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An Iraqi Mother's Most Dreaded Mission
Search for Missing Son in Baghdad Only Adds to Loss and Uncertainty

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 22, 2006

BAGHDAD -- Six p.m., and 27-year-old Riyah Obeid hadn't come home. Fahdriya Obeid kept watching, waiting for the dark silhouette of her eldest son to loom in the doorway of the simple home he and his brother had built with her out of bricks.

Daylight came, spilling into the single room where she slept alongside her youngest son, Saffah. There was still no sight or word of Riyah, and Baghdad under curfew, under control of armed militiamen rolling through the streets at dark, wasn't a place where young men -- especially poor ones -- stayed out all night. There were anxious consultations with 23-year-old Saffah, then with Fahdriya's brothers. Calls went out over the telephone of a helpful neighbor to family members across Baghdad.

Riyah had set out the day before, May 11, on an unavoidable errand: replacing his lost ID card. The law required Riyah to do it where he was born, in Sadr City, a busy but impoverished quarter of Baghdad where 2 million Shiites and a relative handful of Sunnis live. Now, in her neighbor's house, clutching the telephone, 50-year-old Fahdriya made arrangements to go to Sadr City with Saffah and meet relatives at the home of one of the boys' cousins to start looking for Riyah.

Searching for missing loved ones has become a common mission -- especially for Sunni families -- in Baghdad in recent months as sectarian violence has surged. Fahdriya and family members agreed to let a reporter accompany them for parts of their search. Other events were recounted in interviews.

Riyah and Saffah had grown up in Sadr City, playing soccer with Shiite cousins and swarms of other children -- families run big in Sadr City. Half of their family was still there, doing better now that President Saddam Hussein was gone and the old clerical clans of Iraq's Shiite majority were in power. One cousin whom the boys had played soccer with now had a job with the government's most powerful wing, the Interior Ministry, which oversees the country's commando forces.

In 1982, 11 days after Saffah was born, the military brought Fahdriya the body of her husband, killed in the Iran-Iraq war. She and her boys eventually moved from Sadr City to Dora, on Baghdad's southern edge, where the family was under the protection of Fahdriya's brothers. Without money or a father, Riyah quit high school in his third year. Saffah made it through polytechnic school and did his time in national service. They supported their mother as construction workers, still playing soccer after work.

The U.S.-led overthrow of Hussein brought no lucky turns to Fahdriya's side of the family. Asked the most defining question in Iraq now, Fahdriya, wearing the black shroud of a Shiite woman of Sadr City, looked around the Shiite neighborhood where she was first interviewed last week, leaned forward and spoke softly.

"Sunnah." We are Sunni.

* * *

The morning after Riyah disappeared, Fahdriya finished her tea, drank a glass of water for the long taxi ride across town and set out with Saffah from their one-room house under the high-tension lines of an electricity pylon. But when they reached the home of the cousin who'd told them to come, he wasn't in. Reached by cellphone, he told Saffah and Fahdriya to go with one of the Sadr City uncles to the ID office and ask about Riyah.

They started to leave, but as they pulled out, two vehicles blocked the uncle's car -- a white sedan and another civilian car. Men in civilian clothes got out. They said they wanted to search the car but focused on Saffah, asking for his ID. After checking it, one of the men took Saffah by his wrist, led him to a car and pushed him in. Fahdriya's wails followed the cars as they sped away.

Thousands of Iraqi men have disappeared at the hands of gunmen since Feb. 22, when the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra stoked the Shiite-Sunni struggle for power that has followed Hussein's ouster. Most days, dozens of bodies end up at Baghdad's morgue. The majority are Sunnis.

Fahdriya, dignified and composed in public, fell into agony in the privacy of her relatives' home in Sadr City. Sobbing, slapping her face, she gripped her hair and pulled as hard as she could, adding to the pain inside.

* * *

A call came from Saffah's phone at 2 p.m., ringing the phone of one of his cousins. The caller identified himself as an Interior Ministry captain. They would question Saffah for two or three hours and bring him back, he said. "Are you looking for Riyah?" the captain added, but said nothing more about the elder son. Then he passed the phone to Saffah and let him talk to his mother. The earnest-faced boy of her widowhood had time for only one word, anguished and drawn-out.

"Mommm!" he cried.

* * *

More calls came.

One of Fahdriya's brothers received the first. The caller identified himself as a Ministry of Interior official: "Come and get your boys. They're in the morgue."

Then a second call, also to the Sunni side of the family: "We don't want to ever see you at Sadr City. Or the morgue."

* * *

Government offices offer little recourse for Sunnis seeking loved ones. Police are under the control of the Shiite religious parties and their militias. So is the morgue.

At the headquarters of the Iraqi Islamic Party, one of the main Sunni political parties, an official told Fahdriya's family what Sunnis already were saying among themselves: Sunni men who went to pick up the bodies of brothers, sons, fathers or cousins killed by Shiite militias or death squads were being detained at the morgue and killed.

"Have the women of your family go. Not to get a death certificate, because that's the killing time. Just to see. At least you'll know," Omar al-Jubouri, the party's human rights chief, told Fahdriya's brother Majid Obeid, 54. It was Tuesday, May 16, five days after the first of Fahdriya's sons disappeared.

