MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

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And I'm Steve Inskeep.

In Iraq, hundreds of thousands of people have gone missing in the wars dating back three decades. Iraqi human rights officials say at least 15,000 people are missing since the American invasion in 2003. Most of those disappearances came during the bloody sectarian violence around 2006, 2007, when bodies were dumped into rivers and into mass graves, or just left in the streets. But many of the missing may still be alive and languishing in jail with no way for their families to find them. NPR's Kelly McEvers reports from Baghdad.�

Group: (Chanting in foreign language)

KELLY MCEVERS: Every Friday you'll find a small Arab uprising here in Baghdad. The location: Tahrir Square, a plaza marked by a modernist sculpture that depicts Iraqis in a lifelong struggle for freedom.�

These days Iraqis don't want to topple their government - the fall of Saddam wreaked enough chaos. But young protesters do have a host of complaints -corruption, the lack of electricity, water, and jobs.�

That's not all. There's another group you see every Friday with their black robes and hardened faces - women holding photographs of their male relatives and shouting demands.�

Unidentified Woman #1: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: These are the mothers and wives and sisters of the missing. We've searched the prisons and morgues, they say. We've come here as a last resort.�

One woman said she drove two hours to Baghdad in hopes that someone will help her find her son. He disappeared in 2006 in the western city of Ramadi.�

Ms. UMM HAIDAR: (Through translator) Her son was on the he was going to bring a car on the - and he was - there was some fire, some�clashes on the Ramadi bridge, and he was arrested.

MCEVERS: All I want to know, she says, is if my son is dead or alive.

Earlier this year, as uprisings around the region toppled some leaders and forced others to announce reforms, the Iraqi government said it would launch a new program to search for the missing.�

The plan was that the Iraqi Army would take requests from families at a battalion headquarters like this one. Then a joint civilian-military committee would search prison rosters, hospitals, and lists from newly discovered mass graves. At this station alone, some 600 families registered.�

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: This soldier, who doesn't want to give his name, worked on the new committee. He says the registration is now closed, and nothing has been done with the list of the missing. The soldier says the program was simply a way to placate anti-government protesters.�

Unidentified Man: (Through translator) People who we received in the beginning, are coming now and asking us, what did you do? And we tell them, nothing. We couldn't find anyone.

Ms. HAIDAR: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: We decide to go and see the woman we first met in Tahrir Square who told us about her son, Haidar, who disappeared in 2006. She never made it to the registration committee.�

So these are his pants?

Ms. HAIDAR: (Through translator) Yes, that he used to go to work in the asphalt - in the tar business.

MCEVERS: And she saved them. They're not clean. They're still - she hasn't washed them, you know. She saves�them as is, yeah?�

Ms. HAIDAR: (Through translator) Yeah.

MCEVERS: Umm Haidar says her son was detained after an American convoy was attacked on a bridge in western Iraq. She later heard he was being held in a notorious, secret prison in Baghdad's Green Zone.�

Umm Haidar went to a distant relative who worked as a lawyer. He promised to help - for a thousand dollars. She gave the money to two uniformed officers. The lawyer promised she would talk to her son on the phone. That never happened. The lawyer disappeared.�

Ms. HAIDAR: (Through translator): Because I'm his mom, I really am in pain. Whenever I eat something, I say, is he hungry? Is�he asleep? Just wondering all the time, thinking about him.

MCEVERS: Umm Haidar's search did not stop with the lawyer. She ended up giving another thousand dollars to a man who claimed he was in jail with Haidar. He ended up disappearing with the money, too.�

Ms. HAIDAR: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Now Umm Haidar packs and unpacks, folds and unfolds her son's unworn clothes.�

Salim al-Jabouri heads the human rights committee of the Iraqi parliament. He says the trade in missing persons is so widespread that officers now make arrests so they later can extort money out of the families.�

Mr. SALIM AL-JABOURI (Iraqi Parliamentary Human Rights Commission): (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Jabouri is part of a group that exposed the secret prison in the Green Zone. It's run by a special forces unit that answers directly to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

We ask Jabouri to see the list of people who are known to be in the secret prison. We scan the list for Haidar.

2006, no.�

Unidentified Woman #2 (Interpreter): I was just checking the names.

MCEVERS: Yeah. Not seeing it. No Haidars.

His name isn't there. We realize we'll have to tell Umm Haidar her story has ended, like the stories of so many families here - with a question mark.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Baghdad.

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