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Thousands of Iraqis Vanished into Saddam Hussein's Prisons - 2003-04-30

Now that the war is over and Saddam Hussein is out of power, Iraqis are seeking news of loved ones arrested by Saddam's regime. Many people are flocking to mosques and to a newly-formed Committee of Free Prisoners. American officials believe some of the information being gathered by the volunteer committee could be used as evidence in a future war crimes trial. Iraqis line up every day at the front door of a sandy cement house on the banks of the Tigris River. Before the war, the house belonged to a senior official of the ruling Baath Party. Now it is the headquarters of the Committee of Free Prisoners.

Men, women and young people hand in slips of paper with the names of a father, brother or son, mother, sister or cousin who was taken to prison and never seen again.

A volunteer inside says the group has registered more than 40,000 names in the past two weeks.

The committee was formed after the ouster of Saddam Hussein by former prisoners, who retrieved more than one million files containing the names of hundreds of thousands of prisoners and information about what happened to them.

Some lists are taped to the wall outside, with names and dates of execution.

Two of Radia Mahdi's sons, Bashir and Kadim, were arrested in 1981 within six months of each other. Four days ago, she found Kadim's name on one of the lists. "I found his name on the list," she said. "He was executed in 1984, so I'm asking in what cemetery he was buried. Nobody gives an answer."

Mrs. Mahdi said Kadim was 21 years old when he was arrested. He was going to be a medical doctor. She said special security forces surrounded the house and took him. "At the time, my husband was begging the security people," she said. "They told him they will bring [Kadim] back after five minutes only."

She never saw him again. Mrs. Mahdi is still searching for any news of her other son, Bashir, who was only 20 when security forces snatched him from the Baghdad university where he studied. "We want our sons," she said. "I want to know their fate. I want to see his body. I want to see his grave."

Mrs. Mahdi, dressed in a long black robe, her head covered by a flowing black headscarf, said her sons were members of the outlawed Islamic Dawa Party, which had ties to Iran.

Saddam Hussein rounded up thousands of Shiite Muslims linked to the party after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran brought Shiite Muslim clerics to power there. Saddam waged war against Iran for most of the 1980s.

Another woman in the crowd, Halima Hamas, said her husband was not involved in politics at all. His only crime, she said, was stealing spare parts for his car. She said a neighbor turned him in. Her husband was arrested in 1991, and she had no news of him until four years later when another prisoner was released and told her he had seen him.

Mrs. Hamas expected her husband to return home, but he never did. "I was so happy [to] know that my husband was alive, so [now] after one or two years going, I've been disappointed," she said.

Her son, only a baby when his father was taken, is now 13 years old. Mrs. Hamas said he wants answers, too. "I want to know anything about my husband," she said. "Is he dead or alive?"

It may take years to find an answer for Mrs. Hamas and Mrs. Mahdi, and hundreds of thousands like them who want to know what happened to their loved ones.

U.S. Army Captain John Brownlee said U.S. officials want some answers, too. His troops have moved hundreds of files to a guarded warehouse after committee members requested their help. The committee was afraid former Baath Party officials, who could be incriminated by the evidence, would try to destroy the files.

"The reason we had taken the documents is to secure them in a better location, as opposed to this building, which is hard to secure," said Captain Brownlee. "The other reason is the sheer volume of the amount of information they have. It could be Iraqis, Kuwaitis - even, our concern, Americans as well as the other Iraqis, and this becomes evidence for war crimes trials for people who have committed these wrongs."

Iraqi medical doctor Ahmed al Attar, himself a former prisoner, wants the documents kept to bear witness to what he called the evils of Saddam Hussein's regime. "We want these documents to reflect the history of the nation, the history of the people who struggled against Saddam Hussein, the history of the people who killed and [who] met with death under Saddam Hussein," he said. "That is important to give a view to the world of our nation, our struggling, our blood, our killers."

Any "day of judgment" for those who committed crimes during Saddam's reign is still far away. For now, Iraqis like Halima Hamas and Radia Mahdi just want to know what happened to their loved ones, so they can put the past to rest and achieve some peace of mind.