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Abu Ghraib, 30 kilometres west of Baghdad, is Iraq's biggest prison. Until recently, it held perhaps 50,000 people, perhaps more. No one knows for sure. No one knows how many people were taken there through the years and never came out.

For a generation, Abu Ghraib was the centrepiece of Saddam Hussein's reign of torture and death. Yahya al-Jaiyashy is one of the survivors.

Mr. Jaiyashy is an animated, bearded man of 49 whose words can scarcely keep up with the torrent of his memories. Today he lives in Toronto with his second wife, Sahar. This week, he sat down with me to relate his story. With him were his wife, a lovely Iraqi woman in her mid-30s, and a friend, Haithem al-Hassan, who helped me with Mr. Jaiyashy's mixture of Arabic and rapid English.

"Nineteen seventy-seven was the first time I went to jail," he says. "I was not tortured that much."

He was in his mid-20s then, from an intellectual family that lived in a town south of Baghdad. He had been a student of Islamic history, language and religion in the holy city of Najaf, but was forced to quit his studies after he refused to join the ruling Ba'ath party. His ambition was to write books that would show how Islam could open itself up to modernism.

In Saddam's Iraq, this was a dangerous occupation, especially for a Shiite. Shia Muslims are the majority in Iraq, but Saddam and his inner circle are Sunni. Many Shiites were under suspicion as enemies of the state.

"My father was scared for me," says Mr. Jaiyashy. " 'You know how dangerous this regime is,' he told me. 'You know how many people they kill.' "

Mr. Jaiyashy continued his studies on his own. But, eventually, he was picked up, along with a dozen acquaintances who had been involved in political activity against the regime. They were sent to Abu Ghraib. The others did not get off as lightly as he did. One was killed by immersion into a vat of acid. Ten others, he recalls, were put into a room and torn apart by wild dogs. Several prominent religious leaders were also executed. One was a university dean, someone Mr. Jaiyashy remembers as "a great man." They drove a nail through his skull.

For three decades, the most vicious war Saddam has waged has been the one against his own people. Iraq's most devastating weapon of mass destruction is Saddam himself. And the most powerful case for regime change is their suffering.

Sometimes, it is almost impossible to believe the accounts of people who survived Saddam's chamber of horrors. They seem like twisted nightmares, or perhaps crude propaganda. But there are too many survivors who have escaped Iraq, too many credible witnesses. And Mr. Jaiyashy's story, horrible as it is, is not unusual.

Saddam personally enjoyed inflicting torture in the early years of his career, and he has modelled his police state after that of his hero, Stalin. According to Kenneth Pollack, a leading U.S. expert on Iraq, the regime employs as many as half a million people in its various intelligence, security and police organizations. Hundreds of thousands of others serve as informants. Neighbour is encouraged to inform on neighbour, children on their parents. Saddam has made Iraq into a self-policing totalitarian state, where everyone is afraid of everybody else.

"Being in Iraq is like creeping around inside someone else's migraine," says veteran BBC correspondent John Sweeney. "The fear is so omnipresent, you could almost eat it."

To Stalin's methods of arbitrary arrests and forced confessions, Saddam has added an element of sadism: the torture of children to extract information from their parents.

In northern Iraq -- the only place in the country where people can speak relatively freely -- Mr. Sweeney interviewed several people who had direct experience of child torture. He also met one of the victims -- a four-year-old girl, the daughter of a man who had worked for Saddam's psychopathic son Uday. When the man fell under suspicion, he fled to the Kurdish safe haven in the north. The police came for his wife and tortured her to reveal his whereabouts; when she didn't break, they took his daughter and crushed her feet. She was 2 then. Today, she wears metal braces on her legs, and can only hobble.

"This is a regime that will gouge out the eyes of children to force confessions from their parents and grandparents," writes Mr. Pollack in his new book, The Threatening Storm. "This is a regime that will hold a nursing baby at arm's length from its mother and allow the child to starve to death to force the mother to confess. This is a regime that will burn a person's limbs off to force him to confess or comply. This is a regime that will slowly lower its victims into huge vats of acid. . . .

"This is a regime that practises systematic rape against the female victims. This is a regime that will drag in a man's wife, daughter or other female relative and repeatedly rape her in front of him." And if he has fled the country, it will send him the video.

After nearly two years in prison, Mr. Jaiyashy was released and sent to do military service in the north. Then the security police decided to round up the followers of one of the executed clerics. In 1980, Mr. Jaiyashy was arrested again, along with 20 friends, and taken to a military prison. He was interrogated about criticisms he was supposed to have made of the regime, and urged to sign a confession. During one session, his wrists were tied to a ceiling fan. Then they turned on the fan. Then they added weights onto his body and did it again. Then somebody climbed on him to add more weight. "It was 20 minutes, but it seemed like 20 years," he recalls.

He was beaten with a water hose filled with stones. When he passed out, he was shocked back into consciousness with an electric cable. They hung him by his legs, pulled out a fingernail with pliers, and drove an electric drill through his foot.

