The last executions in Baghdad

Saddam's regime murdered those it feared, to the very end. Lindsey Hilsum listens to the victims' fa

Sheikh Emad al-Din al-Awadi sat in a battered, brocaded chair, and wept for the friends he had lost in prison. Dressed in a long robe, his head swathed in a white turban, tears crawled under his heavily rimmed glasses towards the grey beard that made him look older than his 40-odd years. Under Saddam Hussein, he was jailed four times, and spent nearly a decade in prison.

Last December, friends managed to bribe prison officials to release him, but many of his fellow prisoners were taken to Radwaniyah camp, near one of the presidential palaces, and murdered. "Aqil al-Najafi was a merchant, Adnan al-Hijazi a religious scholar. Ala al-Hulli, Al-Sayyid al-Shawqi . . ." His voice faded away. Many were killed in the last months, when America was threatening Iraq.

"The government was like a ravenous beast or an injured wolf," said Sheikh Emad. "If a wolf is injured and bleeding, other wolves smell the blood and attack it, so it tries to defend itself and devour everyone that gets in its way. The tyrant in his last days began to devour all those he suspected. He killed many people."

Only now is the extent of the terror of the last few months of Saddam Hussein's rule becoming apparent. The regime kept meticulous records of the pogroms of the early 1980s when Saddam Hussein took power, the Anfal campaign against the Kurds and the wave of executions after the 1991 uprising, but by 2002 the system had started to slip. Sheikh Emad retrieved tens of thousands of files from a secret store where the Mukhabarat services had hidden and then tried to destroy them. They lie piled up in his office, spilling out into the corridors and on to the roof, countless tragedies concealed between dusty cardboard covers, some dating back to the 1970s. But for those who lost their lives in the last days, there is little documentation. The sheikh carefully opened a wooden box, in which he had gathered talismans of the terror - armbands and name tags from mass graves exhumed since the regime fell.

"In the last period, many were buried with no identification at all because the executions were so numerous and collective," he said.

Those of us who covered the war from Baghdad may have suspected, but could not prove, what the regime was doing in the shadows. On 25 March 2003, the seventh day of the war, the Iraqi vice-president, oil minister and deputy prime minister appeared in public to show that the regime's grip had not loosened despite the nightly bombing of Baghdad. That was the day Mohaimin Mohamed Jawad's elder brother was taken away by armed men. Karim Jawad was a leading member of the small, underground Unity Party, which had been founded in 1991, but had managed to remain secret because all members were part of the closed Sufi sect. That week, several hundred members were detained and 12 never returned.

"I think the regime was afraid of an opposition internal front opening up," said Mohaimin. "It feared that educated people would stand against it, so it tried to get rid of them to protect itself."

When the regime fell, Mohaimin and his family travelled throughout Iraq searching for Karim. They found his body - hands and feet bound, a blindfold on his eyes - in a freshly dug grave at Abu Ghraib, a notorious prison just outside Baghdad. He had been shot in the back of the head. Eight other bodies shared the grave. Surviving prisoners said they had heard gunshots on 7 April, just two days before the regime fell, and although prison guards said the shots were target practice, they believed they had heard the execution of a batch of prisoners, including Karim. By then, US tanks had entered at least one of Saddam Hussein's palaces, but someone was still giving the orders to kill.

In Salman Pak, south-east of Baghdad, the executioners were also busy, even as their leaders were about to flee. On Friday 4 April, five days before Baghdad fell, people noticed four buses from the Dalal company, owned by Saddam Hussein's son Uday, heading for the closed military area outside the town. Darkened windows ensured that they could not identify the passengers but they noted that the buses left empty a few hours later. They may have carried killers or victims. A few days after the fall of Baghdad, townspeople entered the military zone for the first time and uncovered freshly dug graves.

"Some of the bodies we found were wearing pyjamas and had blindfolds over their eyes, while others were in ordinary clothes," said a villager who asked to remain anonymous. "There had been a sandstorm two days before the buses arrived. But when we came here, we saw that the dust from the storm had not covered the place where the bodies were buried. Everywhere else was covered, but this area was newly dug." None of the bodies carried any identification.

Today, the farmers of Salman Pak are stumbling across new graves every day, but human rights workers tell them to leave the dead undisturbed until forensic teams can exhume the bodies correctly.

Sheikh Emad and the man from Salman Pak are still not free of the terror, fearing that the Ba'athists may yet take revenge on those who talk about what happened in the last days. Mohaimin Jawad insists that his brother, maybe the last victim of Saddam Hussein, should serve as an inspiration, not a source of fear.

"He sowed in me the idea of reading, thinking and freedom. He gave me books on history, politics and philosophy and urged me to break the intellectual chains with which the regime bound the minds of young people," he said, as he prayed over his grave. "Now I shall live with his spirit."

Lindsey Hilsum is diplomatic correspondent for Channel 4 News