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A study of people living in Southern Iraq found that 6% of household members reported human rights abuses since 1991. These abuses largely occurred at home and were almost always carried out by groups associated with the Baath party regime. People who reported human rights abuses were more likely to say they had thought about or attempted suicide in the past year.

After the Gulf War in 1991, the Baath regime suppressed popular uprisings in Iraq. The uprising in Southern Iraq was largely Shi'a and was put down violently by Sadaam Hussein's government.

How extensive were the human rights abuses against Shi'as in Southern Iraq at this time? We may never know the complete story. However, Lynn Amowitz and colleagues interviewed 1991 people in major cities in Southern Iraq in order to begin to understand the extent of these human rights abuses

Regime-Related Human Rights Abuses in Southern Iraq

How many household members reported instances of human rights abuses, and what kinds of abuses did they experience? Of the 16,520 household members represented in the study, the following human rights abuses were reported (with percent who reported experiencing this abuse):

  • Torture: 1.3%,
  • Killing: 1.3%,
  • Separation and disappearance: 1%,
  • Forced conscription: 0.8%,
  • Beating: 0.8%,
  • Gunshot wound: 0.4%,
  • Kidnapped: 0.2%,
  • Held hostage: 0.1%,
  • Force amputation of an ear: 0.1%,
  • Land mine injuries: 0.04%,
  • Number of reported sexual assaults among household members (non-regime-related assaults): 0.04% (n=7),
  • Forced to walk in minefields: 0.02%,
  • Exposure to chemical or biological weapons: 0.01%,
  • Used as a human shield: 0.01%.

For all these abuses, household members witnessed the abuse in 61% of the cases (39% witnessed the after-effects).

Characteristics of Regime-Related Human Rights Violations

Human rights abuses don't occur in the abstract. They happen in certain places and are carried out by certain people.

Where Did It Happen?

Of the 1018 reported incidents of abuse:

  • 70% occurred at home,
  • 38% occurred in the streets,
  • 16% occurred in prison,
  • 16% occurred in a torture center,
  • 10% occurred in the military,
  • 9% occurred at work,
  • 3% occurred at a security directorate.

Who Were the Perpetrators?

Of the 475 instances of human rights violations where the perpetrator was identified, the alleged perpetrator was a member of:

  • Groups affiliated with the Baath party regime (95%),
  • Coalition forces (3%),
  • Kurdistan Democratic Party (0.8%),
  • Badr Brigade (0.6%),
  • Local Iraqi police (0.6%).

So, groups affiliated with the Sadaam Hussein's Baath party regime were, by far, the most common perpetrators of human rights abuses.

Sexual Violence by the Regime

The authors asked people whether they knew of anyone who had been sexually assaulted by a regime-related group. Five percent said that they did. However, people were very unlikely to report an instance of sexual assault (whether by a regime-related person or a family member). Only 3% had ever reported any instance of sexual assault.

The people interviewed were asked about how much of a problem sexual assault carried out by the Baath regime groups were. They answered in the following way:

  • Not at all (38%),
  • A little (20%),
  • Quite a bit (18%),
  • Extremely (4%),
  • Don't know (19%).

However, the authors say that the estimates of regime-related sexual assault are probably underestimated because of shame or lack of privacy in the interview. Also, because some respondents may have been motivated by a desire for revenge or for political reasons, the authors say that other estimates may be inaccurate (for example, abuses by Coalition forces, frequency of killings or gunshot wounds and the identification of perpetrators).

Suicide Attempts and Thinking about Suicide

One of the effects of these human rights abuses can be extreme emotional distress and hopelessness. The authors asked respondents about whether they had thought about suicide in the last year and whether they had actually made a suicide attempt.

People who had reported human rights abuses were significantly more likely to say they had thoughts about suicide in the last year (27% who reported abuse versus 20% who had not reported abuse). People who reported abuse were also more likely to have attempted suicide in the last year (7% of those who had reported abuse versus 5% of those who had not).

Bottom Line

Six percent of household members in the sample of Southern Iraqis reported human rights abuses. These abuses largely occurred at home and were almost always carried out by groups associated with the Baath party regime. People who reported human rights abuses were more likely to say they had thought about or attempted suicide in the past year.

Data and Methods:

Data Sources:

The authors interviewed 1991 people living in large cities in three governorates in Southern Iraq. The 1991 people sampled represented a total of 16,520 household members. Respondents were selected using a randomized cluster sampling technique

The authors gathered their information using structured interviews and questionnaires. Interviewers were highly trained to be able to gather the information.

Method of Analysis:

Chi-square analysis was used to test for associations among categorical variables, analysis of variance was used to test for differences between means, and the Kruskal-Wallis test was used to test medians. All significance levels were set at P<0.05.

Funding Source:

John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Full Text Availability:
Full text available at

Amowitz L, Kim G, Reis C, Asher J, and Iacopino V. 2004. "Human Rights Abuses and Concerns About Women’s Health and Human Rights in Southern Iraq." JAMA 29:1471-1479.

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