Fri, Jul 11, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Vigilantes hunt informants for old regime

ON THE WRONG SIDE Millions of documents found after the fall of Saddam Hussein identify those who informed on their friends, relatives and colleagues


Piles of documents, more than 8 million of them, fill a room in the Committee of Free Prisoners in Baghdad, Iraq, on Wednesday.


Mahdi Saleh has been looking over his shoulder for weeks, ever since his name began popping up in red graffiti threatening death for the tens of thousands of informants former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his Baath party relied on to enforce a maniacal control over Iraq's population.

"With the blessing of God, we will start the campaign to execute the Baathist monkeys," reads the Arabic scrawled on a wall in Baghdad's Aden Square. A short distance away, the warning continues with a list of several names, including Saleh's.

"These are the criminal traitors," it says.

Tens of thousands of people like Saleh have gone into hiding or are watching their backs since the fall of the regime in April. Hundreds have been killed by vigilantes taking revenge.

At Saleh's pharmacy, his wife, Nisreen, sits behind the counter waiting for customers in the afternoon heat. She insists he never informed for Saddam's regime and says she doesn't know who wrote the graffiti or who would want to hurt her husband.

"My husband is a good man and everybody loves him," says Nisreen, who is five months pregnant with the couple's fifth child. "People see that we are well off and we do not need the help of others, so they envy us and try to write these things because there is no government."

Saleh, a former mid-level Baathist official in Baghdad, has not gone into hiding, but he is rarely seen in the streets. Residents of his community say he was an informant.

In the days after the fall of Baghdad, looters gutted Saddam's Mukhabarat secret intelligence service, as well as the local Baath party offices where many informants' names were kept. Piles of intelligence files on those jailed, tortured and executed by Saddam have been returned to victims or their survivors. Many include the names of friends, colleagues, teachers -- even relatives -- that spied for the regime.

The question of how to punish such a large portion of the populace is a difficult one. Some informed to get ahead, some for the money and others because it was the only way to survive. Some have suggested a truth and reconciliation commission could help Iraq get over its bloody past. Certainly, there are not enough jails to punish everyone.

At the Committee of Free Prisoners, an independent group representing Iraqis arrested under Saddam's regime, workers are sifting through 8 million secret government files found in the basement of a shopping center shortly after Baghdad fell.

The group's director general, Abul-Fattah al-Edreesy, says the committee is making a list of informants' names but will not release them for fear of a bloodbath.

"Our goal is to rebuild Iraq, not tear it down," said al-Edreesy, who was jailed and tortured in 1986, when he was just 16. "We don't want to act like animals. We will turn the names over to an elected Iraqi government."

The aging documents, many detailing interrogations and executions, are piled chest high in room after room of the committee's offices. Each tells a story of betrayal and brutality. In one, a man informs on his brother, who is later executed. In another, 49 Shiite Muslims accused of membership in a banned group are put to death on the word of a single, unnamed informant.

The UN is investigating the alleged killings of at least 300,000 Iraqis during Saddam's 23-year reign. It will never be known exactly how many people informed on their countrymen, but Iraqis say they felt the regime had eyes everywhere.

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