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Hundreds search Baghdad complex for signs of loved ones

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Hundreds of men, women and teenage boys roamed the grounds of the notorious Istikhbarat military intelligence headquarters complex Saturday, searching for clues to the fates of loved ones who disappeared under Saddam Hussein's 24-year reign.

"My brother was taken in 1979, after Saddam took power," said 41-year-old Abdul Karim. "I think he was here. . . . I've been searching for three days, but have found nothing."

Many shared his frustration, finding no matches for the faces in the photos they carried with them. As a group of foreign journalists arrived at the vast complex about 10 miles north of the center of Baghdad, dozens of Iraqis clustered around to tell stories with the same ending.

"I have two uncles who have been missing since 1980," said Karim Saheb, 34, a shopkeeper. "They took them because they said something bad about Saddam. We've heard nothing about them since then."

It's unclear how many people may have disappeared or been held at the compound over the course of Saddam's rule.

One man said he saw more than 300 people leave the complex Friday after they were liberated from underground cells.

"I saw one prisoner who said he had been here for 25 years. He was Kurdish," said 27-year-old Faraz Hashim. "I also saw whole families—fathers, mothers and children—but there are more than these people underground. We just don't know where the jails are."

U.S. soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division and special forces searched through dozens of buildings in the compound for a second straight day Saturday, but found no prisoners.

"Everybody is coming up and telling us that there are underground cells here, but nobody can show them to us," said a special forces soldier who identified himself only as Joe.

"They take us to where they say there's an entrance, and then there's nothing there but a brick wall," he said. "We've yet to get down into anything. We're kind of chasing our tails right now."

Maj. Eric Murray, 38, an Army Reserve Civil Affairs officer from Raleigh, N.C., said the compound—covering about 500 acres—appeared to be an interrogation facility where prisoners were held for a few months before being taken to another prison.

One Iraqi man said he had seen 50 blindfolded and handcuffed Kuwaiti prisoners at the compound in 1991. He said he didn't know what happened to them.

More than 600 Kuwaitis are still missing from the 1990-91 Iraqi occupation of Kuwait.

Another man, who said he was a former Iraqi army officer, said he was briefly held in an underground cell at the facility last year.

"I said something about Saddam, then they arrested me and brought me here," said the man, who refused to give his name. "They beat me every day. They shocked me with electricity in my arms and my testicles. They infected me with a disease that made blisters on my arms. They finally let me go after four months and said it was a mistake."

Dozens of men clustered around two ventilation shafts and a pump house, the floor of which was slick with engine oil from a wrecked generator.

A set of stairs led from the pump house down to an underground corridor that was filled with water.

"Some of these guys come up and tell us that they hear voices and stuff underground. But we can't get down there," said Staff Sgt. Theodore Church, 28, of South Point, Ohio. "It looks like the Iraqi government burned and flooded a lot of the underground floors before they left"

Ali Majid Khadun, 40, said he had entered the compound Friday and asked if anyone was alive inside.

"They said, `Yes, we are here. There are women and children here too.' But then it filled with water. We don't know what happened to them."

Another man said he had heard voices coming from underground earlier Saturday morning.

"They said, `Four of us have already died,' " said Ghanen Saleh, 30.

After the soldiers left, hundreds of men and women resumed their roaming through the compound's buildings.

"Please tell the Americans to send the FBI or the CIA to investigate this place," one man pleaded.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-PRISON