Iraqi bureaucracy of terror revealed

Coalition advances lead to opening of secret files and chambers of torture

War In Iraq

April 09, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BASRA, Iraq - In an empty interrogation room deep in the prison that was long this city's epicenter of fear, a man explained the purpose of two thick, black electrical cables that snaked through a high barred window.

"Here," he said, holding a cable to each ear, "and here," he said, holding them to his groin.

As the war slowly dismantles Saddam Hussein's elaborate bureaucracy of terror, the citizens of Iraq's second-largest city are beginning to glimpse the methods that gave him such effective control over a largely restive, resentful population in southern Iraq.

With British forces in control here for the second day, secret files that accumulated over the years in inaccessible offices are spilling from government buildings destroyed by American bombs. People are also seeing the small, cramped cells of prisons like the State Security Branch of Iraq's General Military Intelligence Service in Basra.

Behind the sand-colored concrete building on Al-Aroussa Street stands a series of cellblocks where hundreds of prisoners were processed, some held in an open red-wire cage with a channel running down the center of the cement floor where their excrement could be periodically hosed away.

Others were forced to lie on the floor of a dim corridor for weeks at a time with their hands chained behind their backs to a metal rail a few inches above the ground, according to survivors.

There were closet-sized isolation cells and larger communal cells where dozens of people lived for months crowded together.

As Basra began to recover yesterday, despite continued looting throughout the city, hundreds of residents gathered at the now-smoldering state security building.

"Thousands of people died here," said Ali Abu Hanief, who said he spent a year in the building's warren of underground cells, now dark and empty.

Many people picking through the piles of paper blowing around the building yesterday claimed the cells were occupied until just before the war. Some people arrived hoping to find long-missing relatives still imprisoned there. They left disappointed.

"Everyone of us has a friend or relative who came here," said Hanief. He said many never returned.

"Please tell the Americans to try to free them or at least tell us where they are," he said.

But it seems that few are likely to be found. Hanief and others said they believed many of the people who entered were executed and consigned to anonymous graves outside of town.

A document found on the grounds showed that of the 16 officers on duty at the prison in January 2000, the seven most senior were surnamed Tikriti, meaning they shared the same ancestral home as Saddam Hussein, around Tikrit, a town 100 miles north of Baghdad.

Bits of burned files and sheaves of paper collected around the nearby cells revealed a security network obsessed with Iran and the potential for a Shiite Islamic revolution in southern Iraq.

Many of the documents showed that people turned in their neighbors or even family members, though it is not clear whether they did so under duress, for a favor or through loyalty to the ruling Baath party.

A March 1999 document, handwritten by a confessor or informant on Military Intelligence letterhead, listed people known to have had Islamist leanings.

"Yatim Abdel Gabbar, a milk seller, lives in the house behind our house and he was always enthusiastic about starting an Islamic revolution," the handwritten document reads. The author also pointed to an uncle, saying, "Once I talked to him about this issue, and he was very enthusiastic about conducting destructive activities."

Hanief said he was arrested in 1993 because he was suspected of having traveled to the Iranian border. At first he was held in an isolation cell. Then he was told he was going to visit Colonel Mahdi. He said the colonel slowly got drunk with two subordinates before turning to the business of beating Hanief from midnight to about dawn.

His torture, which continued for a month, Hanief said, included whippings and being forced to stand naked outside in the cold winter air. Later, Hanief was transferred to a dark cell in the basement of the main building, where he spent the next year, he said, adding that there were thousands of prisoners kept underground.

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