| Iraqis search a flooded basement of Baghdad’s military intelligence headquarters for missing relatives. (Reuters)
Baghdad, April 11 (Reuters): Crowds of desperate Iraqis stormed the headquarters of Saddam Hussein’s military intelligence today and hacked through concrete floors to hunt for relatives they believed were trapped in dungeons below.
Family and friends of detained Iraqis appealed for help from the US military to rescue people they said were in underground jails, victims of Saddam’s brutal security officers. Some said they could hear voices below the surface as they dug.
US soldiers, who took Baghdad on Wednesday and are trying to restore order in the city, moved into the huge compound in the north-western district of Kadhimiya with tanks and armoured vehicles and set charges to blast the ground.
But the thrill of anticipation of reaching fathers, brothers, friends — some who had disappeared 20 years ago — turned into bitter disappointment and tears when US soldiers said the cells were empty.
“They must be all dead, God rest their souls,” said one sobbing woman who had been searching for her brother since 1980.
Before soldiers of the US 3rd Infantry Division arrived, frantic relatives had gouged away at the concrete floor with tools and hauled debris away with bare hands. The search came to an abrupt halt when they hit steel encasing the prison vaults.
Entrances to the sprawling underground prison cell complex were known to have been sited in obscure places outside the military intelligence headquarters, possibly inside normal-looking houses.
US soldiers said it looked like the complex was used as an interrogation centre and the prisoners transferred elsewhere.
The general headquarters of Iraqi military intelligence near the Kadhimiya mosque, a shrine for Shias, was one of the most feared places in the Iraqi capital under Saddam’s rule.
People roaming the complex spoke of seeing what they described as a torture chamber containing tanks which could be used for submersion or partial drowning.
Reports were difficult to verify because of growing chaos inside the complex before the arrival of the American soldiers.
The tense atmosphere reflected the anarchy gripping Baghdad following two days of looting since US tanks and troops took control of the centre of the city.
The angry crowd discovered a ledger with the name and rank of more than 200 senior Iraqi army officers — all of Kurdish origin it said were jailed in 1994 as a “precaution”.
Iraqis say thousands of people went missing during Saddam's 24-year rule, allegedly executed, tortured or shut away in jail.
US Marines said on Wednesday they had found what appeared to be a torture centre in the town of Nasiriyah, 375 km southeast of Baghdad.