Marines free 123 from Iraq hellhole

Iraq – The Aftermath

FOR three days, American tanks have been shelling a military intelligence building in the posh Al-Khathamia area in west Baghdad.

The dozen or so tanks are not here to pound intransigent fighters but to break down concrete beams and steel, to reach bunkers deep underground at the Al-Istikhbarat Al-‘Askariya facility.

The Marines found 123 prisoners, including five women, barely alive in an underground warren of cells and torture chambers.

Being trapped underground probably kept them safe from the bombing of Baghdad by the coalition.

Severely emaciated, some had survived by eating the scabs off their sores. All the men had beards down to their waists, said onlookers.

Most looked absolutely dazed when they emerged, said Mr Sadoun Mohamed, 37, who lives in the area.

‘They had not seen sunlight for a long time,’ he said. ‘They kept blinking and covering their faces.’ He said they were taken to the Saddam Hospital for treatment.

Their names were posted on the walls of the Al-Hajabehia Mosque in west Baghdad, as were names of some 40 others known to have been executed or murdered in prison.

Hundreds of anxious locals wait for word of their family, relatives and friends, some of whom were taken away more than 10 years ago.

Outside Al-Istikhbarat Al-‘Askariya, Mr Sadeq Al Saeed, 24, a construction worker, has been waiting sleepless for the last 36 hours. He said he had heard the facility had five levels below ground.

He said his father, an Iraqi army captain, was killed in 1991 during the first Gulf War, and his cousins Amer and Jasem and some 50 others were picked out by the secret police for chanting anti-Saddam slogans during the funeral procession.

‘That was the last I saw of them,’ he said.

‘In the night, people raided their houses, blindfolded them and took them away.’

He hopes against hope that the Marines will be able to find his cousins, who were brought here to be interrogated.

This hellhole is believed to be one of many for Iraq’s political prisoners. Thousands may still be behind bars though the regime released many criminals from prisons before the war.

The United States soldiers at Al-Istikhbarat Al-‘Askariya would not say what they were doing there. Their tanks blocked the entrance.

This place could be part of the labyrinth of underground facilities which might still shelter regime members.

Under one palace, a German-designed 1,900 sq m bunker was built at a cost of US$90 million (S$160 million) with luxurious accommodation for the Iraqi President, his family, their bodyguards and staff.

More than 24 bunkers were identified 12 years ago. There may be more now, located under schools, hospitals, even mosques, and linked together.

The security police, or Da’irat Al-Mukhabbarat Al-‘Amma; Iraqi Intelligence Service; and military intelligence, also built cells and tunnels underground.

Taxi driver Hathem Ejam, 36, said Mr Saddam’s older son Uday, also used them for his harem discards.

Relaying widely-believed rumours, he said: ‘He would pick any young girl he liked from the street, rape her, shave her head bald and then get his guards to dump her in an underground cell.’

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