Iraqi cells disgorge dark secrets

Relatives of missing Iraqis are combing empty prisons for any trace of their loved ones.

At the infamous Abu Ghareb prison on the outskirts of Baghdad, the relatives of missing Iraqis comb through the detritus, hunting for clues to the fate of their relatives and best friends.

Beside a photo laboratory inside the prison grounds, film of guards interrogating prisoners and torturing them, and pictures of doctors operating on them are strewn helter-skelter over a warehouse floor.

Across the city, outside the Iraqi military's notorious Kadamiya Prison, scores of relatives plead with US soldiers on tanks to let them search for loved ones they insist must surely be hidden inside.

"My brother was taken three years ago, and we are not sure where the government was holding him," said Salim Abed al-Hassan, who fights his way through a crowd towards two US fighters sitting on a tank. "I am just begging the American forces to allow me in to search the grounds on our own. We know for sure that there are underground passageways."

Just as Mr. Hassan swears he hears wailing voices at night, others Iraqis say they are certain their relatives are still hidden away somewhere in the bowels of the city. Their hope springs eternal even as a totalitarian state in which citizens vanished overnight crumbles and burns.

"We believe there are from 250,000 to 290,000 Iraqis who have completely disappeared in the last 25 years under the regime of President Saddam Hussein," says Vanessa Saenen, a spokesperson for Human Rights Watch in Brussels. "These are people who were taken into custody by the authorities and simply never heard from again. Our hope is that their relatives can find enough clues to put these mysterious cases to rest."

Senior US officers, whose forces are currently guarding notorious prisons and palaces in the capital, say they are taking the Iraqi concerns seriously and have initiated an urgent countrywide search for prisoners who might still be languishing in Mr. Hussein's secret cells.

Outside the Kadamiya Prison, a short, pudgy local man named Ali said he was certain that in 1974, a Bangkok company had been contracted to build a vast underground jail where thousands of Iraqi prisoners, many of them political dissidents, were still locked away. He said only a handful of guards loyal to Hussein's half-brother, Watban Ibrahim al-Tikriti, would know how to access the network, and that all of them had fled the district. American forces seized Mr. Tikriti over the weekend as he was attempting to flee to Syria and are now believed to be interrogating him.

Yet even as the hunt for those who vanished under the rule of Hussein begins anew, there is mounting evidence that the regime has already done its best to destroy prison records.

In an office of the Iraqi Intelligence Service, or IRIS, an order to destroy or remove prisoner documents appears to have been already carried out. The signed order lay on the floor Monday afternoon next to a paper shredder that had been used at least until IRIS's electricity ran out sometime during the bombing of Baghdad in the last month.

Abed Ibrahim Mohammed, who had been tortured in the Hakmia Prison with electric nodes attached to his head and genitals, returned to look at his old holding cell Monday.

"This is the office where they interrogated me in 1996 with electric shock," he says, shaking his head in disbelief. "I was prisoner No. 726. It was all because they believed I had worked for the CIA, but their entire case was based on the fact that I had a good friend who worked for a Christian organization. They beat me with metal cables, shocked me with military telephone sets, and pulled out my fingernails."

"Many of the prisoners who were in with me vanished. We would see them one day and then the next they would be gone. It wasn't clear if they had been transferred or just executed and dumped in a mass grave somewhere in the desert. I still long to see some of my best friends alive."

Ismail Ibrahim Dialla said his father and four brothers had all fallen into the hands of Hussein's half-brother. Standing alongside him, Zahra Mahdi Hadi says she had come to find her son.

"We know they are in there," she says, pleading for entry. "People have heard cries at night from deep down in the ground both during the US bombing and since it ended."

A man who claimed he sold cigarettes outside the underground dungeon at Kadamiya said he could lead the relatives to the cells if the US soldiers would just let them through the gates they were guarding.

Iraqi police Col. Ahmed Zaki, who took up his old post again only a week after fleeing his offices, says that he had no idea where any missing Iraqi prisoners are. "They certainly weren't being held by the Ministry of the Interior," he says as he starts his work as a chief of joint US-Iraqi street patrols in Baghdad. "I wouldn't rule out the possibility that some of these prisoners are still inside military intelligence prisons."

A US Marine Corps major, John Secass, insists, however, that his men have still found no secret passageways at Kadamiya, a facility for political and religious prisoners with a 5000-inmate capacity. "I can tell you we are looking, but we have come up entirely empty so far," he says, standing with a platoon of fighters behind a barbed-wire fence in a palm grove.

Likewise, at the city's main presidential palace complex, across the Tigris River from the Palestine Hotel, Army Lt. Christian Laughlin from Richmond, Va., said that a special team of scouts from the Army's 3rd Division were hunting the grounds for underground passageways.

He said that, thus far, the US forces had found only military bunkers.

Fellow soldiers displayed an extraordinary Iraqi arms cache Tuesday, including a gold-plated Heckler-Koch machine gun discovered in a presidential palace.

In addition, US Army Capt. Jim Ahearn displayed 20 custom-made briefcases. Each concealed a Heckler-Koch submachine-gun capable of being fired by a secret trigger on the outside handle of the case.

"You see, you just walk with this thing down a busy street in a business suit swinging the briefcase in your hand and squeeze the trigger," he said. "This is a gun used for one thing and one thing only - terror."

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