Mr. Jaiyashy took off his right shoe and sock to show me his foot. It is grotesquely mutilated, with a huge swelling over the arch. There is an Amnesty International report on human-rights abuses in Iraq with a photo of a mutilated foot that looks identical to his. The baby finger on his left hand is also mutilated.

He didn't sign the confession. He knew that, if he did, they would eventually kill him.

They put him in solitary confinement, in a cell measuring two metres by two and a half, without windows or light. Every few weeks, they would bring him the confession again, but he refused to sign. He stayed there for a year.

In 1981, he was sent to trial, where he persuaded a sympathetic judge not to impose the death sentence. He got 10 years instead, and was sent back to Abu Ghraib. "They put me in a cell with 50 people. It was three and a half by three and a half metres. Some stood, some sat. They took turns."

There was a small window in the cell, with a view of a tree. It was the only living thing the prisoners could see. The tree was cut down. There were informants in the cells and, every morning, guards would come and take someone and beat him till he died. "This is your breakfast!" they would say.

Mr. Jaiyashy spent the next six years in that cell. His parents were told he was dead.

Abu Ghraib contained many intellectuals and professional people. Among them was the scientist Hussein Shahristani, a University of Toronto alumnus who became a leading nuclear scientist in Iraq. He was imprisoned after he refused to work on Saddam's nuclear program. He spent 10 years in Abu Ghraib, most of them in solitary confinement, until he escaped in 1991.

Saddam has reduced his people to abject poverty. He wiped out families, villages, cities and cultures, and drove four million people into exile. He killed between 100,000 and 200,000 Kurds. He killed as many as 300,000 Shiites in the uprising after the Persian Gulf war. He killed or displaced 200,000 of the 250,000 marsh Arabs who had created a unique, centuries-old culture in the south. He drained the marshes, an environmental treasure, and turned them into a desert.

In a recent Frontline documentary, a woman who fled Iraq recounted how she and others had been forced to witness the public beheadings of 15 women who had been rounded up for prostitution and other crimes against the state. One of the women was a doctor who had been misreported as speaking against the regime. "They put her head in a trash can," she said.

In 1987, Mr. Jaiyashy and a thousand other inmates were transferred to an outdoor prison camp. There, they were allowed a visit with their relatives, so long as they said nothing of their lives in prison. Mr. Jaiyashy's parents came, hoping he might still be alive. He remembers the day all the families came. "There was so much crying. We called it the crying day."

In 1989, he was finally released from prison. Then came the gulf war and, after that, the uprising, which he joined. It was quickly crushed. He fled with 150,000 refugees toward the Saudi border. But the Saudis didn't want them. "They are Wahhabis," he says. "They consider the Shia as infidels." The United Nations set up a refugee camp, where Mr. Jaiyashy spent the next six years. He began to paint and write again.

Finally, he was accepted as an immigrant to Canada. He arrived in Toronto in 1996, and is now a Canadian citizen.

Mr. Jaiyashy has a deep sense of gratitude toward his adoptive country. Canada, he says, has given him back his freedom and his dignity. He paints prolifically, and has taken courses at the art college, and is the author of three plays about the Saddam regime. He makes his living stocking shelves in a fabric store. "I'm a porter," he says. "No problem. I'm happy."

But Saddam's spies are everywhere. After one of his plays was produced here, his father was imprisoned. His first wife and three children are still in Iraq. He hasn't seen them since his youngest, now 12, was a baby. He talks with them on the phone from time to time, but it is very dangerous. One of his brothers is in Jordan, another still in Iraq.

Sahar, his second wife, is soft-spoken. She covers her head and dresses modestly, without makeup. Her face is unlined. She arrived in Canada with her two daughters the same year as Mr. Jaiyashy; they were introduced by friends.

She, too, has a story. I learned only the smallest part of it. "I was a widow," she told me. "My husband was a doctor in Iraq. He wanted to continue his education and have a specialty. But they didn't allow him. He deserted the military service to continue his education on his own. They beat him till he died."

Today, her daughters are in high school and she teaches at a daycare centre. Her new husband pushed her to study hard here. "ESL, ESL," she says affectionately.

Like many Iraqis, they are conflicted about the prospect of war. They want Saddam gone. But they do not want more harm inflicted on their country. "I want Saddam gone -- only him," says Mr. Jaiyashy.

A few weeks ago, Saddam threw open the doors of Abu Ghraib and freed the prisoners there. Many families rejoiced, and many others, who did not find their loved ones, mounted a brief, unheard-of protest against the regime. The prison is a ghost camp now. Nothing is left but piles of human excrement that cake the razor wire.

Saddam's Iraq is a rebuke to anyone who may doubt that absolute evil dwells among us. No one has put it better than Mr. Sweeney, the BBC reporter. "When I hear the word Iraq, I hear a tortured child screaming."

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My mistake: In a column published on Nov. 9, I identified Frances Henry and Carol Tator, the authors of Discourses of Domination,as black. They are white.