They sit in their solitary cells all day, uncharged with any crime. No family member, no friend, no lawyer may visit. Their freedom depends on a callous game of Pentagon roulette. Word filters out that they are about to be released. Then word follows that -- alas -- it will take a bit more time. These are America's Iraqi hostages, whose captivity in a high-security camp at Baghdad airport has already lasted for over a year. The two women scientists whose fate has been spotlighted this week belong to a larger group of Iraqi prisoners who should not have been held so long.
Their cases cannot be compared to that of British engineer Kenneth Bigley or the other foreigners kidnapped by fundamentalist groups. The circumstances are different. The motivations are different. Their treatment is different. Public humiliation by video, repeated threats of imminent death and filmed beheadings are bestial. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the presumed perpetrator of this cruelty, claims to be acting in the name of the Iraqi resistance. In fact, he is a parasite on the occupation, seeking its cover to advance the goal of an extreme theocratic state, which few Iraqis share.
Thanks to Zarqawi and various small groups of local Islamists whom he has managed to inspire, all non-Arabs in Iraq have become potential targets. No distinction is made between those who take jobs with the occupation and journalists, U.N. employees and aid workers, who are neutral or, in many cases, severe critics of U.S. and British policy.
In Gaza and the West Bank, for all the chaos and confusion of authority caused by 37 years of Israeli occupation, Palestinian leaders and Palestinian society remain far-sighted, civic-minded and secular enough to keep out these kinds of Islamist soldiers of fortune. Al-Qaida and its followers are unknown in Palestine. Foreign aid workers and Western journalists have never been kidnapped. They are more likely to be killed by the Israeli army than by gunmen on the Palestinian side.
In Iraq the picture is darker. It is one more sign of the massive social and economic destabilization caused by the invasion and its bungled aftermath that al-Qaida has found a foothold there -- which it has not done in Palestine. Foreign journalists who used to rent houses in Baghdad have had to retreat to better-guarded hotels. Many media organizations have reduced their teams to one reporter, and even they rarely risk leaving Baghdad. Their Iraqi interpreters and drivers are under threat. The country may become a no-go area for news.
In the mayhem of kidnappings, suicide bombs and U.S. air attacks, the continuing detention of a dozen Iraqi scientists may seem trivial. Thousands of other Iraqis have been arrested on suspicion of being part of the anti-American insurgency. Most are eventually let go, some after beating and torture. Only a few have been taken to court and convicted.
But the holding of Iraqi scientists, whom the Americans call high-value detainees, is significant because they, more than any other group, seem to be hostages. Taken initially into custody because it was thought they could shed light on those elusive weapons of mass destruction, it is clear they had little new to say. There were no WMD, as they always insisted.
Rihab Rashid Taha, called Dr. Germ by U.N. weapons inspectors, was an expert in biological warfare, and she consistently told them before the war that all stocks had been destroyed years earlier. Why has she not been let go? She has not been charged with any crime, and even if she were, could she not be freed on bail? Is it that the U.S. authorities don't want her talking to the press about the biological specimens she received from American companies in the 1980s when Saddam Hussein was Washington's friend? Are they worried she might produce the receipts she has said she holds?
What of Amer al-Saadi, the rocket scientist who briefly became the government's link man with the inspectors in 2002? He, too, repeatedly told them Iraq's WMD were dismantled long ago. He was the first senior Iraqi to surrender voluntarily to the U.S. authorities in April last year, expecting to be held for brief interrogation and then let go.
Thursday his brother, Radwan, told me he was assured last month that Amer's release had been authorized and only a few bureaucratic procedures remained. It seems he was part of the same joint Iraqi-American review process that apparently gave the green light to releasing the women scientists weeks before Bigley's kidnappers focused on them.
Why the delay? Did Donald Rumsfeld or George W. Bush's election advisors get cold feet, fearing the impact of interviews that would once again highlight the fraud behind the invasion? Was the Iraqi government in favor of the release, as its justice minister suggested, but overruled by the Americans and denied the sovereignty it is claimed to enjoy?
What of Saddam Hussein himself? Has he, too, become a pawn in Bush's bid to retain power? Few doubt that -- unlike the scientists -- he is a war criminal, although technically he remains innocent until convicted. When, and if, an Iraqi court with judges chosen independently by Iraqis puts him on trial, not many tears will flow.
The issue is the timing. It was only thanks to the International Committee of the Red Cross that the former dictator appeared in court at all. On the eve of the formal transfer of sovereignty in June, it declared that as a prisoner of war he must be released if he had not been charged. The Americans hurried to comply.
After his brief but powerful defiance from the dock, they said his trial would take months to prepare. His lieutenants would be tried first in the hope they would give evidence against him. Saddam would not go back to court until 2005, if then. Suddenly we hear his trial may take place next month. This may be the famous "October surprise." Bush may use the spotlight on Saddam as a way of trying to justify the war on Iraq and put John Kerry on the defensive. In this cynical scheme of things, America's best-known prisoner may become a hostage of Bush's election bid.
Small wonder that Iraqis feel humiliated and impotent. They are trapped between different sets of foreigners. On one side they face the barbarity of outside Islamists, who use Iraq as the latest and most convenient terrain for jihad against America. On the other, they see the stubbornness of Bush and the arrogance of Blair, who refuse to admit that their adventure was wrong, has become a disaster and needs to be ended. Every Iraqi is a hostage now.