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Iraqis' Lives Changed in Many Ways Since Saddam Fall - 2004-03-16

In the year since the U.S.-led coalition moved into Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein from power, the lives of all Iraqis have changed in many ways - some for the better, and some for the worse.

As the war raged in and around Baghdad, U.S. bombers targeted a suspected Saddam Hussein hideout in an upscale neighborhood of the capital. The bomb destroyed two homes, but Saddam Hussein was not there.

It was April 7, a day that shattered Abdel Maciah Salem Shaker's world. "Ten minutes before the bombing, I was there. But I went out, because I was defending the country. I had my duty as a volunteer," he said.

Mr. Shaker heard the explosion. A few minutes later, a friend came to tell him his house had been bombed. "My wife and two children and my wife's niece and four guests we had also with us," he said. "They came looking for a safe place during the war. They were killed at that time."

Ironically, the house did not belong to Mr. Shaker. It belonged to his boss. "It wasn't my home. It was my boss' home. So when he traveled outside Iraq before the war, he gave me the keys to this house to live inside, to be safe and more secure than my house," he said.

Mr. Shaker worked as a liquor salesman before the war. A year later, he has no job. His boss never returned, and he is still too shaken to look for work.

Mr. Shaker says he never went back to his own home. He could not bear to see his family's belongings there.

Nearly a year later, the bomb crater has been filled in, but the gap remains between the houses on this quiet street. "Sometimes, I'm coming every day, or every week. Sometimes when I remember my family, I'm coming by," he said.

Mr. Shaker does not really know where else to go.

But for many other Iraqis, the ouster of Saddam Hussein has provided new opportunities.

Thirty-four-year-old Shi'ite Muslim Abdel Fatah al Idrissy says the coalition invasion gave him a new purpose in life. He lost dozens of members of his extended family to Saddam's executioners during the 1980s, when the Iraqi ruler killed any suspected supporters of the Shi'ite leadership of neighboring Iran.

Soon after Saddam Hussein's ouster, former Iraqi prisoners created a center and collected tens of thousands of documents from secret police files listing names of ordinary Iraqis who disappeared into Saddam's jails, never to be seen again.

Mr. Idrissy says he gave up his job in the textile business to help his brother run the center, which is staffed by volunteers. "We lost the flower, the sweetest days of my youth under Saddam Hussein regime," he said. "So what's the benefit from living now with good money or work? No, we have to help those people who suffered too much to know if their cousins, father are alive or not, executed or not."

In the early days after the center opened last April, thousands of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and other relatives crowded into rooms seeking information about their loved ones from bags and boxes stuffed with documents. He says it was pretty chaotic.

Today the search is more organized. Volunteers have been compiling a computerized database. Several branch offices have been set up across the country, so people do not have to travel to Baghdad for help.

Mr. Idrissy says the center has helped tens of thousands of Iraqis find out what happened to their loved ones. But he says it will take years to finish the job.

"Under Saddam Hussein's regime, there were 250,000 people working in the security services to just arrange these files. That was their work. So we are individuals. We can't finish all that work in a few months or a year. We just finished maybe 10 percent of the total," he said.

No matter, says Mr. Idrissy. He is prepared to donate as much of his time as he can for as long as it takes to complete the job.

Like many Iraqis, Mr. Idrissy is trying to find a way to deal with his country's brutal past, and to help shape Iraq's future.