After 9-11, as talk of war against Iraq picked up in Washington, the Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) became jittery. On Oct. 29, 2002, a memo from Directorate 14 (in charge of special operations and "wet work" like assassinations) reported that "one of our sources in the United States, with a high level of reliability, says the CIA and the so-called opposition have a joint plan to bring 'quislings' to Iraq from the north and south to gather information and await future missions. Our informant will be one of them." The memo suggests, disturbingly, that Saddam had a mole somewhere inside U.S. intelligence.
Did he? Might he still? As the CIA's legendary mole hunter James Jesus Angleton once said, espionage is a "wilderness of mirrors," not least within spy services themselves, so it is hard to know. IIS agents routinely recycled old newspaper clips from foreign media and passed them off as secret reports from "informants of high reliability." In a mid-2002 memo, the IIS chief reported that Saddam himself had ordered "a reassessment of our people abroad because information that the stations overseas send in are all in the public domain or from the media."
Like the Nazis and all good totalitarians, Saddam's Baathist henchmen kept records. Last week, at the Baghdad headquarters of the Mukhabarat, the secret police, an Iraqi man went up to photographers from NEWSWEEK and the Los Angeles Times carrying a bulging, grimy white rice sack. "Tell the world what happened here," he said. Inside were more than 200 cassette tapes, videos and passports, photographs and negatives, CDs and floppy disks, as well as a fat binder thick with documents addressed to the director general of the iraqi intelligence service.
The contents of the bag from the Mukhabarat do not reveal any smoking guns--no assassination plots against President George W. Bush or links to Al Qaeda or hidden locations of chemical or biological weapons. But the tapes and documents, as well as other Baath Party papers now coming to light, do offer fascinating evidence of the ways Saddam ruled by torture and terror, how bungling and inept his regime could be, and why his evil empire was rotten at the core.
While NEWSWEEK's Melinda Liu was analyzing the IIS documents in Baghdad, Rod Nordland was piecing together another part of the Saddam story from both Baath Party documents and interviews in the southern city of Basra. One former prisoner he talked to, Anwar Abdul Razak, remembers when a surgeon kissed him on each cheek, said he was sorry and cut his ears off. Razak, then 21 years old, had been swept up during one of Saddam Hussein's periodic crackdowns on deserters from the Army. Razak says he was innocently on leave at the time, but no matter; he had been seized by some Baath Party members who earned bounties for catching Army deserters. At Basra Hospital, Razak's ears were sliced off without painkillers. He said he was thrown into jail with 750 men, all with bloody stumps where their ears had been. "They called us Abu [Arabic for father] Earless," recalls Razak, whose fiancee left him because of his disfigurement.
No one is sure how many men were mutilated during that particular spasm of terror, but from May 17 to 19, 1994, all the available surgeons worked shifts at all of Basra's major hospitals, lopping off ears. (One doctor who refused was shot.) Today, Dr. Jinan al-Sabagh, an administrator at Basra Teaching Hospital, insists that the victims numbered only "70 or 80," but he'd prefer not to talk about it. He says the ear-chopping stopped before his own surgery rotation came up. "I want to forget about all this. I vowed I would never do it. I said I am a surgeon, not a butcher," he told NEWSWEEK. He may be forced to remember. At Baath Party headquarters in Basra, once secret documents are floating around the trashed courtyard. They include receipts of sums paid to party thugs who rounded up Army deserters for a fee.
America wants to bring liberty and democracy to Iraq. But first the Iraqis will have to come to terms with the legacy of fear Saddam created, and regain the humanity that was frightened and beaten out of them by three decades of grotesque misrule. No wonder Iraqi looters torched and sacked the National Library and stole their nation's antiquities from the National Museum. They had lived all or most of their lives in a world where neighbors informed on each other for cash; where torturers multiplied their salaries each time they --extracted a confession; where police made only $4 a month for catching crooks but could earn lavish bonuses by imprisoning people for their thoughts and words.
It is hard to measure the depth of Saddam's wickedness or the devastation he wreaked. In Baghdad last week, silent families wandered through Saddam's jails and dungeons, looking for long-lost loved ones. They were convinced there had to be an underground prison, somewhere. But the jails were empty. At the Abu Ghurayb Prison, neighbors had witnessed convoys of buses carrying prisoners away before the first American bombs began to fall. Where to? No one seemed to know.
