Inside the 'most feared place' for Iraqi citizens

At the Internal Security Service, writings both on the walls and in files give a glimpse into Hussein's harsh intelligence system.

A significant portion of Iraqi history under Saddam Hussein is scratched into prison-cell doors and walls.

One of the darkest chapters was written in the compound housing Iraq's Internal Security Service, the most feared place in Iraq for ordinary citizens. For most detainees landing inside, the prison represented no less than the end of the earth. Although the cells are empty now, they continue to cry out to the living.

"You the respectable one reading this know that we are not guilty of any real crime, only a trumped-up charge. And we will be getting out, if God wills it," writes one prisoner.

"This was literally the Gestapo headquarters," says US Air Force Lt. Col. Jim Gallagher, as he leads an interpreter and news reporter through the maze of bombed-out and looted buildings that once formed the very essence of Mr. Hussein's hold on power. Colonel Gallagher is working with the US Army's 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment patrolling eastern Baghdad.

"In Iraq, we have a saying that when you are taken inside [the security compound], you are a dead person. And if you manage to get out, it is as if escaping from the mouth of the lion," says the interpreter.

A former officer in the Iraqi military, the interpreter asks that he not be identified by name out of concern that he might face retribution by former security officials for simply being in this place.

"Allah save me," is the only message left by one prisoner in the maximum- security section of the detention facility. Although most of the cells have been cleaned out by looters, there are still wallets, birth certificates, and identification cards on the floor at the intake office near the prison entrance.

Some simply sign the walls. "Farris Ebrahim." "Walid Sayed Ali al-Karbali." "Hader Jawadi."

"They don't think they are coming out, so they leave their name," the interpreter says. "They hope that someone will write it down later like you are doing now."

A looted list

Not all looters entered the security compound seeking furniture or other items to quickly sell. Someone located a list of suspected members of a militant Shiite Muslim group who had been executed at the prison. The documents are now posted on a wall outside a Shiite meetinghouse in Thawra, a heavily Shiite area of the city.

Ibrahim Moteb al-Amri used irony in his prison message. He dubbed his surroundings: "The Happiness Hotel."

For detainees, there was nothing happy about what went on at this large, self-contained compound of modern concrete buildings surrounded by a high wall.

Yet in contrast to that of the prisoners, the life of security officials was comfortable, even luxurious by Iraqi standards. There are high-rise living quarters, tennis courts, a swimming pool, even a movie theater.

Their mission: Identify and neutralize anyone who might pose even the slightest challenge to Hussein. That meant that virtually everyone in the country was kept under some form of surveillance.

Evidence of this extensive security system is sprawled throughout the second floor of a building located near the center of the compound. Looters have long ago carted off the filing cabinets, but they left the most important contents of the building - thousands upon thousands of files and dossiers representing the work of an intelligence agency that used any excuse to initiate an investigation. Among other documents is a list of all the regime's informants working in the military-industry area.

Such documents, including payroll, personnel, and investigative files, could help identify, weed out, and even prosecute former regime officials and key supporters.

The files are also significant because they demonstrate the extent to which Hussein left nothing to chance.

Gleaned from the files

Hannan Hassan Obeid-Mahmoud's only "crime" was that she wanted to get married. Her file, plucked from scores of similar files on the floor, shows that the security section in Doura sent an inquiry on Feb. 24, 2000, to Baghdad about whether they had any important information about her.

As part of the process, the documents show, her entire family of 13, including her father, mother, brother, and sisters, were all investigated to see if they had ever played a role in activities against Hussein. "This is the machinery of a police state," Gallagher says.

Salima Abbas Nasr Nafaa was a housewife in Basra on March 8, 1997. Her file shows she was not a Baath Party member. And it shows that she herself had apparently not done anything wrong. But intelligence agents wanted her interrogated about her possible involvement in anti-Hussein activities because one of her cousins was believed to be active in a militant Shiite Muslim group.

The only personal information about Ms. Nafaa in her file is that she is "good in her manners."

In another room are stacks and stacks of files related to suspected members of the Shiite Muslim Dawa Party. Hussein outlawed the group, and mere membership could bring a death sentence.

Hashem Abeis's file shows he served in the military near Hillah, is not a Baath Party member, and only completed his primary-school education. The file also says he a member of the Dawa Party.

The report says Mr. Abeis's reputation and his family's reputation are "good," and his "stability" is "good." But it notes that some of his relatives have been executed. In addition, his aunt's son had been arrested and held for three months in jail on suspicion of being a member of the Dawa Party. He was released for lack of evidence.

But that didn't prevent agents from initiating an investigation of Abeis.

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