Majid, a slight man who held himself still and straight and moved with purpose, had risen shortly after dawn to go to the party office for help. He waited more than an hour before finding a taxi whose driver was willing to go to Dora, now one of Baghdad's most dangerous neighborhoods.

Men with AK-47 assault rifles guarded the party compound, a small fortress armed against raids by security forces or militias. Nameless men -- representatives of various Sunni interests and interest groups -- filed in and out. A car bomb exploding in the area, and then a mortar round closer by, and then the loud pop of a bullet inside the compound, drew no notice from the gun-toting guards and waiting men. They craned their necks and peered, though, at the whistle and chug of a train. Insurgents had taken out Iraq's rail service long ago; this was something new.

Jubouri was an unusual type for a human rights chief. More than six feet tall, he bore the black mark on his forehead of the extremely devout, acquired by regularly pressing his head to the floor in prayer. But he wore a snug yellow shirt, tight pants and a bright yellow tie, instead of the traditional robes or more conservative suits favored by others.

For no clear reason, he waved a pistol around while he opened the door of his office, even though the compound's perimeter was well guarded by men with AK-47s. Speaking with a reporter, he tossed the cocked pistol up and down in the air between them, catching it with feigned casualness as he spoke.

Comparatively few people bothered anymore to come to register the names of detained men and seek help finding them, Jubouri said. "The problem is people fear it is no use. So they don't."

Nevertheless, desperate mothers and old men filed in behind Jubouri as soon as he opened the door to his office, and they quickly filled the room. They stated their cases.

"If you have a list of names, I just want to see if he's there," said a middle-aged, evidently educated woman whose husband had vanished overnight.

"He's mentally retarded," said the relative of a young man not seen since he was detained for lacking an ID.

"I promised his wife I will find him," vowed one of several brothers, one red-haired, who had come together to the party office to ask for help.

A functionary behind the desk took the names of the night's missing. Using a ruler, he tore off squares of photocopied paper, handing one to each of the bereaved when he or she had finished speaking. It bore the party's emblem and phone number.

"Maybe 1 percent of the time, we find out from the Interior Ministry," he said with a shrug, numb to any concern about discouraging the families.

Majid, Fahdriya's brother, waited his turn. He handed the man at the desk a handwritten account of the taking of Riyah and Saffah. The party worker placed it on the day's growing pile without looking. Majid accepted his square of paper.

Walking into the morning light of the compound outside, he turned, backlit in the doorway, and paused. "They want me to go to the morgue," he said, raising his hand halfway and gesturing hopelessly. "But I can't. I can't go to the morgue."

* * *

Gunfire and explosions kept many of Dora's people awake that night. Fahdriya and Majid rose early with Majid's wife, determined to try to recover Riyah and Saffah, Fahdriya recounted later that morning.

Outside the morgue, Majid waited among other, mostly Sunni families, all there for the same purpose. Fahdriya and Majid's wife, both in billowing black abayas , passed through the gated walls of the morgue, guarded by gunmen of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's religious party, which runs the morgue.

The women presented themselves at the blue metal doors of the morgue rooms. A man inside directed them across the narrow courtyard to a steel-barred window, where family members press up to the window to try to identify their men among stark photos of contorted, tortured and agonized bodies flicking rapidly on a computer screen inside.

Turning toward the window, Fahdriya recounted, she saw the cousin who worked for the Interior Ministry. He was standing by the barred window of the computer room, a gun at his side, his back toward her as he talked to another man. He didn't see them.

Rushing out of the courtyard with Majid's wife, Fahdriya raised her hand, trying to signal silently to the waiting Majid. Run away. Run away.

* * *

At the Iraqi Islamic Party headquarters later that morning, new crowds of bereaved families gathered, with new heartaches to register.

The red-haired man from the day before was back -- minus his two brothers, including the one who had vowed to find the detained husband of their sister. Interior Ministry forces had come to their homes that night, the red-haired man said, and taken his brothers away.

Better dressed and clearly better off than Fahdriya and Majid, the red-haired man gained admittance to Jubouri's office. A functionary, the same man who had taken the names the day before, came out of the office and closed the door to tell a barely polite lie to Fahdriya: Sheik Omar had been called away to a meeting. Sheik Omar wouldn't be back until much later. Better not to wait.

What of my sons? Fahdriya said. We thought the party would help us.

"We're in danger, too!" the man said, bursting into a tirade. "Sheik Omar and I can't go to the morgue. Go to the morgue yourself."

"It's your fault your sons got killed," the man continued. Fahdriya's hand flew up to her mouth. It gripped her face harder and harder as he talked.

"Why did you let them go to Sadr City? For an ID?" the man said, pulling his own battered ID from his pocket, letting the worn photo behind the peeled plastic flutter to the floor as he waved the card.

"To hell with the ID," the man said, turning to go back into the office and closing the door behind him.

Fahdriya, Majid and Majid's wife sat slumped on the couches in the hallway after he left. Majid leaned forward over his knees, staring at the wall without speaking. Fahdriya sat unmoving, still gripping her face.

"Let's go," she said finally.

"Let's go," Majid said.

With Majid's wife, they walked alone out of the office. Gunmen swung open the steel gates of the party compound to let them pass. The black robes of the women and the blue robe of Majid fluttered around them as they disappeared from sight.

* * *

As of Friday, Fahdriya had yet to recover her sons. Efforts to reach the family Saturday and Sunday were unsuccessful.

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