The Iraqi regime was armed with competing tools of espionage and terror. The IIS was once regarded as the Baath Party gestapo, a fearsome collection of assassins and spies. But trusting no one, Saddam over time established rival agencies, like the supersecret Special Security (SS) Organization, run by son Qusay and believed to be the keeper of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. Judging from the documents in the grimy sack, the IIS became a gang of corrupt and somewhat incompetent thugs, more interested in pocketing bribes than stealing American secrets or spreading terror abroad. If the Nazis represented, in Hannah Arendt's phrase, "the banality of evil," the IIS often seemed to embody the stupidity of evil.
The director of the IIS, Tahir Jalil Habbush, comes across in the papers examined by NEWSWEEK as an exasperated bureaucrat. He chastises his supposedly secret agents for showing off their firearms and IDs (the better to shake down frightened citizens). He has to send out memos reminding the secret service of the most elemental tradecraft, such as "not mentioning informants' names when sending correspondence." He rails against Iraqi spies who tried to monitor Turkish commercial companies but "couldn't use the companies' computers, so they failed." IIS spies have to be sternly reminded not to take home computers "to surf the Internet and send e-mails, lest highly classified information leak out." He scolds IIS agents who are amusing themselves by making harassing phone calls. The problem: more and more Iraqi citizens have Caller ID on their phones, and they are phoning the IIS to complain.
At one point, the harried IIS director appears to lose his composure altogether. The occasion was a meeting of agents to discuss surveillance of anti-Saddam religious groups in January 2002. Habbush demanded to know more about the threat from fundamentalist Wahhabis and the Iran-based Shiite opposition group, Al Dawa. The agents fumbled about with "weak and incomplete answers," according to a memo written by Habbush's deputy. At that point the director "got angry and stormed out of the meeting... because nobody there knew the last thing about intelligence work."
The IIS's once vaunted network of international agents apparently atrophied over time. An evaluation of the IIS stations in Paris, Rome and Athens for the first half of 2002 rates them all "zero" for intelligence gathering and counterespionage.
Part of the IIS's problem may have been meddling from the top. At one point, a senior IIS director distributed a memo to all agents and directors instructing them--and their families and relatives--to buy up copies of "Zabibah and the King," a novel written by Saddam. On another occasion, a memo from Saddam's personal secretary announces that Saddam himself has learned that, right after 9-11, the French Embassy in Baghdad alerted its personnel to be ready to evacuate as soon as the U.S. attacks began. "But it was a deceptive order intended to mislead people," Saddam's secretary announces. Attached (by a sewing pin; the Iraqis suffered from a paper-clip shortage) is a snitch report from an Iraqi married to a French citizen, giving the password to flee ("regrouper," French for "to group together"). But Saddam's secretary concludes the warning was all a ruse because, as the memo puts it, "Now it's already September 2002 and nothing bad has emerged from the land of evil." Rather than contradict their leader's wishful thinking, the drones at the IIS confirmed it. Some IIS officials scoffed at reports that the CIA was recruiting Iraqi military officers to foment rebellion, even though the reports were true. "American media is making exaggerated threats against Sakr Kurish [Saddam's code name: Sakr means "hawk" and Kurish is an ancient clan descended from the Prophet Muhammad] to cover up for U.S. failure in Afghanistan. America will not execute any plan against Iraq lest they wind up with another Afghanistan," reported the IIS Budapest station in January 2002.
The corruption inside the IIS was typical of Saddam's police state. There may have been a time, decades ago, when the followers of the Baath Party were animated by Arab nationalism and socialist utopianism. But by the 1990s, money and fear were Saddam's only real motivators. At the Mother of All Battles provincial party headquarters in Basra, a thoroughgoing system to make repression pay was meticulously documented. In the last days before the city fell, the party attempted to remove the paperwork, filling a truck container (disguised with Red Cross and Red Crescent stickers) with incriminating materials. But there was nowhere to run, and now the contents spill into the courtyard, where looters and scavengers pick through the debris.
