BAGHDAD — 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.
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."
Until they were moved to a US base at the former Iraqi military intelligence headquarters, the files had been gathered in a house belonging to Maher al-Tikriti, one of Hussein's top bodyguards. Some had been discovered there; others were brought in by people who had found them elsewhere in Baghdad.
"It looked like what happened was Iraqi intelligence officers had moved into buildings like this and moved the documents for their own protection from bombing or whatever and to make it harder to find those documents," says Billmyer. "And then it looks like they fled before they could destroy all the documents and now people are bringing them back."
No systematic effort to catalog the files has yet been made, and it is hard to know what they contain. A cursory examination of some of the folders, their contents tied with green string, yielded the bare facts of cases under investigation, lists of suspected Communists, and pages of cross-referencing with other files.
Some bore a scrawled and laconic inscription on their covers: "Executed."
The Committee of Free Prisoners agreed to hand the files to the Americans for safekeeping, says Mr. Robeh, because the committee's headquarters had come under attack by armed men four times.
Leaders of the former ruling Baath Party "could be incriminated by these documents; they want them destroyed and disappeared," he adds. "The plan for the documents is to move them just for their protection," says Captain Billmyer. "The same people here with the Committee of Free Prisoners will still have full access to the documents to continue their work, because they are really the ones that found the documents."
Some committee members, however, are worried by the prospect of association with US troops, and fear for the files' future now they are in US hands.
"The documents will be away from us and we will work under the Americans. That is difficult," says Dr. Attar. "We want it to be a purely Iraqi effort."
Foreign human rights activists say it is important that the documents be kept safely, in a manner that clarifies their provenance. "It is essential that the chain of custody be established to ensure [the documents'] authenticity," says Richard Dicker, an international-law expert with Human Rights Watch in New York. "That would be crucial for their use in any investigation or trial" that Iraqi or international tribunals might mount.
But he voices concern that "the documents given to the US not disappear, never to return." US officials have never allowed public access to files taken from security offices in Haiti after the US-led invasion there in 1994, he points out.
Such questions are of little concern, however, to Hassoun. He, at least, has discovered his cousin's fate. "When he killed people, he said nothing," he says, referring to Hussein. "It was secret. Now we know."