My favorite America-as-land-of-opportunity story of recent months involves a man named Basam Ridha. Where else could a young Iraqi exile end up appearing with George Clooney in a Hollywood movie -- and then, thanks to the man in the White House, get a chance to return to his native land to serve as official hangman?
Perhaps he could star in a remake of the Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood classic, Hang 'Em High.
Ridha, 44, former actor in the Clooney film Three Kings and on television in 24 -- yes, he has a Screen Actors Guild card -- now acts as an adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He also appears as a spokesman for the Iraqi government on American TV, and handles all the arrangements for executions in Iraq. He's the guy who is frequently quoted when hangings there are botched. When one notorious prisoner's head got severed in the process last year, Ridha called it an "act of God," adding, in something of an understatement, "it was not a pretty scene."
After Tina Susman of the Los Angeles Times wrote about the Hollywood connection not long ago, I found a picture of Ridha posing with George Clooney on the set of Three Kings. It was featured in the Daily Reveille, the newspaper for Lousiana State University, on April 23, 2003. The story opens: "LSU graduate Basam Ridha Al-Husaini had to flee for his life, leaving his family behind and the country he calls home. After the recent fall of Saddam Hussein's regime he will finally be able to return to Iraq after 21 years... In May 1982 two of his brothers had been imprisoned by Hussein, and Al-Husaini decided to leave Iraq and come to the United States." Eventually he dropped the Al-Husaini part of his name.
Currently, Ridha is putting his engineering degree to use in carefully planning the next high-level hanging. At least 100 such executions have taken place since 2005. Ridha denies any blame for the circus surrounding Saddam Hussein's passing: Surprised by the speed with which it was carried out, he was not in the room that night but far away in Dubai. After another botched execution followed, he ordered a new gallows built. He also came back to the U.S. last December to tell businessmen in Dearborn, Mich., which has a heavy Arab-American population, to invest in Iraq.
Naturally I had to ask Susman, the fine L.A. Times bureau chief in Baghdad, how she got her story (for a full account, see my new book, So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed in Iraq).
"I'd first spoken to Basam in February over the phone for a story about an upcoming execution," she replied. "He was always happy to talk and became a great source of information whenever a hanging was in the works. Little by little I began learning about his background. When I learned that he lived in L.A. so long, it seemed a natural story for the L.A. Times. The Hollywood bit was icing on the cake.
"But it's the kind of story that could not have worked without the perfect subject, and he is a great subject. He's remarkably up-front about his attitudes, enjoys talking to journalists, and is one of those rare political types who says exactly what he thinks, even if he knows it might offend some people. The interview was at times entertaining, and at times, such as when he talked about the search for his brothers and the toll it had taken on his family, quite heart-wrenching. I wanted to portray him as someone who was angry and wanting revenge, but using that anger in a way he believes is somehow good for other Iraqis. It's not such an unusual attitude here."
Susman had pointed out in her story, "Ridha plays down his Hollywood experience but admits it was lucrative. He still collects residuals." He did have a speaking role in Three Kings, after all.
An excerpt from Greg Mitchell's book So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraqis up at Salon this week. He is editor of Editor & Publisher.