Shiite Muslim militia members have infiltrated Iraq’s police force and are carrying out sectarian killings under the color of law, according to documents and scores of interviews.
The abuses raise the specter of organized retaliation to attacks by Sunni-led insurgents that have killed thousands of Shiites, who endured decades of subjugation under Saddam Hussein.
And they undermine the U.S. effort to stabilize the nation, and train and equip Iraq’s security forces -- the Bush administration’s key prerequisites for the eventual withdrawal of American troops.
In recent months, hundreds of bodies have been discovered in rivers, garbage dumps, sewage treatment facilities and alongside roads and in desert ravines. Many of them are thought to be victims of Sunni insurgents, who are known to target Shiite civilians and Iraqi security forces, and even Sunni Arabs believed to be collaborating with U.S. forces or the Iraqi government. But increasingly, the Shiite militias operating within the national police force are also suspected of committing atrocities.
The Baghdad morgue reports that dozens of bodies arrive at the same time on a weekly basis, including scores of corpses with wrists bound by police handcuffs.
Over several months, the Muslim Scholars Assn., a Sunni organization, has compiled a library of grisly autopsy photos, lists of hundreds of missing and dead Sunnis and electronic recordings of testimonies by people who say they witnessed abuses by police officers affiliated with Shiite militias.
U.S. officials have long been concerned about extrajudicial killings in Iraq, but until recently they have refrained from calling violent elements within the police force “death squads” -- a loaded term that conjures up the U.S.-backed paramilitaries that killed thousands of civilians during the Latin American civil wars of the 1970s and 1980s.
But U.S. military advisors in Iraq say the term is apt, and the Interior Ministry’s inspector general concurs that extrajudicial killings are being carried out by ministry forces.
“There are such groups operating -- yes, this is correct,” said Interior Ministry Inspector General Nori Nori.
More than 40 people were interviewed for this report, including U.S. diplomats and generals in Iraq, Iraqi politicians, the Interior Ministry’s intelligence chief and inspector general, the leader of the ministry’s special commando unit, former and current police officers, morgue officials and human rights activists.
Although no one knows exactly how many militia members have been integrated into the national force, witnesses described undocumented arrests and torture by police. Two of the witnesses said they were present when detainees died. This month, U.S. forces raided a secret Interior Ministry detention facility in southern Baghdad operated by police intelligence officials linked to the Badr Brigade, a Shiite militia that has long-standing ties to Iran and to Iraq’s leading Shiite political party. Inmates compiled a handwritten list of 18 detainees at the bunker who were allegedly tortured to death while in custody. The list was authenticated by a U.S. official and given to Justice Ministry authorities for investigation. It was later provided to The Times.
The U.S. military is investigating whether police officers who worked at the secret prison were trained by American interrogation experts.
An Aug. 18 police operations report addressed to Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, who has ties to the Badr militia, listed the names of 14 Sunni Arab men arrested during a predawn sweep in the Baghdad neighborhood of Iskaan.
Six weeks later, their bodies were discovered near the Iranian border, badly decomposed. All of the corpses showed signs of torture, and each still wore handcuffs and had been shot three times in the back of the head, Baghdad morgue officials said.
A Western diplomat in Baghdad who spoke on condition of anonymity said that “we hear repeated stories” of police raids on houses and indiscriminate arrests of Iraqi civilians -- many of them Sunni Arab Muslims.
“And they disappear, but the bodies show up maybe two or three governorates away,” the diplomat said.
The arrest report was authenticated by the Interior Ministry’s intelligence chief, Ali Hussein Kamal, who said that Jabr had received the memo. He said ministry officials did not know who killed the men. He acknowledged police abuses but said the ministry did not officially condone torture or extrajudicial slayings.
Nori, the inspector general, said he was trying to investigate police abuses and make officers more accountable. He pointed out a new ministry initiative to require police units to report all raids and arrests to the ministry. “The Ministry of Interior and other ministries are all made up of various components. This is the main reason the government is not that powerful so far,” Nori said.
