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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 2 April, 2003, 09:38 GMT 10:38 UK
Grim clues to police station's past
By Tom Newton Dunn
In Abu al Khasib, in southern Iraq with 40 Commando

Corporal Dominic Conway
Cpl Conway: It was a horrible gruesome place
Their faces stared up at me in black and white, snap shots of individual lives frozen in time.

Dozens and dozens of Iraqi national identity cards were spread across the chief of police's abandoned large oak desk.

All of them were men, aged between around 20 and 50 - people's sons, husbands, brothers, or fathers.

In Saddam Hussein's Iraq, it is a crime not to carry these identity cards wherever you go, a crime punishable by imprisonment.

We stopped to think why these dozens of men did not need their ID cards anymore.

A young Royal Marine found them in a large bundle tied roughly with string during a search of Abu al Khasib's police station on Tuesday afternoon, in one of the police chief's bottom draws gathering dust.

ID cards
You say bad words about Saddam, they take you in there and you never come out
Dofia Abdullah
It almost looked like his own sick personal collection.

It had taken 13 hours of constant fighting by the marines of 40 Commando with the help of two squadrons of tanks to take this town on Sunday, a key strategic suburb of Basra.

But though the regime's men who ran it on Saturday have now disappeared, their legacy of terror very much remains.

The commandos and I knew there was something strange about the police station as we approached it.

Fortified by sand bags, the grim-looking two-storey concrete block was one of only two buildings in the town locals did not to want to go into to loot, along with the Baath Party's abandoned local headquarters.

Neither did any of the small quiet crowd who had gathered in the street to watch the men from Alpha Company force entry into it want to tell us anything about it.

Instead, they just looked at their shoes when we tried to ask.

Only after darkness fell did a man in his 30s approach the gates of 40 Commando's new headquarters in an old Iraqi army barracks on the town's outskirts.

Giving his name as Dofia Abdullah, and saying he had important information, he said: "The Baath Party were bad people, they used to hurt people inside the police station.

"You say bad words about Saddam, they take you in there and you never come out.

"Everybody also knew not to ask what happen to them there, then they disappear too.

"The Mukhabarat, they work in there also."


We still cannot say for sure until more town's people are ready and brave enough to come forward and testify about their former oppressors.

But everything we saw inside that building suggested it was not really a house of law and order at all, but used to torture possibly hundreds of local civilians.

Evidence of torture
Electrocution is not only incredibly painful, but also very frightening
Royal Marine officer

The unsurprising presence of the dreaded Mukhabarat in the police station is another grim clue.

It is by far the most infamous of Saddam Hussein's internal security services.

With its sole aim being to protect the dictator's political power base since he "assumed" power in July 1979, the Mukhabarat controlled towns and cities with a reign of unbridled violence and terror.

The vast majority of its 9,000 personnel are relatives of Saddam, members of his Al-Bu Nasser tribe, or come from towns close to his birth place, Tikrit, in north-central Iraq's 'Sunni Arab Triangle'.

And in the rebellious south of Iraq populated by the persecuted Shiite Muslims and Marsh Arabs, the Mukhabarat's rule was all the more oppressive.

As we entered, there were few clues to initially betray what really went on there.

The row of empty offices contained file upon file in Arabic we could not read, but we perhaps naively just put those down to routine police records.

Filthy cells

Then, at almost the end of the long building's left corridor, we found the first cell.

A damp, eight foot by four foot hole with no natural or artificial light in it at all, and just a soiled pillow and filthy blanket on the floor for furniture.

Abandoned cell
Local people are reluctant to talk about the station
It was the first of six just like it, some bigger, some even smaller, sealed by bolts from the outside attached to heavy metal or steel cage doors, and all of them disgustingly filthy.

They also all stank terribly of ageing faeces, urine and sweat.

Spatters of dark liquid left stains down several walls, but they were too dirty and old for us to tell whether the liquid was blood.

In another cell, a meat hook hung from the ceiling, and in another a discarded thick line of hose pipe sat idle on the floor, with no water taps for it to attach to anywhere in sight.

Only one, the biggest, had the very roughest approximation of a toilet in it, a squat hole in the ground that judging by the dark, putrid gunge over-flowing from it had not been flushed in months.

And in a side annex we almost missed, obscured from view from the building's front and with all its window spaces filled with breeze-blocks, was a far larger cell with single and solitary iron bed frame in the middle of it.

Upstairs we found more offices, most cluttered with old green uniforms, half eaten plates of freshly cooked food, and boxes of grenades and other heavy ammunition.

One contained a locked armoury the marines shot open to reveal a huge stash of AK47s, RPGs and spare missile rounds - far too much weaponry needed just to police a normal civilian population.

But the last room we saw upstairs, again at the end of a corridor, initially left us totally bewildered.

Electric shock

Unlike every other room on the second floor, it was empty, apart from two old rubber car tyres and a long electric cable lead attached to the mains supply, and still live.

The room's likely purpose was explained later, after we had asked around the Commando for a bit, by a Royal Marine officer who had spent some time in the Balkans on UN service.

He said: "Two tyres and an electric cable is something we came across a lot in Bosnia.

"The interrogator would stand on them while prodding the captive with the live cable so his own feet were insulated from the high voltage by the rubber.

Primitive maybe, but a pretty effective and recognised form of torture in a lot of Third World countries.

"Electrocution is not only incredibly painful, but also very frightening, and the interrogators usually get more out of the shock effect of it rather than the actual pain the burns cause."

The officer is usually more than happy to talk to me on the record but this time he did not want to have to explain what he had seen of torture and never revealed to his wife back home.

After two hours inside the police station we were all more than happy to leave.

The search had produced a good find of detailed maps of possible secret paramilitary strongholds.

The normally jovial and chatty troop of commandos filed out and blocked the police station's doors in total silence.

Very little was said on the 30 minute patrol back to base.

For once, each man seemed to prefer to be alone with his thoughts.

Supervising the search, Royal Marine Corporal Dominic Conway, 28, from Newcastle, said later: "It was a horrible, gruesome place and I didn't like it one little bit.

"They weren't policemen in there, not like we understand the term.

"They weren't even animals, because animals aren't that cruel".

One image of anywhere you have been or whatever you have done normally sticks with you.

For me, I think I will always remember Abu al Khasib by that pile of now unused ID cards.

If their owners were murdered at the torturous hands of the cruel Mukhabarat, I just hope their families were allowed the final dignity of having their bodies returned so they could be buried.

Sadly, I do not think that is very likely.

  • This is pooled copy from Tom Newton Dunn, of the Daily Mirror.

    The BBC's Clive Myrie
    "Hooks hang from the ceilings"

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