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Some stare blankly from driver's-licence mug shots. Others grin in candidly captured moments. But all of the 605 faces, mostly men, mostly young, are frozen in time as they hang in rows, their fate unknown, in a heart-rending legacy of the brutal Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

In the 12 years since they disappeared into the vast maw of Baghdad's prison gulag, the 605 Kuwaitis listed as missing during the Iraqi occupation have become a national mystery. Hints that some, maybe many, have survived come from unverified and fragmented accounts of sightings by others released from Iraqi prisons. Yet many families have come to accept a different fate.

"Only a few of us believe they can still be alive," said Abdul Hameed al-Attar, 70, whose son Jamal was arrested in 1990, along with three other Kuwaitis, in a high-school science laboratory, apparently trying to fashion a crude bomb. "But if you know the Iraqi regime, there is always hope."

Baghdad claims it recorded the arrest of only 126 of the 605 missing and that it "lost track" of all of them during the 1991 U.S.-led war to liberate Kuwait. But Saddam Hussein's regime has a long and ugly history of holding prisoners for decades. Just this year, it freed a handful of Iranians, some of whom had been held for 17 years since the middle of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. This was long after Baghdad had assured both Tehran and the International Committee for the Red Cross that all prisoners had been sent home.

Of the missing Kuwaitis, seven are women, and a handful were senior Kuwaiti military or police officers. Nearly two dozen were younger than 16. Some people were seized for refusing to put Iraqi licence plates on their cars. Others were caught actively plotting resistance.

Most were arrested in the first weeks of Iraq's occupation, and witness accounts from the thousands of Kuwaiti prisoners released immediately after the war place nearly half of the missing in Iraqi prisons where they were taken long before the Persian Gulf war began on Jan. 17, 1991.

For this oil-rich but tiny city state of barely 2.5 million people, the missing remain a painful, unhealed wound.

Earlier this month, hopes flickered again when it was announced that Mr. Hussein would address "the Kuwaiti people." After months of frantic efforts by Baghdad to mend fences with Kuwait, including an acknowledgement of its sovereignty and the return of some looted archives, "we thought he must talk about the missing," Mr. al-Attar said. Instead, the Iraqi ruler's address urged a Kuwaiti uprising to drive foreign (U.S.) troops from its soil.

Several United Nations Security Council resolutions as well as the ceasefire agreement ending the Persian Gulf conflict require Baghdad to repatriate or account for all Kuwaiti prisoners.

Yet Baghdad has boycotted meetings of an ICRC-led commission charged with returning remains of the dead, repatriating the missing and accounting for unresolved files. It has freed only one of the missing -- a woman -- and that was in 1994. Since then, Kuwait has spent millions of dollars building a garish shrine, lined with huge murals and the rows of photographs. All 605 are still paid their salaries and promoted in absentia.

But grieving families have started to get on with their lives.

Jamal al-Attar's wife, who was only 19 when her husband disappeared, divorced him and returned to her family in Syria.

Once huge, the demonstrations demanding that Baghdad account for the missing have dwindled.

"Most of the families don't come here any more," Mr. al-Attar said after evening prayers inside the Centre for Missing and PoWs. "They say the media are treating them like monkeys in a zoo and they are tired of all the publicity."

But hope springs eternal. Some families have seized on the possibility that another U.S.-led war might lead to their loved ones being found and freed.

It's not impossible. When the Kurdish uprising in 1991 seized control of large chunks of northern Iraq, some political prisoners were found in jails where they had been held incommunicado and sometimes in solitary confinement for more than a decade. But those prisons also revealed grim evidence of many who didn't survive. Notes scrawled on walls recounted torture or scratched calendars that suddenly ended.

Mr. al-Attar said he is resigned to learning that his eldest son is dead. But a war, he added, would bring some satisfaction, some closure.

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