Standing up to Saddam and his son took courage

4/26/2005 4:03:33 PM

When Air Force Col. David Eberly was shot down over Iraq in January 1991, he found himself in the clutches of a madman.

Qusai Hussein - in every worst way his father's son - demanded that Eberly and the other captured coalition pilots be classified as criminals of war and killed outright.

Only one man stood in his way.

Iraqi Gen. Georges Sada took his life in his hands and for weeks lobbied with a lunatic to save the pilots.

"To his personal credit, he saved my life and the lives of the other Americans and the Brits and the Kuwaiti," says Eberly, the highest-ranking POW of Desert Storm, now retired and living in Williamsburg.

Sada ended up thrown in prison and "suffered greatly for his actions," Eberly says.

Sada dismisses any talk of personal suffering. An earnest and devout Christian who wears a hefty cross of nails around his neck, Sada arrived in town last week to attend the 10th annual Vision Weekend conference sponsored by Newport News-based Military Ministries, which reaches out to military men and women around the world.

Asked how he found the guts to contradict the murderous Husseins, Sada takes no credit.

"It was not the courage from me," he told me, "but it was given to me by Jesus Christ."

Born in 1940 to a "church family," Sada is a member of the indigenous Assyrians, who predate Arabs and Kurds. He grew up near a British air base and learned to love flying.

Being a minority Christian in a Muslim country has its obstacles, but not enough to keep Sada from joining the military, training as a pilot and rising to the rank of air vice marshal.

When he wouldn't join Saddam's Baath Party in 1986, he was forced to retire. Four years later, when Saddam invaded Kuwait, the first man he called back to service was Sada. For Sada, it was a deal with the devil.

"If he loves you, it's bad. If he hates you, it's bad," Sada says. The Iraqi despot was "more than crazy. He was a very dangerous man. Only God knows what he will do."

Saddam asked Sada the quickest way to end the war. The quickest way, Sada answered, would be to turn the Iraqi troops around and bring them home.

Saddam was not amused. "If you say that again," he told Sada, "your head will be separate from your body."

When Iraq began shooting down coalition pilots, Saddam put Sada in charge of them. One by one, they were blindfolded and brought to him for interrogation, intelligence agents sitting in.

"I did my best to keep the life of the pilots to best of my ability," Sada says. "I used my rank. I don't let them (mistreat them) in front of me, and Jesus knows I would be very angry about it."

That didn't stop horrendous abuse by others when Sada wasn't around, some of which Eberly recounts in his POW memoir, "Faith Beyond Belief." He and other former POWs later sued Iraq over their mistreatment and won a landmark judgment of nearly $1 billion. That judgment was overturned at the urging of the Bush administration and the former POWs appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. On Monday, again at the urging of the Bush administration, their appeal was denied.

Only recently did Sada and Eberly meet to compare notes on when their paths actually crossed. Eberly believes Sada was the humane captor who stood out amidst the brutality.

"At the time we first met, we were enemies. He was clearly the enemy," Eberly told me. "He was the other side of the blindfold, like anyone else who had put a gun to my head or spit on me or any other level of mistreatment.

"And yet in his mind, he personally viewed us differently. He viewed us as pilots who had protection under the Geneva Convention. He is a big man in the sense that he recognized what Iraq had signed up to, and it nearly cost him his life in trying to uphold that signature."

On Jan. 24, Qusai first ordered the POWs executed. When Sada balked, Qusai accused him of disobeying the orders of the president.

Sada tried to reason with Qusai, reminding him that even the prophet Muhammad once said that if prisoners of war learned 10 verses of the Koran, they could be set free. This only angered Qusai, who threatened to put the POWs in areas being bombed by American forces. Sada urged him not to use them as human shields. He kept turning to the Geneva Convention, which made Qusai angrier still.

"This was the end," Sada thought. "And I knew something was going to happen to me."

He was right. Qusai pitched him into a cell in the same prison as the POWs, and Sada wondered if his head would be separated from his body at last. But even locked up, Sada still had his contacts check on the POW pilots, making sure they were still alive.

After 12 days, Sada finally found a way to reach Qusai: He made the war personal.

"If you kill the pilots," Sada told him, "you will have new war between America and your family. They'll come and kill your father, your brother...." He ticked off Hussein family members.

"After that," Sada says, "he was changed. He thought twice."

Finally, Sada was released from prison. A few weeks later, the war ended and Eberly and the other POWs were released. Battered physically and mentally, they returned home in early March.

Then last fall, Eberly got a call from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's office saying there was an Iraqi general working with the State Department who recalled Eberly from his POW stint and the impressive way he'd conducted himself.

"He was very calm, very confident, very brave and very clever," Sada says of Eberly now, smiling over the "clever" part.

The two men spoke over the phone, then met Feb. 28 for the first time since those interrogation sessions, sharing war stories in Fredericksburg.

"It was a very rewarding experience," Eberly says. "He's a terrific individual."

Today, Sada is spokesman and adviser to the Iraqi prime minister, helping to shepherd his country toward democracy. He shrugs off recent accounts of more violence in Iraq and claims the insurgency is losing power. He's proud of the January elections, when Iraqis chose 275 representatives for their new National Assembly, 60 of them "ladies."

His former boss, interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, just dodged another car bomb. I ask if Sada is concerned for his own safety, and he shrugs that off, too.

"There is always a battle between the evil and the goodness," Sada says. "And we will accept that battle, whatever will be the result. Iraq is going to be a guiding candle in the dark Middle East.

"The good Iraqis and the faithful Iraqis will never forget what the American nation has done for us in liberating our country from evil dictatorship. I bow before the American mothers and fathers for their sacrifices - they lost their beloved ones, sons and daughters, in battle of freedom of Iraq.

"Freedom is a very dear thing," says the general who risked his freedom and more for two dozen strangers. "You don't get it easy."

Tamara Dietrich can be reached at tdietrich@dailypress.com or at 247-7892.