is Mithal al-Alusi, an outspoken, secular parliamentarian whose adult sons were murdered two years ago. A few blocks away, also inside the Green Zone's perimeter walls, according to al-Alusi, the man suspected of carrying out the killing is ensconced in the Rasheed Hotel, the government's semi-official lodging.

The wanted man is Iraqi Minister of Culture Asad Kamal al-Hashimi—and his case is a typically tangled and bloody example of the Iraqi government's weakness and the blurred lines of authority even within the fortified district, where soldiers, ambassadors, contractors and Iraqi leaders share space. Iraqi police are still reportedly seeking Hashimi after failing to catch him in a raid of his house on Monday. However, his suspected flight to the Green Zone has complicated the hunt. Al-Alusi believes that this alleged escape could not have happened without help from other politicians and, at least, the acquiescence of American officials.

As al-Alusi invited a couple of reporters to share his traditional spread of beef pies and salads, amid his Oriental carpets and walls jammed with Iraqi oil paintings, an aide brought him the murder files. Inside were photocopied pictures of rough-looking men, one in a blindfold, arrested for the murder of his sons in February 2005. The government reportedly has confessions from the men who ambushed al-Alusi's vehicles—he wasn't in them-allegedly on the order of the culture minister, al-Hashimi, who was then a mosque preacher in al-Alusi's neighborhood. Al-Alusi claims Hashimi was known to incite violence against those in the transition government. For months, al-Alusi had heard rumors about the killers' identities, but refused to follow the example of many other aggrieved Iraqis by taking the law into his own hands. "If I do that, there is no difference between me and the killers," he says.

Al-Alusi was once an ally of Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi but is more of a maverick than anyone's party hack. In exile in Germany in 2002, al-Alusi helped organize the takeover of the Iraqi Embassy in protest against Saddam Hussein's regime and ended up going to a German jail for more than a year. Back in Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, al-Alusi headed the controversial DeBaathification Commission, which purged members of Saddam's party from their posts. But after he attended an anti-terrorism conference in Israel in 2004, he was cut off from Chalabi's party and formed his own Iraqi Nation Party. Building a platform as a fiercely secular candidate (he regularly refers to religious "fascists" of both Sunni and Shiite sects), he managed to win a seat in the parliament—something Chalabi's high-profile coalition failed to do. With graying hair, a thick mustache and a hangdog look that belies a wry sense of humor, the 54-year-old al-Alusi is a Sunni lawmaker who has maintained ties with Shiite leadership.

It's unclear why he was targeted on Feb. 8, 2005. It could have been because of his visit to Israel or that could have just been a pretense by those who resented his anti-Baathist stance. The murderers may have also been sent to remove him from the political scene. They ended up killing the politician's sons, Ayman, 28, and Jamal, 22. Al-Asad has denied any involvement in the murders. His political coalition, the mainstream Sunni block, claims the killers were tortured by police to confess and the arrest warrant is a ploy by the Shiite-led government to oust a Sunni. A coalition official was quoted in Arabic media claiming a deal is in the works to let al-Hashimi flee the country.

Al-Hashimi isn't the first Iraqi leader accused of crimes. Nor would he be the first to elude justice. Former electricity minister Ayham al-Samaraie was arrested for corruption and then broken out of a Green Zone jail by his U.S. security firm, allowing him to return to his former home in the United States. Others have snuck abroad to escape corruption probes. Bodyguards for lawmakers have been arrested in bomb plots, and ranking members of the government have been suspected—if not always arrested—in killings and kidnappings.

Al-Alusi thinks al-Hashimi was smuggled into the Green Zone by other top politicians and is being protected by them now in the Rasheed, a sprawling, walled-off high-rise where many Sunni politicians, and some Shiites, have made their residence. The Green Zone is patrolled by a mix of private contractors and Iraqi and U.S. troops, but the Americans have most of the de facto control. Philip Reeker, U.S. Embassy spokesman, said U.S. officials are staying "scrupulously" out of this case and leaving it up to Iraqi officials to resolve. He denies that Americans obstructed police and said there are procedures to allow Iraqi security forces to coordinate with American troops when they need to operate in the Green Zone. Al-Alusi said U.S. troops were accompanying police on the initial raid and then turned back before it began. While a U.S. official said Americans generally support Iraqis enforcing arrest warrants, he said he did not have the details in this case.

Al-Alusi is growing annoyed and impatient. He says he's getting the runaround from U.S. officials who, he claims, want to block an arrest that could prompt the minority Sunni bloc to leave the government. A Sunni departure now could slow reconciliation measures that U.S. officials want from the parliament. Al-Alusi worries that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will lose his nerve and drop the case or that others in the cabinet might decide to let al-Hashimi off the hook lest all ministers be subject to investigation for other crimes. A few months ago, as the rumors crested, al-Hashimi knocked on al-Alusi's door, sat in the living room and denied any guilt. But al-Alusi does not believe him and says the evidence against him is mounting. He says the matter should be divorced from politics. "It is my interest just to catch the real murderer," he says. "I have nothing against this minister or [his party]."