Among the scraps are receipts for enforcing Saddam's reign of terror: payments to party members for catching Army deserters, to policemen for arresting political dissidents, to informants for betraying their neighbors. The victims were well aware of the system. "If they took a person to jail, the informer got 25,000 dinars [about $10]," says Rassin al Issa, 35, from the town of Abu Khassib near Basra. Issa was picked up during the 1999 Shiite uprising, when Baath Party members hunting for traitors were ordered to fill quotas. Issa was one of 300 rounded up from his town. "They just took me because I refused to join the Baath Party," he told NEWSWEEK.
As part of the prison routine, Issa was tortured daily, sometimes twice a day. Battery acid was spilled on his feet, which are now deformed. With his hands bound behind his back, he was hanged by his wrists from the ceiling until his shoulders dislocated; he still cannot lift his hands above his head. The interrogators' goal: "They just wanted me to say I was plotting against the Baath Party, so they could take me and execute me. If they got a confession, they would get 100,000 dinars [roughly $40]."
It didn't take much to wind up in a torture chamber. Policeman Majid al Halaf, 33, says he was arrested for firing his gun into the air at a wedding celebration. For three months, the local Baathists tried to make him confess he was an enemy of the party. They applied electric shocks--using wires from a hand-cranked generator--to various body parts including his genitals. Unable to break him, the Baathists finally let him go. "Afterward, they just said, 'Sorry'," says Halaf, who went back to police work.
The cost of freedom was steep. Ghaleb Kubba was something of a novelty in Saddam's Iraq, wealthy and prosperous, but still not a party member. The owner of a couple of banks and proprietor of the local Pepsi bottling factory in Basra, Kubba says he spent more money every month paying off the Baathists than he did on his monthly payroll for all his businesses. The Baathists would routinely stop by with their guns drawn and their hands out. "We'd see the AK-47s coming and we'd get the money out," says Kubba.
Arresting Kubba's accountant was seen as a moneymaking opportunity for the party's avaricious hacks. Nizar Abdul Razak was swept up in the same trawl for deserters that caught his cousin Anwar in May 1994. Like Anwar, Razak was to have his ears cut off. Kubba couldn't stop the maiming, but he was able to dicker. "We paid a lot of money in bribes, so they would cut off only half of Nizar's ear," Kubba told NEWSWEEK. "One million dinars [then about $10,000], and they let it be done with painkillers." Nizar Razak's surgeon (a different one from the doctor who mutilated his cousin Anwar) kissed both his cheeks, apologized and sliced off only the lower earlobe, before moving on to the next victim.
Kubba's money insulated his family from mayhem, but it did not shield him from witnessing the almost casual --slaughter of his people. Last week he recalled a "scene that haunts me still." Kubba was driving his Mercedes through Basra's Saad Square when he came upon some 600 men who had been detained while police checked their IDs. According to Kubba, "Chemical Ali" Hassan al-Majid, Saddam's half brother and the tyrant of southern Iraq, stopped and inquired, "No IDs? Just shoot them all." Kubba watched as "they shot over 600 people in front of me."
The fates of thousands of others are buried in Saddam's numerous prisons. One of the most notorious was the IIS prison at Haakimiya, near a bustling commercial area in downtown Baghdad. A nondescript five-story building notable only by the extra barbed wire on the roof, the Haakimiya Prison is actually 10 stories. Belowground are interrogation cells where unspeakable horrors were committed. NEWSWEEK's Liu, prowling the dank and empty halls, ran into a former inmate, Mohsen Mutar Ulga, 34, who was searching for documents about his cousin, executed under Saddam. Ulga said he was sentenced to 12 years in jail for belonging to an armed religious group called "the revenge movement for Sadr," referring to a martyred Shiite cleric. He had been arrested with 19 others; the lucky ones were executed right away. The rest were tortured with electric cattle prods and forced to watch the prison guards gang-rape their wives and sisters. Some were fed into a machine that looked like a giant meat cutter. "People's bodies were cut into tiny pieces and thrown into the Tigris River," said Ulga.
Ulga and the reporter silently walked through the darkened cells at Haakimiya, which was surprisingly clean, except for the graffiti on the walls. god i ask your mercy, scratched one prisoner who'd marked 42 days on the walls. save me, mary, implored another, presumably a Christian. in memory of luay and abbas who were tortured, read another.
