BAGHDAD, Iraq—In a city where marauding mobs have carried off everything from furniture to priceless cultural artifacts, one building seems oddly untouched, at least by looters.
It's Iraq's Directorate of Special Security, or secret police headquarters, the one place in Saddam Hussein's Iraq that people who spoke against him or his government tended to visit. Many people were held there during investigations and proceedings or were incarcerated there after receiving sentences for criticizing the regime.
Located in a heavily fortified compound in eastern Baghdad, the directorate was battered by U.S. bombs during the war. Some of the buildings in the 100-plus-acre compound seem structurally unsafe.
But the Marines, who arrived here in the early moments of their incursion into Baghdad last week, are standing guard, trying to keep the headquarters' vast archive of paperwork safe so that someday Iraqis might better understand what happened in their country, and perhaps track people who were forcibly arrested and never heard from again. The collection of records in the directorate's headquarters includes many politically motivated court rulings.
Marines from the 1st Regiment, which controls eastern Baghdad and took over the complex a week ago, said it must have been empty when U.S. airplanes bombed it, because they found no one inside, dead or alive.
"There is one piece of paper I showed to an interpreter, and he said this is what we need to show the people," Lt. Tom Klysa of the Marines' 3rd Civil Affairs Group told journalists during a tour of the site.
One Iraqi Intelligence Service document, written in Arabic on official letterhead, detailed a case against an Iraqi citizen in 1988. The man had criticized Iraq's war against Iran and said the people should not have had to suffer for it because the war was between two leaders. The outcome of the case was not known.
The Marines also showed the inside of the adjoining prison where political prisoners were held, beaten and abused while Saddam's regime was in power. The grim 1-story building reportedly housed hundreds of prisoners. As many as 12 could be kept in one squalid, tiny cell on metal bunks without mattresses, according to reports.
Now metal bars separate the cells, each of which has a dilapidated bathroom with a sink and squat hole. The concrete walls are bare, except for some peeling paint, and fixtures are unrepaired. In some of the smaller cells, meals were delivered through a slot near the door.
"This was one of the most feared buildings in Baghdad," said Cpl. John Hoellwerth, a public affairs officer for the 1st Regiment. "There was a shadow of evil hanging over the whole place. This is the place where people disappeared to."
The ordeal of one such victim of the secret police, a woman identified only as Laila, is recounted in "A Book of Cruelty—An Attempt to Spoil What Has Remained of Your Lives" by Amer Badr Hassoun (Saudi Company of Research and Publications, 1994).
According to Hassoun's account, a young law professor was arrested for refusing to join the Baath Party. She was transferred from a Baghdad prison to a series of prisons in the north before ending up at the Baghdad security directorate. One of her torturers there was a former student who kicked her and administered electric shocks before killing a 13-year-old boy who was also a prisoner.
Now that they are free to speak, many Iraqis—particularly those not affiliated with the ruling Baath Party—tell similar stories of being rounded up, thrown in jail for challenging the regime and tortured.
Nearly every family has a tale, especially if they are repressed minorities such as the Shiite Muslims in the south or northern Kurds.
Mohsen Hasabballah, a sometime laborer and taxi driver in eastern Baghdad's Aloubiedi City, a largely Shiite slum, said he and his brother were imprisoned for speaking against Saddam. He said many Iraqis he knew had suffered similarly.
"Saddam jailed me for three years because I said bad things about him," Hasabballah said. "My brother was also put in jail. He just separated the whole family."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+SECRET