What are Iraqis to make of this theatre of the macabre?

THE Americans followed a grand Iraqi Baath party tradition by showing their dead enemies on television yesterday. Back in 1963, when Abdul Karim Qassem’s corpse was shown on the screen, there was no colour television and the executed prime minister – Baathists and army officers had jointly condemned him to death – appeared in black and white, propped up in a chair but very, very dead.

Yesterday, it was all in colour. The faces of Uday and Qusay Hussein had been carefully reconstructed by US army morticians, and lay on trolleys, stitched up and with the colour of false life injected into their newly shaved faces, but also very, very dead.

The Iraqis showed off the corpse of Qassem so that the Iraqi people would believe he was dead. The Americans showed off the corpses of Uday and Qusay Hussein so that the Iraqi people would believe they were dead. And ghoulish wasn’t the word for it.

Apparently realising that the original untouched faces of Uday and Qusay did not convince Iraqis, they were neatly shaved by the Americans, and looked – minus the two bullet wounds just behind Qusai’s right ear and the blow to Uday’s head – much more like Saddam’s children.

Mercifully, the Americans spared us the corpse of Qusay’s 14-year-old son Mustafa who was also gunned down by the Americans, a fact which is, needless to say, not making any headlines in the United States, though the American army commander made an oblique reference this week to the “youngest individual” being the last to die.

It had, anyway, been a bad start to the mortuary show. Only an occupation army, perhaps, could have produced the original photographs of Uday and Qusay just in time for the one day – Friday, the Muslim sabbath – when there are no newspapers in Iraq to publish them. But after yesterday’s visit to the morgue by the world’s press, the corpses were, so to speak, reheated for public consumption.

Today’s Iraqi front pages, so the Americans hope, will be covered in these latest macabre photographs. But what are Iraqis supposed to make of all this? The US authorities creepily announced that they had treated the bodies at their mortuary at Baghdad airport with “the same respect” they would accord any corpse, as if it was the most normal thing in the world to parade dead bodies on television.

Is Saddam going to receive the same treatment, one wonders? Or Osama? Or Mullah Omar? Or Karadzic and Mladic?

Then the US authorities announced that they were waiting for “a family member” to come forward to claim the brothers for burial, as if Saddam was going to turn up at the airport in a Mercedes to sign the release papers.

BUT since this is all supposed to be for the Iraqi people, it seemed worthwhile to take a journey around town yesterday morning and combine a shopping trip for washing liquid, soap, fruit, lavatory paper, marmalade, cheese and a bath plug (there are no bath plugs in Baghdad), with a private public opinion poll on those corpses.

The good news – apart from the purchase of the bath plug – was that 60 per cent of the 50 or so Iraqis I spoke to believed that the original photograph was indeed Uday. The bad news was that almost all of the 60 per cent demanded to know why the Americans didn’t bother to capture them so they could be put on trial for their monstrous crimes.

The ironmonger who finally provided the bath plug – and, yes, his name really was Uday – was among the most eloquent. “It is him, of course it’s him,” he said. “But why did the Americans deprive us of a trial? They could easily have surrounded that house with just four people inside and waited till they surrendered. There are many, many Iraqis who have been waiting for real justice, the justice of a democracy not of the military kind. And instead of a trial, they give us a photograph.”

There were many complaints that the Americans should have shaved off Qusay’s beard to show him as he looked in life, a feat the Americans obligingly carried out before yesterday’s television performance. This may be why only about 20 of the 50 Iraqis believed Qusay was dead. In a grocery store, a man angrily asked me why the Americans did not show Mustafa Hussein’s body? “Is it because they don’t want to show dead children?” he asked.

In the residential district of Mansur, near the site of the bombing in April in which the Americans blew 16 innocent civilians to bits in the vain hope that they would hit Saddam and his sons, it was the same story.

Yes, it was Uday. Perhaps it was Qusay. But did the Americans make any real attempt to capture them? And (of course), why was there no American compensation for the victims of the slaughter in Mansur? One of the few survivors, Abdullah Museiha, has asked for compensation from an Iraqi court. The Americans have offered nothing.

The fruit-seller in Upper Karada Street came out with the inevitable: that the Americans had so many computers, they could digitalise Uday’s face on to a real body. Again, yesterday’s television show will help to kill that idea.

A photocopyist, ironically very close to the spot where Qassem was executed 40 years ago, asked why the Americans thought that the deaths of Uday and Qusay, which he accepted, would lessen the resistance to American occupation.

Which leads to the really bad news. Every one of the Iraqis I spoke to, without exception, said the guerrillas attacking the Americans were not just Saddam “remnants”, but a mukawama shaabia, a popular resistance, and therein, for America, lies the rub.

George Bush may say the contrary, Tony Blair may say the contrary and the host of occupation officials here may desperately want to believe them; but in Baghdad, there is now widespread sympathy, not for the killers and torturers of Saddam’s regime who are indeed attacking Americans, but for the much more serious Sunni Islamist movement which is principally responsible for opposing the occupation.

One of the Mansur men put it like this: “You are living on false hopes if you think these pictures will change anything. The war of liberation has started and we are behind it.” And if this is true, there are going to be a lot more corpses.

See Joe Vialls ‘America’s Uday and Qusay Conjuring Trick': a detailed forensic analysis of the photos of a dead Uday Hussein, indicating a clear case of forgery

Correspondent for the Independent, Robert Fisk is resident in the Middle East and comments on events unfolding there