Inside the private prison of Odai Hussein

Sgt. Umran Ahmed says Saddam Hussein's son Odai imprisoned athletes, businessmen and anyone else who displeased him.
Sgt. Umran Ahmed says Saddam Hussein's son Odai imprisoned athletes, businessmen and anyone else who displeased him. (Sun photo by Elizabeth Malby)
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The room is 15 feet by 35 feet. It is dark and foreboding but feels spacious, until you consider the humanity once crammed inside its nearly windowless walls.

At times, it is said, hundreds of prisoners were locked behind the green metal door, packed so tightly that they had to sleep on their sides, if at all.

Their crimes, real or imagined, varied, but it seems that everyone shared one thing.

"Odai sent them," said Umran Ahmed, a sergeant with the Baghdad Police Department.

This was the private jail of Odai Hussein, the 39-year-old eldest son of Saddam Hussein and possibly the most reviled man in Iraq. In the first look inside by journalists, The Sun toured its 50-odd cells, set on a secluded spot in a far corner of the police academy grounds.

This, Ahmed said yesterday, is where Odai Hussein ordered henchmen to take athletes who played poorly, businessmen who resisted his strong-arm tactics, drivers who failed to yield to his car in traffic and anyone else who displeased him.

Some were let go after a few months, others confined for a year or more. The especially unlucky, he said, were herded into narrow cells where snarling German shepherds waited.

"People need to know," said Ahmed, crying more than once while walking through a place that, even now, few Iraqis know exists.

The world has long understood that Saddam Hussein and his regime had a vicious appetite for inflicting violence on fellow Iraqis. Since U.S.-led forces seized control of the country this month, the depth of the depravity has gained new human dimensions.

At Abu Ghraib prison northwest of Baghdad, prisoners have spoken out about the torture -- being shocked with electricity, hanging from the ceiling by their wrists -- that they endured.

Relatives have made sad pilgrimages to dusty fields near the prison to retrieve the buried remains of their missing sons and brothers, finally certain that they had been executed by the regime and would not be coming home alive.

Yesterday, two families stood outside Abu Ghraib in a state of shock.

Bodies of recently killed prisoners had been unearthed a day earlier not 20 feet from the high walls, and former inmates had told the families that their loved ones could be among the dead -- fresh reminders that the atrocities continued until the final days of Hussein's regime.

A wife's tears

As a strong wind blew, 30-year-old Firas Ahmed stared at the freshly turned earth, wondering if it might hold Kader, her husband of 15 years. He was arrested March 10 for having a satellite phone, banned by the regime as a potential tool for spying.

In a tragic stroke, he was killed just days before the Iraqi regime fell, according to prisoners who spoke to the family. Ahmed and two of her husband's brothers, Haider and Walid, were waiting yesterday for more information before beginning to dig.

"I don't know if I'm going to find him alive or not," his wife said, wiping away tears.

Odai Hussein's jail in eastern Baghdad fits the pattern of a repressive government that allowed no dissent, even over trivial matters. While Umran Ahmed's account could not be verified independently, his stories mesh with those shared by others about Odai Hussein's wanton brutality, including his habit of snatching girls and women off the street to rape them.

'Nobody can talk'

Ahmed, 27, described the workings of the jail in such detail that it sounded as though he had witnessed them himself. His tears easily could have been the work of a guilty conscience. But he insisted that he had no role in anything that went on there, and that police officers were not allowed near the cells. His knowledge, he said, came from talking to former prisoners, not from punishing them.

As much as he wished he could have done something about it, there was no way, he said.

"Nobody can talk," he said. "They will be executed."

Anyone who enters the police academy grounds has a ways to go to reach the jail. It is past the two-story headquarters (and the gangster-style Zimmer automobile Odai Hussein is said to have stolen from Kuwait in 1990), the classroom buildings, the reviewing stand used for ceremonies and, finally, the obstacle course.

From the rear gate, though, it is immediately to the left, an L-shaped cluster of one-story buildings that does not look especially ominous despite the bars and razor wire.

That gate, as it happens, is less than half a mile from the National Olympic Committee building that served as Odai Hussein's base of operations.

Now destroyed, it had a basement jail where athletes now in exile said they were beaten and imprisoned after losing.

The losing team

On at least one occasion, Ahmed said, Iraq's national soccer team was taken to the private jail down a narrow road from the Olympic Committee building. It was 1995, and the team had lost to the al-Saad team in Qatar.

The punishment for players such as Ahmed Radi and Karim al-Lawi was two months in 6-by-6-foot jail cells with no windows. The torture for soccer players, as with other athletes, was meant to hit them where it would hurt them most.

"In the morning," Ahmed said, "they would release them and hit them on the feet."

Across a small, grassy courtyard sits the 15-by-35-foot communal cell. It is empty except for a couple of old tires, but the walls bear testament to those who spent time there. Among the scribbles is one that reads Allah Akbar, or "God is great."

Nearby is an office that, according to Ahmed, doubled as a torture room. He pointed to a piece of curved metal in the ceiling and explained that prisoners were strung up with wire, hands behind their backs.

Outside on the wall, a crooked board bears the name of the last officer in charge of the jail: Maj. Yakub Kalaf Abid al-Tikriti -- a cousin of Odai Hussein's, Ahmed said.

Thrown to the dogs

Even in a place of such torture and torment, the three windowless jail cells in the next building over stood out. This is where the dogs were kept.

Sometimes the guards, often as not drunk, would throw a prisoner into a cell, slam the door and watch through narrow slots what happened between inmate and dog.

What one had to do to receive that punishment Ahmed did not say, but the results were grim.

"Most of the time, the dogs killed them."

A separate cellblock was operated by Fedayeen Saddam, a paramilitary group fiercely loyal to the Iraqi leader and overseen by his son.

The 30 cells are numbered in English. Some have yellow doors, some have gray ones. Some still contain small bowls with rice in them. All have but a single tiny window, 6 inches by 18 inches.

Stepping into cell No. 13, Ahmed said angrily: "In this place, a man died because nobody sent him to the hospital."

Asked about his rage, he launched into a tirade about the Hussein regime.

"We had nothing! They had everything -- money, cars, everything! We were poor men. We lost our good years. As a young man, I would like to have lived well."

At this he began to cry.

"Saddam's always saying, 'The Iraqi people elected me with 100 percent [of the vote] and love me.' He lies all the time."

Once a prisoner

Ahmed punched the wall and unbuttoned his patterned dress shirt, revealing scars on his stomach.

The sergeant said he was once a prisoner, that a drunken Baath Party member had insulted him and that he shoved the man. Ahmed said he had been arrested and made to languish for three years in the military intelligence prison at Kazimiyah.

In the dim hallway between cells in the fedayeen jail, he showed the deep scars on his right thigh. They were from whippings and beatings, he said.

Ahmed said his 16-year-old brother was killed in 2001, "because one of Odai's friends got into a quarrel with him."

Why would he work for a regime so brutal to him and his brother?

"I want to eat," he said simply. "There is no other work."

The prisoners at Odai Hussein's jail were kept locked up almost until the moment U.S. forces rolled through the city in tanks.

"When they opened the doors, the prisoners didn't want to go out," Ahmed said. Blindfolded when they entered, the inmates had no idea where they were and feared running off in any direction, he said.

Eventually, though, they began moving farther away from the prison -- cursing Hussein and the regime.