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From Iraq's secret files, a trail of mass murder

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 1, 2003


Packed tightly into filing-cabinet drawers, stuffed roughly into burlap bags, piled hastily into cardboard boxes, the mountains of files filled four US Army flatbed trucks. Some of the former Iraqi regime's darkest secrets lay exposed to the bright light of the Baghdad sun.

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Over the past few days, the US Army has taken custody of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi secret-police files. The dossiers - an impeccable detailing of two decades of mass murder reminiscent of the meticulous recordkeeping of Hitler's Germany or Stalinist Russia - could contain crucial evidence in any trial that former President Saddam Hussein or his top officials might face.

Already the files have yielded fragments of Iraq's secret past. The group of former prisoners who gathered the documents have so far gleaned the names of more than 5,500 prisoners who were executed, according to the files. The Committee of Free Prisoners has posted them on the walls of its makeshift headquarters by the Tigris River. Every day, thousands of ordinary men and women crowd around the rosters, seeking names of missing relatives.

The files, found stored in intelligence agency offices, hidden in private homes or recovered from looters, are "incredibly important," says Capt. John Billmyer, who transferred the documents to his headquarters. "The information that they have ... becomes evidence for war-crimes trials of people that have committed these wrongs and these murders."

"These documents reflect the history of the nation, the history of the people who struggled against Saddam Hussein, the history of the people who killed under the mercilessness of Saddam Hussein," adds committee member Ahmed al-Attar, a doctor who spent 11 years in jail. "That is important to give a view to the world, to give a view to our nation, of our struggling, our blood, our killers."

Wahad Jaber Hassoun got a glimpse of that view Monday, as he stood in the courtyard of the committee's headquarters. At the top of one of the hundreds of handwritten pages posted on the wall, he found the name of his cousin, Sayed Khadem Shamri, along with the date of his execution and the location of his grave.

"He was arrested in Hillal [in central Iraq] in May 1988, and they hanged him a month later," Mr. Hassoun says. "It was because he prayed," as a devout Shiite Muslim from a religious community that former President Hussein distrusted. "Now I will go to his grave, take his body, and send it to Najaf," a holy Shiite city in southern Iraq, for reburial.

Those who do not find their missing relatives' names on any of the lists compiled so far, do not give up hope. They line up at a window of the committee building to hand in scraps of paper on which they have written their loved ones' details. Volunteers at the committee say that in the past week they have taken down nearly 50,000 names in four fat ledgers. One day, perhaps, they will be checked against the files that have been found. "We have more than a million documents and we are still a small group," says Radih Robeh, a member of the committee. "We are working slowly."