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Tens of thousands of Iraqis have disappeared without a trace

BAGHDAD, Iraq—When her heart is heaviest, Sahira Kereem tries to think of the little things her husband did that annoyed her. She remembers times when she suggested they visit her parents, and he just rolled his eyes.

The mental trick rarely brings her comfort. The fact remains that Riyadh Juma Saleh, her husband of nearly 15 years, went missing one day nearly three years ago and Kareem has no idea what became of him.

Over the past four years, as sectarian kidnappings and killings have gripped Iraq and U.S. forces have arrested untold numbers in an effort to pacify the country, tens of thousands of Iraqis have vanished, often in circumstances as baffling as that of Kereem's husband, a Shiite Muslim father of three.

There's no accurate count of the missing since the war began. Iraqi human rights groups put the figure at 15,000 or more, while government officials say 40 to 60 people disappeared each day throughout the country for much of last year, a rate equal to at least 14,600 in one year.

What happened to them is a frustrating mystery that compounds Iraq's overwhelming sense of chaos and anarchy. Are they dead? Were they kidnapped or killed in some mass bombing? Is the Iraqi government or some militia group holding them? Were they taken prisoner by the United States, which is holding 19,000 Iraqis at its two main detention centers, at Camp Cropper and Camp Bucca?

Since her husband disappeared with his taxicab on July 30, 2004, Kereem has made countless inquiries at hospitals, police stations, morgues and missing-persons centers throughout Baghdad. No record of him has turned up.

"My husband was a very simple, straightforward fellow," said Kereem, 32, as she fought back tears during a recent interview in a Baghdad hotel. "He had no affiliations. He was an ordinary Iraqi man."

In Saddam Hussein's time, secret arrests and detentions were widespread, although families rarely dared to investigate. "If a person went missing, it was best not to draw attention to the fact, as it could affect the entire family," said Fadhil Abdul Zahra, a spokesman for the human rights committee of Iraq's parliament.

These days, U.S. and Iraqi forces maintain a prisoner database that's available to Iraqi citizens. Military officials admit that the database is incomplete, but they say that unlisted prisoners in American custody don't account for many of the missing Iraqis.

In February, nearly 3,000 families visited the National Iraqi Assistance Center, a U.S. military-run office in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, to search the prison records for missing relatives. That was more than three times the number from a year earlier, the center's director said.

Few families find satisfaction there. Fewer than 3 out of 10 inquiries find a prisoner. Inquiries with Iraqi authorities are also usually fruitless. "Unfortunately, the number of the names found is much smaller than the number of those not found," Zahra said.

Kereem described Saleh, a broad-shouldered 44-year-old, as the love of her life. He'd met her right after completing military service, when she was a shy teenager with fair skin and brown hair that cascaded down her back. They were married right away and had a son and two daughters.

Shortly before he disappeared, they'd celebrated their 12th wedding anniversary with a small party at her sister's home. Baghdad was quieter then, and that night they stayed out until a quarter past 2 in the morning, drinking and dancing.

A few days later, he didn't come to pick her up after a wedding and failed to turn up at their home in the Zafaraniya section of southeastern Baghdad. She and several relatives fanned out to hospitals and police stations, and later to the missing persons office in the Green Zone, in a desperate search that grew more frantic each week.

"It became like any job," she said. "Twice a day to look in the hospitals, twice a day in the morgue."

As Baghdad became more violent, the numbers of the missing mounted, and Kereem began to think that Saleh had been carjacked and left for dead somewhere. Three times, she watched as armed men commandeered passing cars, dragged the drivers into the street, shot them dead and drove off.

Her children became inconsolable. Once, a distant relative greeted her and asked, "Is there any news about Saleh, Allah yirhama?" The phrase translates to "God have mercy on his soul," and it's usually used to refer to the deceased.

"Why did she say that?" one of Kereem's daughters screamed. "Is he dead?"

Money became tight. Saleh had a second job as a government security guard, and a co-worker brought Kereem his paychecks for a few months. But a supervisor put a stop to that eventually. Kereem was forced to move the family to her parents' cramped home, where they sleep under a makeshift shelter on the roof.

A few months ago, through a family connection, she met an Iraqi who worked for the U.S. military at Camp Cropper, near Baghdad's airport. He offered to look secretly for Saleh's name on the roster of some 2,000 prisoners.

In dozens of visits to the Green Zone she'd never found Saleh on any list, but when this man entered her husband's name, he told Kereem, five matches appeared.

The family was skeptical, but the man wasn't asking for any money. Kereem asked him to enter Saleh's license plate number, in case he'd been arrested with his car. Several days later the word came: There was a match. There was reason to think that Saleh was at Cropper.

For now, however, there's nothing the family can do to confirm this. U.S. officials in the Green Zone continue to tell Kereem that coalition forces aren't holding Saleh.

Lt. Col. Kathy Brill, the director of the National Iraqi Assistance Center, said many families told stories of relatives who they believed were imprisoned but who weren't in the database. The military stands by the database, she said.

"If they got that information from someone inside the system, that person isn't authorized to do that, so you have to wonder about where that information came from," Brill said. "I guess it's possible, but I'm not aware of any programs that keep some people out of the database."

Every day, dozens of families line up at the center, a collection of slate-gray trailers inside a fortified blast wall. They clutch the photographs and identification papers of their loved ones. There's a quiet solidarity among these broken families.

Kereem watched once as security guards turned away a frail woman in her 60s from entering the center, apparently for not having the proper identification. The woman, who was holding a cheap homemade sack, broke down in tears as she told the guards she was looking for her son.

Kereem asked for the son's papers so that she could look for him in the system. The guards wouldn't allow it—only immediate family members can search the records, they said—and the woman was left outside in the sun, alone.

"I am consoled by this," Kereem said, "because when I go and I ask and I look, I find that so many other people's tragedies are worse than mine."

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(McClatchy special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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