The black-gloved hands of Leila Mahdi pawed through wrinkled papers and fading photographs in a plastic folder with a Barbie logo, searching for the past.
There, said Mahdi, stabbing her glove at a picture, was her brother Naem, executed in 1991. And there -- the image had faded, though not the anger -- were brothers Saadun and Aziz, arrested and killed when forced to march before soldiers into minefields during the Iran-Iraq war. And here, she said, thrusting a paper limp from countless folding and unfolding, was the deed to the house her parents owned when they were forced by President Saddam Hussein's government to flee the country.
Mahdi, 48, stood in the sweltering hallway of the Free Prisoners' Association, looking for justice. Her fierce eyes glowered from the black abaya, a long, loose-fitting cloak, she wore. She wanted the house back, she said. Her father had returned in August after 20 years in Iran, only to find someone else living there. She wanted compensation for her brothers. She wanted someone, somehow, to atone for the suffering that was her life under Hussein.
There are millions like her. As Iraq's new government struggles to its feet during continuing violence, it also faces the burden of dealing with the past. Countless Iraqis suffered under the rule of Hussein and his Baath Party, and many are asking for redress.
"We can't just ignore it. The past is present. The victims have collective memories," said the new minister of human rights, Bakhtyar Amin. "Saddam transformed this country into a museum of crimes and mass grave sites. A lot of requests for compensation for individual and collective pain will be coming."
But the way those claims will be addressed is uncertain. In May, the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority set up an Iraqi committee to consider the issue. "No government can erase these past abuses or remove the scars. However, compensation can provide an element of justice to those who suffered," L. Paul Bremer, then Iraq's U.S. administrator, said in announcing the program.
But no system has been established to receive claims. The man Bremer named to set up the process has since been appointed justice minister and immediately became embroiled in preparing Hussein's war crimes trial. And the fund provided by Bremer, $25 million, is a small fraction of what will be needed, judging from a similar effort undertaken after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Over 13 years, the U.N. Compensation Commission has paid $18.4 billion to 1.5 million claimants for damages arising from the Gulf War.
But there is no similar mechanism for Iraqis. "You have the situation where a flower market owner is getting paid for loss of his business in Kuwait, while a family in Iraq that lost 60 members under the regime is not getting a dime," Amin said.
Amin argues that the world is responsible for what happened. "Saddam was not an Iraqi product," Amin said. "He was brought to power by foreign support -- economic, military, diplomatic, media and international support -- while we were crying." When Hussein waged war against Iran from 1980 to 1988, "he was a darling of the international community," Amin said.
Abdel Amir Yassiri, 50, is not looking to foreigners for help. He spent more than 10 years in prison, including an 18-month stretch with his arms shackled behind him, he said. Hussein's government suspected that he inspired foreign workers to leave the factory where he worked. He lost a kidney from beatings and electric torture, he said. More than 50 members of his extended family of Shiite Muslims were executed during the persecution of his branch of Islam.
What he wants, he said, is a job from the new government. And he wants the money back for 11 bullets used to kill his brother. During Hussein's rule, families had to pay for the ammunition used to execute their relatives.
"The new government has to do this. They have taken over leading the country, and now they have to solve the problems the old government left," he said. "They have a moral obligation."
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have gone to the offices of the Free Prisoners' Association, a volunteer group that began work the day after the war, to submit reports of their losses. Like Mahdi, the woman searching for compensation, they crowd the hallways, clutching long, handwritten stories of grief and the few official documents they can find. So many have come that the organization is struggling to keep its files up to date.
"In the past 14 months, we have files from families of 200,000 people killed and 40,000 political prisoners. And we think that might be 5 percent of the total," said Abdul Fatah Edrisi, a deputy director at the office in a Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad.
The potential well of complainants is deep. Handbills with pictures of loved ones executed or still missing are plastered on the walls of the association offices. The faces are snapshots of frozen innocence, life before it was snuffed. They are of men and women, old and young. One shows a boy, executed at age 12.
Millions died under the rule of Hussein and his Baath Party. The Sunni Muslim-dominated government and its security forces relentlessly purged Shiites. It persecuted them at home, forced them to flee the country, fed them to the maw of massacre in the war with Iran and killed thousands in the Shiite uprising of 1991, which the United States encouraged after the Gulf War. Hussein's government also slaughtered ethnic Kurds, most famously with poison gas in Hallabja in 1988. It pursued rebellious Shiites known as the Marsh Arabs so resolutely that vast marshlands were drained just to deprive them of their waterways and homes. Anyone suspected of opposing the government could be thrown into prison and tortured, broken or killed. Their property was seized, then usually given to Baath Party loyalists.
Claims will also come from outside Iraq. Iran has said it has demands from the Iran-Iraq war, in which an estimated 1 million people died on both sides. Iraqi Jews, estimated to number about 150,000 in 1947, were systematically forced to leave the country and abandon their property; exiles are debating legal claims. Even Americans who were prisoners of war in the Gulf War have sought compensation. Last month, an appeals court in Washington overturned a lower court's $959 million judgment against Iraq for 17 former POWs.
The country already faces a "grave challenge" from foreign debt estimated at $120 billion and immense reconstruction demands, according to the new finance minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi. But the new government will not ignore demands for compensation, he said last week. Mahdi is hoping for debt forgiveness from other countries and contributions toward reconstruction. Finding the vast fortunes Hussein and his family are believed to have stolen would help, he said.
Amin, the human rights minister, wants to look at the international corporate world. Many companies profited from Hussein's government and provided it with the weapons, chemicals or know-how used in the repression, Amin said. Just as Jewish victims eventually sued companies that dealt with the Nazis during the Holocaust, Iraqis may eventually sue for claims unless the companies come forward first with offers of help, he said.
Shortly before the Gulf War, Jesse Helms, then a Republican senator from North Carolina, publicized a list of what he called "Iraq's Foreign Legion," 131 companies that had done military business with Iraq. The list, which included 68 German firms and 10 each from the United States and Britain, detailed contracts to supply a variety of equipment, including goods used for the manufacture of munitions and chemical weapons.
"The companies that helped with Saddam's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons got enormous profits, and there isn't any trial of these people," Amin said. "Sooner or later there will be claims against these companies."
Haitham Shamkhi, 29, said he did not expect much compensation from anyone. His two brothers, Ahmed and Ali, were arrested in 1982. Ahmed was executed quickly, but Ali's fate was unknown. Recently, Shamkhi was poring through files taken from the secret police by the Free Prisoners' Association. On a list of executed prisoners, he found Ali's name.
He has not told his parents. "They have been living on the hope that Ali will come back," Shamkhi said. "They could not bear it."
There is talk of giving job preferences to family members of those who were executed. Shamkhi, who sells vegetables from a street cart in the street, said he would like that. And he thinks it would help if the government gave some compensation, even if small, to the family.
"No amount of money will bring back my brothers," he said. "But we would like to know that the new government is at least interested in us."