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Iraq scrubs Saddam from its history, but relics remain

BAGHDAD — Deep inside the walled-off Green Zone, in an air-conditioned room watched by round-the-clock security, is a particularly grisly collection of Iraqi memorabilia: leg irons, bone fragments, a hangman's noose and photographs of skeletons unearthed from mass graves, some still wearing their clothes.

They're relics of the most brutal periods of the Saddam Hussein era, collected by U.S. and Iraqi investigators as evidence in the ex-dictator's trial for crimes against humanity. He was executed on Dec. 30, 2006.

The Iraqi court official who holds the only key to the evidence room says that it will open to the public as a museum sometime in 2011. It would mark an extraordinary addition to the historical record of this wobbly young democracy, whose new leaders so far have been eager to scrub out nearly all signs of Saddam's three decades in power.

"This is a very long period of our history," said the court official, Sattar Jabbar. "Other generations have to know what the old regime did and what crimes were committed in Iraq."

The facility housed at the Iraqi High Tribunal, the special court set up to try Saddam and other members of his regime for atrocities, hasn't been named yet, but Jabbar has a suggestion: the Saddam Criminal Museum. That alone would be unique. Four years after his death, even Saddam's name, which had been affixed to countless mosques, neighborhoods and public buildings, has practically vanished from Iraq.

The history textbooks in Iraq's public schools now abruptly end in 1958, making no mention of the revolutions in 1963 and 1968 that propelled Saddam's Arab nationalist Baath party to power. In fact, teachers say, the words "Saddam" and "Baath" aren't mentioned once.

The evidence room, however, is lined with row upon row of official documents bearing Saddam's name and signature, always in precise red ink. One of the documents, a guide explained, is a letter from Saddam congratulating soldiers who carried out a 1982 massacre in the mostly Shiite northern town of Dujail, killing nearly 150 men and boys. It was that incident for which the tribunal sentenced Saddam to death in 2006.

His visage no longer looks down from every living room and government office in Iraq. Yet under a glass case at the tribunal are enlarged photographs of Saddam gesturing angrily from the defendant's dock, his well-groomed mustache having given way to a brambly salt-and-pepper beard.

Sitting matter-of-factly alongside those pictures are images from mass graves that investigators said Saddam's military used to bury the victims of their attacks on Iraq's northern Kurds, which killed tens of thousands. Then, lined up in neat rows, are bits of human bones dug up from the graves.

There's no place in today's Iraq that deals so frankly with this period. Much like Germany after Hitler and the Soviet Union after Stalin, experts say, Iraq's political elites are still fighting over how — or if — to remember Saddam.

"All of this is an effort to rewrite Iraqi history, and one way is to agree on a sort of historical amnesia," said Eric Davis, an Iraq expert at Rutgers University. "This is the problem you have in any post-authoritarian society."

In recent years, the Shiite-led government tried to stamp out all reminders of the secular, Sunni-dominated Saddam era. It banned former Baath party members from running in the March parliamentary elections, enraging the Sunni minority. In February, demolition crews in Baghdad took jackhammers to a 73-foot limestone statue called "The Union," shaped like two clasped hands, which Saddam built after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

"The people in power now came with revenge in their hearts," said Qasim Sabti, a prominent artist in Baghdad.

Much of the evidence on display was presented during Saddam's trial, but officials say the museum also will house an archive containing more than 20 million documents, including handwritten orders from Saddam and his lieutenants.

When he was a fixture in their lives, Iraqis never had such a close look at him. When the museum opens, however, they can see the items that U.S. soldiers confiscated from Saddam when they captured him hiding in a foxhole in December 2003, including: dirty blue socks, a stained black-and-white kaffiyeh (a traditional Arab head scarf worn by men), 88 rounds of ammunition, forged identity papers, a can opener, toothpicks and a bar of Palmolive soap.

Nearby, leaning against a wall, is a hangman's noose that the FBI found in the offices of Saddam's intelligence service, and a large steel cage shaped eerily like a human being. Investigators said that Saddam's elder son, Uday, when he was the head of the Iraqi National Olympic Committee, stuffed underperforming athletes into the cage and hung them outside, naked, for days at a time.

For now, the only people allowed to glimpse such macabre souvenirs are high-ranking Iraqi officials, foreign diplomats and other VIPs. The tribunal still has several trials pending, Jabbar said, and opening the museum now would be too sensitive.

There's a more practical problem, however. The tribunal is inside the Green Zone, the heavily fortified government complex, and access is heavily controlled by the Iraqi military. Nearly eight years after U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam, the seat of the new Iraqi democracy is still off-limits to the vast majority of its people.

(McClatchy special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed to this article.)


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For more news from the Middle East, visit McClatchy's blog, Middle East Diary.

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