BAGHDAD, Iraq—As American forces closed in on Baghdad, Saddam Hussein's security forces destroyed thousands of secret files in a spree that probably will seriously undercut U.S. efforts to understand the activities of Saddam's intelligence and security services.
At almost every security building in the capital, blackened rings around windows lead to rooms where documents appear to have been placed in the middle of the floor and set aflame.
At the General Directorate of Intelligence, Iraq's equivalent of the FBI and CIA combined, one file room with 2-foot-thick concrete walls was still smoldering this week, and 3 feet of shredded papers blanketed another room.
A file room at the Rashid military base was empty but for the stands where racks of folders once rested. Small mounds of hand-ripped papers marked "secret" and "very secret" dotted other rooms.
Looters were blamed for many of the fires that consumed scores of buildings after Saddam's regime collapsed April 9, including the Iraqi Olympic committee, which was headed by one of Saddam's sons, the Irrigation Ministry, virtually all offices of Saddam's Baath Party and many government-owned construction companies.
But the wholesale destruction and removal of security and intelligence files appears to have been part of a campaign by Iraqi officials to deny U.S. troops records that might be used against them later.
"The fires we started on the orders of our officers were burning when the thieves came," said Ishamel Binyamin, 28, a soldier who remained at the Rashid base, Baghdad's largest military complex, after everyone else fled.
"I saw a little smoke, then trucks leaving with boxes, then the fires," said Hashem Mohammed, 45, who lives near a rear entrance to the headquarters of the General Security Service, Saddam's main domestic security agency.
How many secret files Saddam's agents hid or destroyed before the Americans arrived is unknown. Squads of U.S. military intelligence and CIA agents known as Document Exploitation Teams, who arrived soon after U.S. troops secured key offices, seized "tons and tons of stuff," said one Marine intelligence officer.
The DETs had a list of more than 1,200 "sensitive sites" for documents on Iraq's weapons programs alone, said one U.S. Army Special Forces officer who works alongside the teams.
"We did OK," one long-haired American in civilian clothes said at the sprawling headquarters complex of the GSS, known in Arabic as the Mudiriyat al A'mn al Amal, in southeastern Baghdad.
A spokesman for the anti-Saddam Free Iraqi Forces claimed Wednesday that it had found a cache of 20 tons of secret records, most of them apparently on senior members of Saddam's regime.
But the DETs arrived too late at some key sites.
"The CIA and special forces guys were here, but took out only a couple of boxes," said a U.S. soldier who was guarding the sprawling compound of the General Directorate of Intelligence in central Baghdad.
The complex of some 30 buildings, known in Arabic as the Mukhabarat al A'ma, showed bomb damage from U.S. airstrikes only in the main building and two adjoining communications facilities.
Only one building was totally burned out—the bunkerlike file room, separated from the rest of the compound by a 10-foot wall—though small fires had been set in several rooms in many other buildings.
In one three-story building that appeared to have housed Iraq's external espionage apparatus, all filing cabinets were empty and fires were set in virtually every tiled shower stall and in one first-floor room.
That one room, next to a closet full of commercially published books on encryption and communications, was covered with the ashes of white file folders and brown envelopes marked "secret" and rows of scorched ring binders.
Several third-floor rooms—like most office workers, senior Iraqi security officers appeared to prefer corner offices in the higher floors—were littered with mounds of carefully ripped-up papers, seemingly ready to be burned.
In a nearby five-story building that appeared to have housed the GDI's financial offices—none of the buildings bore any names, and none of the offices bore names or room numbers—a fire had been set in the office of what must have been a high-ranking officer.
A wooden door had been placed near a window, then papers were put on top and set on fire. A few unburned shards of paper showed they were part of the GDI financial department's personnel and salary rosters.
In the main building, there had been fires in several rooms, and every other room had industrial-strength shredding machines.
At the GSS's underground records vault, the size of two basketball courts, five of the file racks closest to the entrance were partly burned, as though an attempt to torch them had failed.
At the Rashid base in southeastern Baghdad, the biggest fire had consumed the compound's Baath Party offices, where membership records were nothing but three rooms of ashes.
"The officers came two days before the Americans arrived and said to burn everything," said Binyamin, the soldier, who said he was a native of the northern city of Mosul and was squatting at the base while he scavenges for military electronic parts to sell.
He said he was ordered to burn the records of the officers' academy and the Engineers' Battalion in the compound, while other soldiers torched a military intelligence office that is now a ruin.
Binyamin said he saw a convoy of civilian construction trucks taking away hundreds of tin lockers containing other files, and several senior officers stuffing files into their cars and driving off.
Mohammed, the GSS neighbor, also said he saw several military and civilian trucks, as well as some ambulances, leave the compound just days before the war ended carrying "white metal boxes."
Soldiers from the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division reported seizing an Iraqi ambulance stuffed with weapons and records from the Iraqi army's Republican Guard divisions as they approached Baghdad.
"I think we're going to find the really serious stuff, the real jewels, weeks after the war, when some crony of Saddam decides he wants to take our money," said one Marine intelligence officer.
"And I would bet my firstborn that we will find them in some dusty, crappy-looking warehouse in one of the villages around Baghdad, where no one ever would think of looking," he added. "At least I hope we'll find them."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-DOCUMENTS:WA