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Iraqi citizens search for traces of long-arrested family members

NASIRIYAH, Iraq—Hassan Ali Rasan has clawed for days in the rubble of the Detention and Security Center, searching for a piece of hope.

Amid twisted wire, bricks and unexploded rocket-propelled grenades, Rasan hunts for traces of his cousin Kasem, missing for 12 years since Saddam Hussein's agents paid him a visit when he was a student.

"He's an only child. His mother cries every time she thinks of him," explained Rasan, 25, a muscular ex-soldier who on Sunday patiently picked through documents and files that litter the crumbled torture chamber, blitzed by U.S. warplanes two weeks ago.

From Baghdad to Basra, thousands of Iraqis are flooding into the houses of horror that Saddam's Baath regime built. Most are searching for traces of long-lost loved ones among the ruins of jails and police stations.

Others have forlorn hopes of finding family members still alive in dungeons rumored to be underneath police stations and other Baathist buildings.

"We are looking for underground cells and people who are lost," trader Hassan Abd El Salem, 43, said matter-of-factly after he sifted through dusty sheaths of documents picked from the rubble. "We have family who have disappeared, and we must find them."

"This is happening all over Iraq," said Zaab Sethna, a senior adviser to Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress.

"People are trying to find a sense of closure for the loss of fathers and brothers. It's a big issue. There are so many people missing."

Under the Baath regime, Iraq had one of the world's highest rates of politically motivated disappearances, according to human rights groups. Thousands of Iraqis were picked up from mosques, schools and markets simply for their religious views or reluctance to obey the Baath Party.

Families who tried to get information from Iraqi officials about the fates of loved ones were usually unsuccessful.

Court proceedings were closed, files sealed. No lawyers represented those charged. Forced confessions made imprisonment inevitable. With no information, many Iraqis refuse to believe their relatives are dead.

"We spent a lot of money to pay contacts and a lot of energy, and we still couldn't find him," said Rasan, referring to his cousin who was picked up in 1991 for his alleged role in a Shiite uprising against Saddam.

"But there's still a small chance he's alive."

Probably, he's not, Rasan knows.

"It's better to find the body than nothing at all," said Rasan before returning to his rubble sifting.

The Detention and Security Center, an outpost of the Iraqi secret police, was a jail into which many disappeared—or nearly did.

Sheik Lami Abbas al Ajali, 56, knows what that meant. In 1996, he was detained in this jail for his suspected involvement in an Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim religious party called Duaa.

On Saturday, he came back for the first time since he was handcuffed and hung from a metal hook in the ceiling.

"They electric shocked me everywhere, even in my genitals," said the white-turbaned cleric.

He walked among cells scarcely larger than walk-in-closets that still carried the scent of urine. More than 20 prisoners were crammed into each cell, said al Ajali and other victims who visited the jail.

Al Ajali was sent back and forth between this jail and a prison in Baghdad, where he also was tortured. His eight children and wife had no idea where he was for three months. Al Ajali survived, he said, by "thinking of God."

"I'm happy that this jail has been destroyed," he said.

He's one of the lucky ones. Hussein Aboud Achmed Salim was sentenced to death in September 1997 about six months after he was arrested on charges of being a member of the Duaa Party, according to a prison file.

An order went out to "seize all his money according to Revolution Law # 232 considering his crime, normal treason with dishonor."

In May 1998, records indicate, Salim's sister learned that her brother was being detained and wrote his jailers to ask why.

"We all stand under the flag of God and the leading president Saddam Hussein," she pleaded.

Two months later she got a reply: Her brother has been arrested. No charges were listed. There was no mention of the death sentence.

Among the recovered files was a confession.

"We actually did attack the voting centers in Saddam's elections," he wrote. "I gave each of the 3 people 2000 dinars and an 8.5 mm (pistol) and we killed Baath official Ibrahim Jabar Zamel."

The file also included a document signed by a Latif Khalaf Tatoum Shamin, a high school classmate who, like Salim, had joined the Duaa Party.

Shamin fingered Salim to Iraqi authorities. It was unclear why.

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

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