FORWARD OPERATING BASE LOYALTY, Iraq — It’s a place that still terrifies the Iraqi people.
Now home to the 3rd Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team, this base in eastern Baghdad was once the site of Iraq’s General Security National Headquarters, an intelligence nerve center used with chilling effect by the Saddam Hussein regime.
“When we were here in 2003, a lot of our interpreters wouldn’t even come inside the gates,” said Army 1st Lt. Greg Holmes of Cobleskill, N.Y., the 2nd Brigade’s assistant intelligence officer.
That’s because most Iraqis remember the notorious former detention center tucked away on the grounds, one of hundreds just like it across the country. The Army now uses it for storage, but the old jail remains a haunting symbol of the past — with tattered concrete walls and metal doors that offer disturbing tales of what transpired inside.
“The base was their version of the Iraqi FBI, responsible for internal security,” said Maj. Steve Rosson of Jonesboro, Ill., intelligence officer for the 2nd Brigade. “Many Iraqis today still refuse to walk near the prison. The belief was that once you walked inside the walls, you were never seen again.
“To this day, it carries a stigma. It’s one of the reasons we haven’t refurbished it and used it as a detention center, because of the history.”
Political dissidents and enemies of the state were brought here, those who didn’t “serve Saddam.” Interrogation, beatings and inhumane living conditions were part of daily life.
Soldiers from the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment arrived in August 2003 and discovered torture devices still in place, Rosson said. Outside, along a narrow corridor on the building’s interior, prisoners were allegedly chained to the floor in awkward, uncomfortable positions.
“Speculation is they’d keep them there for extended periods,” he said. “That was their idea of giving them outdoor time.”
No name was attached to the prison. It wasn’t designed for long-term confinement, but some wound up staying for a decade or longer, according to Rosson, citing thousands of files — some dating to 1961 — found in the compound’s archives building after the fall of Baghdad.
“Just knowing the regime, they could have been completely truncated charges to hold people for years,” he added.
Most of the buildings on what is now called FOB Loyalty had some form of a holding cell or cage, even the hospital, where Army officials believe chemical interrogation may have taken place.
Rosson said Chinese laborers built all the facilities, including the prison. After construction, Saddam charged them with espionage and they became its first occupants. Cantonese is scribbled on the walls of many cells.
“We have no idea when that took place and it’s uncertain how many Chinese there were. It’s believed they spent many years there and died in the prison,” Rosson said. “Apparently, they knew too much to go back home.”
Arabic phrases also are carved into cell doors and walls, though it’s unclear what the statements say.
The prison, partially damaged during the war’s “shock and awe” phase — when U.S. planes took out the security complex’s headquarters and operations center — could hold about 500 people.
Hayder Abdul-Nabi said two of his brothers were inmates. One spent seven years and then did 10 more at Abu Ghraib. His crime? He lost a pistol while serving in the Iraqi security forces.
“We didn’t know anything about [what happened to] him for seven years,” Abdul-Nabi said, conceding he was hesitant to even go inside the prison during a recent tour. “The Iraqi people are very scared of this place. They’d kill people here by pouring acid on them.”
Darkness grips Loyalty each night, as base officials keep lights to a minimum for security reasons. It’s perhaps a fitting reminder to those outside the wire of what the place once represented.
“The base still has an eerie quality to it and certainly among the Iraqis,” Rosson said. “They know the prison isn’t used for anything anymore, but it still puts fear in their hearts.”