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Iraqis recount torture they endured at hands of Saddam

BAGHDAD, Iraq—You can find just about anything at the Baab al Sharjee market in the center of Baghdad. Air conditioners, electric fans, radios, satellite dishes. And short videos that chronicle the torture chambers of Saddam Hussein.

One video—"Saddam's Crimes and His Followers: Mukhabarat Torturing"—shows men lying on the ground as their legs are tied to a stick in the air. They writhe in pain as military officers whip the soles of their bare feet. Another shows a grenade being strapped to the chest of a blindfolded man. A few minutes later, he's blown up.

"Thousands of people have bought them," said Taha Adnan, 16, a vendor in the market.

The world long has known that Saddam used chemical weapons against the Kurds and brutally repressed Shiite Muslims, has known of his secret police and torture chambers. But until his regime disintegrated in the face of a U.S. onslaught, it seldom heard the cries of his victims or their survivors.

Now they are starting to tell their stories.

Basima Hamid last saw her husband, Naser al Saadi, one morning in 1999. He left to visit his family, and when he arrived, the Iraqi Intelligence Service was waiting at the house and arrested him. His crime: studying to be a sheik. For years, Hamid wondered if he was alive. One of Naser's older brothers has been missing since 1982.

When Baghdad fell April 9, the family contacted the Committee of Free Iraqi Prisoners, a group founded by former prisoners. The organization has scoured documents retrieved from intelligence offices and has posted lists of thousands of names of those executed by the regime.

Hamid learned that her husband was lynched at 2 p.m. on Aug. 9, 2000, at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison. U.S. forces discovered 993 unmarked graves at the prison; her husband's body was in Number 860. The family found his bones and reburied them in Najaf, a city that's holy for Shiite Muslims.

"Please, find out all of Saddam's crimes and let the whole world know about the reality of Saddam," said Hamid, who's still wearing black mourning clothes and raising two young sons. "He is the evilest man that I ever saw."

Hamid would like to see Saddam captured and brought to a trial.

"They should cut out his tongue, cut off his ears, so that he feels pain," said Hamid, dark eyes flashing with anger. "Everything that he did to us should be done to him."

Naser Kasem was 29 when he got fed up with the Iraqi military and the beatings that came with service. So he deserted. The police picked him up at a checkpoint in Karbala.

He was dragged from a small, pitch-black concrete cell every two hours and taken to a torture room. There, he said, a man would crank up a small generator as another man got the wires ready. They shocked the bottoms of his feet and made him clutch the live wire with his hands. They poured molten plastic on his feet and pushed lit cigarettes into his flesh. They beat him with a stick and with an electrified rod.

Two hours later, he was taken back to his cell for two hours of sobbing, and then the police returned to give him some more. Then came two years in jail.

The other men in the room looked away, or down at the ground. Asked what he did when he finally got out of jail, Kasem shrugged. He went back into the military, he said. What else was there to do?

Abbas Fadel, a large, muscular man, has a picture of his brother Ali hanging from a nail in front of his small grocery store in southeast Baghdad. The inscription under Ali Fadel's face reads, "He was arrested by the criminal Saddam Hussein."

"I couldn't show it to people in the past because of the regime," Fadel said. "Now I hang it up to show respect."

Ali Fadel was arrested and then killed in 1983—hanged in prison—for no apparent crime other than reading in a library.

Police found anti-Saddam graffiti on a wall near where Ali had been studying and rounded up more than 25 people who had been seen there that day. Someone had written, "Saddam is a coward. Saddam has no honor."

There was no proof that Ali was involved, but the police wrote in their report that he was a Shiite Muslim, and that, Abbas Fadel said, was enough. The family never got his body back, and is still making trips to mass graves in hopes of finding his bones.

Capt. John Morgan, a spokesman for the U.S. Army's V Corps, said it would be impossible to calculate the damage Saddam wrought to his people. The psychological effects, he said, will be felt for generations. Each new report of mass graves, or the revelation that athletes were tortured in a chamber under the Olympic stadium, turns his stomach.

"That is the kind of guy Saddam Hussein was. He took his Olympic athletes and if they didn't perform, he tortured them," Morgan said. "This one place where there was an olive branch to reach out to other nations, he tainted that."

Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, the former head of coalition troops in Baghdad, recently called Saddam Iraq's biggest weapon of mass destruction.

Hussein Abed Ali's only crimes were being a Shiite and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was 16 in 1991 when Iraqi police arrested him and 60 neighbors and accused them of participating in anti-Saddam uprisings. Held in captivity for 45 days, he was the only one who came home.

"We were terrified. We nearly died of fear," Ali said. "We were just waiting to be killed."

Ali can't forget the first time he saw a man murdered. Hours after he'd been arrested, a local Baath Party leader came to check on the prisoners and noticed that two of the men had been shot. He pulled out his own handgun.

"He said, 'How are these dogs still alive? They should have been dead a long time ago.' And he pulled out a pistol and he shot them both in the forehead. He enjoyed killing people," Ali said.

Ali saw men beaten to death with pipes. One man who dared ask, "Why are you doing this to me?" had his hands cut off before he was shot in the head. His torturer said, "This is how people are treated when they go against Saddam."

"I could see it in other people's eyes. They died of fear before the bullet or the pipe got them," Ali said. "I was 16 years old and afraid to die, but I was just waiting my turn."

Ali went days without eating, and learned not to trust prison food when a rare meal left a handful of other prisoners with fatal diarrhea. A so-called "investigation" into the prisoners' actions ended with at least one man crucified.

Ali was lucky: They let him go home.

"For every 100 people, they let one person go, to tell the people of the city what happened to the rest," he said.

Ali was arrested a second time a year later and held for more than two years but, again, managed to survive. He described the tortures during his second incarceration—the beatings with electrical cables, the day his feet were pounded with bats and his toenails were pulled out—in a low, matter-of-fact voice.

He's 29 now, an electrician and a volunteer at the cultural center in Musayeb, where the bodies from mass graves are counted and the families of missing persons come searching.

"I help them find the people who weren't so lucky like me," Ali said. "If it weren't for God, maybe my family would be looking for me now."