General Charles de Gaulle gave the French resistance 48 hours to régler les comptes - settle accounts - after the liberation of France. But after the "liberation" of Iraq, the Baath party's enemies have declared it open season to hunt down and murder hundreds of the former regime's officials - with not the slightest attempt by the Anglo-American armies or their newly installed police force to end the bloodshed.
In the Shia city of Najaf, 42 ex-members of the Baath have been murdered and not a single arrest has followed. In Basra, controlled by British troops, almost 50 Baathists have been found with their hands bound behind their backs and a single bullet hole in the neck. Again, there have been no arrests. Hussam Thafer, a doctor at the Baghdad city mortuary, says that every day he receives "five or six" bodies of people who worked for the old regime.
Some of the killings may be personal revenge. The Independent on Sunday has learned of one young Shia who hunted down his former torturer in Baghdad, calmly told the man's family that he intended to execute him, refused financial retribution for his suffering and went on to murder the man. But many of the killings are being carried out systematically - and with the same cruelty Saddam's own henchmen once used against the regime's opponents.
Major-General Khalaf al-Alousi, a former director of the secret police in Baghdad, was assassinated on a Sunday afternoon this month when he visited a home he was renovating in Yarmouk. His wife, Um Ali, described how two men in black hoods were waiting for them in the yard and another in the house, and how she knew they were going to kill her husband . "I shouted and begged them not to do it, for the sake of his daughters," she said. The ex-general tried to talk to his killers. "I never saw such calm before," Um Ali said later. The gunmen fired 17 bullets into their victim.
The guard on the house, Wisam Eidan, had earlier found the men in the yard. "One of them showed me an ID written in English with his picture, and he told me, 'don't argue with the CIA and keep your mouth shut'." In fact, al-Alousi's family suspect Iranian agents were responsible. He was, they said, in contact with the American-created Governing Council. Was he just a marked man? Or did he know too much - about Saddam's enemies, about the Iranian secret police, or about the American intelligence services which, after all, co-operated with al-Alousi and his comrades between 1978 and 1990?
In Najaf and other southern cities, Baathists have been shot down by men on motorcycles or in taxis. Sunni Muslims suspect the Badr Brigades are responsible, the militia of the Supreme Council for the Revolution in Iraq (Sciri) whose representatives also sit on the Governing Council. A building believed to be controlled by the Sciri was blown up in Baghdad last week, killing a Shia man who lived there with his family. Neighbors immediately blamed ex-Baathists for the attack.
Among the most savage of the recent killings came when Dhamia Abbas, a teacher walking to school with her two sons in Najaf, was sprayed with bullets from an AK-47 rifle. "I left the Baath party five years ago," she said from her hospital bed. "But they have been threatening me and following me. I was wearing a full veil when they shot me. I want to take my sons and leave Iraq." What Mrs Abbas did not know when she said this was that one of her two boys, aged four, had already died of his wounds.
Save for appeals for "solidarity" in the aftermath of Saddam's capture, the Western authorities in Baghdad have shown no concern about the murders. It is, of course, hard to show pity for satraps of the former regime whose own victims are still being dug up in their thousands from the mass graves of southern Iraq. Mrs Abbas, for example, has been accused of choosing prisoners for execution after the 1991 Shia revolt in Najaf.
The local police admit that they have not solved a single crime against ex-Baathists, acknowledging that they will themselves become targets if they attempt to do so. The killers are supposedly receiving $250 for every Baathist they eliminate. Another of their victims was a former governor's bodyguard who was tortured by his fellow Baathists in 1991; it did not save him.
Only yesterday, in the northern city of Mosul, gunmen in a fast-moving car shot and killed Sheikh Talal al-Khalidi and his 23-year-old son, Saad. Although a member of the new local council that works with US soldiers, al-Khalidi had been a member of the Baathist National Assembly in Baghdad under Saddam. The long arm of revenge - if that is what it truly is - therefore now stretches the length of Iraq.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd