BAGHDAD, Iraq—Tens of thousands of security files on Iraqis have been found in a huge underground vault beneath the headquarters of Saddam Hussein's most feared secret police agency, the legacy of a Soviet-style domestic spying system that controlled everything from job assignments to whether a person would live or die.
The files include the mundane—a man denied the right to leave the country because he refused a job transfer—and the chilling—a 19-year-old high school student hanged because he admitted he was the leader of a cell of a banned political party.
"By God, this is everyone in Iraq," translator George Yousef muttered as he entered the records vault, about twice the size of a basketball court, discovered two days ago by U.S. Marines and visited by a journalist Sunday.
The vault is buried beneath the sprawling complex in southeastern Baghdad of the General Security Directorate (GSD), the most powerful of Saddam's half-dozen security agencies totaling an estimated 160,000 agents.
His omnipresent security apparatus was fashioned along the lines of the Soviet, East German and Cuban systems, keeping records on anyone who came to its attention, from drunken cops to political dissidents.
Its approval was needed to get a job, attend the better universities, obtain a passport and travel abroad, join the ruling Baath Party and even to check in at some luxury hotels inside Iraq.
But while the Soviet system was known more for harassing, jailing and exiling dissidents, Saddam's henchmen were known for their brutality, torturing and executing uncounted thousands during his almost 24-year rule.
The GSD complex included a prison, barracks and a five-story headquarters bombed by U.S. jets and then stripped bare by looters who were leaving as U.S. Marines arrived one day after Saddam's regime fell.
"Computers, file cabinets, furniture, fans, anything they could carry away," said Cpl. John Hoellwarth, 22, of San Francisco, one of the first Marines to arrive at the walled complex, painted a light caramel.
None of the doors had nameplates or room numbers, and Marine officers speculated that key GSD files on Iraq's spies abroad, terrorist connections and weapons of mass destruction were removed before the looters arrived.
Also empty was what appeared to be a VIP prison, with about 100 cells for two to nine inmates, some walled and some steel-barred but all relatively clean with bunk beds, small windows, showers, toilets and brackets for video camera monitors.
Written on the cell walls were dozens of hash-mark calendars and prayers—all by Shiite Muslims, a majority in Iraq long repressed by Saddam's mostly Sunni regime—with the kind of thinly veiled political messages of inmates who are on the edge of despair but still fear their guards.
"God is above the man who oppresses you," said one. "Allah, my patience is finished. Help me," said another, next to crude drawings of a coffin and a clock, its hands pointing to 12.
Two other cells had large blocks of what appeared to be Chinese writing, and a third showed a long line of what seemed to be characters from an Indian sub-continental language.
But the most astounding part was the subterranean records room, reached through a ground-level door that looked like a subway entrance. A handwritten English sign on the ground near the door said, "Secret. Keep Out."
A flashlight barely penetrated the darkness of the main vault, maybe 150 feet by 200 feet, with hallways and smaller rooms leading off in so many different directions that they could not all be explored in one visit.
Hundreds of three-foot-long cabinets filled with off-white, legal-sized folders lay atop waist-high tables, apparently ordered by case numbers, while thousands more seemingly newer files were laid in rows on the floor like fallen dominoes.
Most of the thicker files were from the 1980s, while the files from the 1990s were thinner, perhaps because they are more recent, perhaps because Saddam's security services also fell victim to the erosion that hit Iraq after its defeat in the 1991 Gulf War.
All files inspected involved domestic security issues, and five of the cabinets nearest to the entrance were partially burned, as though someone had tried to destroy them.
A 12-page file on a 40-year-old Basra woman indicated she had to be vetted for a job with the Ministry of Oil because her cousin had fled to neighboring Kuwait in 1982.
A half-inch file on a 55-year-old Kurd from Sulaimaniyah showed he was denied permission to leave the country in 1986 after he rejected a Ministry of Construction transfer to a job outside the capital. It included a notice to all border stations to detain him if he tried to leave.
The files revealed a security system that was at times meticulous in its record-keeping, at times sloppy, and yet often managed to gain the collaboration of its targets.
A letter from a GSD branch in Basra said one woman was "willing to inform on her cousin," a religious seminary student who went to Saudi Arabia on the Haj pilgrimage and never returned.
A dog-eared file on a 47-year-old man said he was a Communist Party agitator in the southwestern city of Karbala from 1969 to 1978, "when he broke off and offered full reports about his circle."
The crimson red file on another man included a "strictly confidential" letter asking the GSD branch in the northern city of Erbil for all its information on him and 18 other suspected Communist Party activists "as quickly as you can"—but no reply.
The file of a twenty-three-year-old man contained only one page, showing that he and nine other suspected members of the Al Dawa Party, a radical Shiite group, were arrested in 2001 while trying to escape to Syria, but does not indicate what happened to them.
The file of Mohammed Al Muedin, 19, said that the high school student was the leader of an Al Dawa cell whose members all "confessed they belonged to said party and paid monthly dues" but mentioned no specific activities.
In his folder, the green and white summary sheet attached as the last addition to each of the files carried a hand-written note on the disposition of his case.
"The court on 28 March 1987 ordered he be hanged," the summary said, "and all his movable property seized, all his unmovable property (house and land) not seized, for the benefit of charity cases."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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