The Shu’bat al-Khamsa in Kathimiyya, North Baghdad, was Saddam’s equivalent of Langley, Va. It was the seat of special political intelligence: a colossal, low-lying concrete complex, walled on all sides. For years, across Iraq and beyond, rumors have circulated about a mysterious machine. The few prisoners who ever got out all told the same story—that at the back of the largest compound, intelligence services kept a giant meat grinder. It has not been found, and may never have existed, but it’s a legend that has cloaked Iraq for decades.
When the United States took the area, hundreds of Iraqis came to Kathimiyya, trying to find traces of lost relatives. Overwhelmed, the Army finally capitulated and let them in. This morning, people still lingered. One U.S. soldier told me about a woman who had come every day for two months, clutching a black-and-white photo of her son, pleading for information. She waved it at anyone who passed, too deep in grief to notice that, from so many years of thumbing the picture, his face had completely vanished.
Hundreds of filing cabinets fill the first two rooms of the compound, each one neatly labeled: Communist, Kurd, Independent, Islamic, etc. The file I picked at random was that of Jinan Mohammed al-Khalidi, 1985, who was refused work at the Directorate of Public Security on family grounds: uncle, communist; aunt, communist; uncle (mother’s brother), currently in prison in Karbala for membership of the Islamic Da’wa Party; father, ex-security services, sacked for the same reason. There are piles of paper that reach a meter high. Each file has a fading photo stapled to the top left-hand corner. Thousands upon thousands of faces.
In the temporary police station next door, six prisoners lie in a room. Some get up to talk to me through the hatch. One lies close to the door, his belly wrapped in bandages. He lost a kidney in a knife fight the night before last. He’s here for the murder of the man he lost it to.
Along Palestine Street, a gigantic, empty, dust-covered artery through East Baghdad, field-sized garden nurseries are open for business. Uday Hussein’s shattered Olympic complex faces the Martyrs’ Monument—two blue-tiled teardrops that reach 40 meters high—which commemorates the 400,000 who died in the Iran-Iraq War. Beneath the monument is a camp for some of the officers of the U.S. 1st Armored Division. Down the road, the Iraqi Fashion Centre now houses the Free Iraqi National Movement, a party I’ve never heard of.
I dropped by the heavily barricaded Canal Hotel, where the United Nations is housed. A Japanese girl sat outside smoking. She’s called an “Area Coordinator.” In her words: “That’s what I’m called, but there’s not much active coordination. Frankly speaking, the U.N. has absolutely no authority here. At very best, we can act as consultants to the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority].” The official U.N. people I’ve come to speak to are much less forthcoming.
Late afternoon I spent in Sadr City, named after Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, Shiite Maraji’ (or “Supreme Authority”) martyred in 1999 by Saddam. The name is only three months old. Until the war it was called Saddam City, and before the 1991 war, it was called al-Thawra (or “the Revolution”). Sadr City is deeply, religiously Shiite and very poor. There are no public services and no active police. U.S. patrols do not dismount here.
The Mohsen Mosque marks one extremity of the area. It has been closed since 1999, when a city-strong demonstration protesting the assassination of Mohammed Sadeq carried an empty coffin here from the Hikma Mosque on the other side of town. Many died in the ensuing battle with Saddam’s Fedayeen, and the outer walls of the mosque are covered with henna handprints for the martyrs who lost their lives there.
At the Hikma Mosque, I met Sheikh Abbas al-Rubai’, the editor of the Da’wa Party’s newspaper, al-Hausa. The Da’wa is one of the biggest Shiite parties in Iraq today, led by the 22-year-old Moqtadr al-Sadr, the martyr’s son. His weekly paper sells 12,000 copies, more than almost every other paper in Baghdad. We sit in the mosque’s antechamber. There’s electricity here so a slow fans whirrs. Before he joined the party, Abbas was a painter. He studied at the progressive College of Fine Arts in Baghdad.
He tells me about life under Saddam and the war: “It was worse than you can imagine. Women and children were killed for a word, or even a suspicious look at a picture of Saddam … and then during this war, the Fedayeen came, and with them Sunni Arab volunteers from Syria and Jordan. From the 14th to the 21st of April, they ransacked the city. They even used rocket-propelled grenades. And for no reason. They had already lost.”
The Da’wa Party did everything it could to stave off anarchy. Its student groups took up arms and protected the hospitals, saving the al-Kindi hospital from arson after it was looted and preventing the Qadisiya and Chuwadira hospitals from being looted. Those last two hospitals saved the lives of many of the wounded from all around Baghdad. Now, the party is cleaning up the debris—the dirt and the weapons—of the war. Abbas tells me the Sunnis and Shiites are working together; since the war, their doctors have been sharing medical supplies.
Returning home, I passed the Souq al-Mraidi or Souq al-Haramiya or Souq of Thieves, which, at the end of the war, doubled as Iraq’s biggest illegal arms market. I was frightened. It was near dark, much too late to be out almost anywhere in Baghdad, let alone here. As I stopped to take a photo, a man rushed me. He looked drunk, his eyes dulled by a lard-yellow film. He was screaming at me. He was screaming, “Kahraba! Kahraba!” He was begging for electricity.