Quietly, Ulga began to talk again. He had first been imprisoned in the notorious Abu Ghurayb jail outside Baghdad. But when the United States attacked Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, he and the other prisoners were taken to an even worse prison in Ramadi. There, he lived with 28 other detainees in a nine-meter-square cell, dividing up 1.5 kilos of rice and porridge a day. "It was so cramped we couldn't sleep on our backs, we had to sleep on our sides, like spoons. And they brought us polluted water to drink, so we all had diarrhea." Ulga was released last fall during Saddam's surprise general amnesty. "Most people don't know that before the amnesty, they executed 450 prisoners so they would never go free," said Ulga.
Saddam was a showman who preyed on human weakness--on greed, fear and envy--any way he could. Iraqis who struggled to survive were constantly reminded of Saddam's limitless power. His grossly opulent palaces lorded over squalid cities and towns the length and breadth of Iraq. In his hometown of Tikrit, every lamppost has a picture of Saddam attached: smiling in traditional Arab garb, in business suits or military uniforms. Saddam's palace looks like a Babylonian version of Louis XIV's Versailles. Saddam rarely stayed there. But the palace staff was ordered to prepare three sumptuous meals a day.
The exterior grandeur of many buildings is tempered by the baroque kitsch decor inside: marble female figur-ines with falling robes, gold-handled toilet plungers. "This place is disgusting," muttered a U.S. Marine, who had fought his way from Kuwait to Tikrit. "All the people we saw in the south were starving."
More repulsive is the villa once occupied, or used, by Saddam's twisted son Uday, for his amusement. The Baghdad villa, which was hit by a cruise missile during the American "shock and awe" bombing campaign, is in the middle of the sprawling Republican Palace complex along the Tigris River. The compound was crawling with soldiers from the Third Infantry Division when NEWSWEEK's Liu visited last week. The soldiers have been feeding antelope and sheep to the lions and cheetahs in Uday's private zoo. "The grizzly bear got loose last night," warned a soldier. "If we see it we're supposed to shoot it."
Inside the gutted building, Liu squeezed into what looked like a man's dressing room, with dozens of belts, pistol holsters, a fox-hunting tweed hat, a Panama hat, and Versace and Christian Dior men's clothes strewn about. In the sitting room was a cigar box with a custom-made label: specially blended for vladimir zhirinovsky, the ultranationalist Russian politician and presumably an acquaintance of Uday's. Glossy stationery is embossed with Uday's name (misspelled: hussien).
Upstairs was the women's domain. A bathroom was decorated in lavender and beige, with a gold-plated faucet shaped like a swan's neck and head. Opium perfume was on the counter; custom-tailored outfits in pink and mauve hung in the closet. The bed was a grotesquely curlicued monstrosity. A three-ring binder was filled with fashion designers' sketches of women's clothes, with prices ranging up to 14,000 francs (about $3,000).
Throughout the pleasure palace were signs of Uday's physical ailments and addictions. Uday had been badly wounded in a 1996 assassination attempt. Iraqis commonly believe Uday lost his manhood in the shooting; on the street, he was jokingly referred to (though not too loudly) as the new head of the "Iraqi women's union." In the bathroom were vials of Peking Royal Jelly, a traditional Asian medicine to enhance virility. A well-worn back brace rested with doctor's instructions: "For public occasions and for events with an emotional content, wear the rubber back brace." (According to two translators, the latter referred to encounters with the opposite sex.)
Uday apparently liked to cruise the Internet to download pornography. He may have tried to join a chat room. On Iraq's jury-rigged Web, live chat is not available, but a note from an assistant reassured Uday "as soon as it is we'll let you know." Someone had printed out Internet articles on "alcohol-related injury" and "treatment of alcohol dependency with psychological approaches." Creepily, a soldier reported, photos of President Bush's two daughters, Jenna and Barbara, had been found in the villa.
No one knows if Uday is alive or dead. Last week a video surfaced that appeared to show Saddam standing on a car, welcoming the cheers of his devoted followers. According to Abu Dhabi TV, the video was filmed on April 9--two days after the Air Force delivered four one-ton bunker-buster bombs on a building where Saddam was supposedly meeting with his inner circle. In the video, a man who looked like Saddam's other (and less dysfunctional) son Qusay appeared to be acting as a kind of bodyguard. Did Saddam and his evil spawn escape? Possibly, but Saddam's power to wantonly kill and torture is gone. The larger question is whether the psychic wounds can heal any time soon.