“What I want to tell you is this: There are certain gaps within the Ministry of Interior where there are elements whose loyalties lay not with the nation, but to their political organizations.”
Rush to Build Up Police
Allegations of police abuse surfaced even as the national police force was being reconstituted under former Interior Minister Falah Nakib, who served from June 2004 to May 2005. He said that because the police force was created in a rush, background checks could not be conducted on many officers.
“We had to build the Ministry of Interior from nothing,” he said. “And at the same time, we were fighting terrorists and organized crime in the country. And many of the terrorists were better trained and better armed than we were. They had heavy weapons, they had many guns. We had AK-47s and nothing else. We had no training.”
It has been a desperate scramble for the ministry, with insurgents killing an increasing number of Iraqi troops. In January, insurgents killed 109 Iraqi police officers and soldiers; in July, 304 were killed. The ministry’s police forces tripled in size in a year, from 31,300 in July 2004 to 94,800 in July 2005.
In the ministry’s haste to hire police officers, Nakib turned to men with questionable allegiances. For example, police officers who had worked under Saddam Hussein’s regime were hired, and Nakib said that Sunni Arab insurgents had infiltrated the force. But he said the integration of Shiite militiamen into the police force has had the most damaging effect on Iraq’s security situation.
“There have been some mistakes, I must say that,” the former minister said.
The most deadly squads operate mainly in Baghdad, where the police force is about 60,000 strong, U.S. and Iraqi officials say. The Baghdad police are dominated by Shiites and split between two main factions, U.S. and Iraqi officials said: the Badr Brigade and the Al Mahdi army, which was founded by militant anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr.
Apart from the 100,000-strong Kurdish peshmerga militia, based in northern Iraq, the two Shiite militias are the largest paramilitary forces in the nation, each with at least 10,000 members, according to conservative estimates. In June 2004, the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority issued Order 91, which outlawed militias and outlined a process by which militia members could be integrated into Iraqi security forces.
Under the order, thousands of militiamen have enlisted in the security forces. But instead of fully disbanding, the militias appear to have regrouped and extended their influence inside Iraq’s security forces, U.S. and Iraqi officials say.
Unlike the Iraqi army, which has a relatively close relationship with U.S. military units -- sharing bases, conducting joint operations and receiving training from thousands of U.S. officers -- Iraq’s police force has operated more independently since the transfer of sovereignty in late June 2004.
In a recent interview, Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a U.S. military spokesman, said 700 U.S. military personnel and private contractors were training Iraq’s 111,000-member police force. “The priority was first placed on building the Iraqi army and at the same time allowing the Iraqi police force to evolve,” Lynch said.
Several U.S. military officials in Baghdad said they were increasingly frustrated with Jabr, whom they see as unwilling to share information about police operations with them. The military officials also complained that Jabr is beholden to paramilitary leaders, especially the Badr militia.
U.S. and Iraqi sources said the squads were being used in neighborhoods around Baghdad to consolidate political power and intimidate opponents.
The Al Mahdi army has a heavy presence in the regular police force, U.S. and Iraqi authorities said. One high-ranking U.S. military officer estimated that up to 90% of the 35,000 police officers working in northeast Baghdad were affiliated with Al Mahdi.
The U.S. officer said that “half of them are in a unit called ‘the Punishment Committee,’ ” suspected of committing abuses against civilians believed to be flouting Islamic laws or the militia’s authority. The officer said that Sunni Arab Muslims were frequently targeted by the committee.
Haider Albadi, spokesman for Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, confirmed the existence of the secret police squad and its possible involvement in mass slayings.
“We are investigating that,” Albadi said. “We know there is infiltration in our security forces -- we know that for sure.”
U.S. officials and residents in the Rusafa area in northeast Baghdad say Al Mahdi militiamen often operate alongside, and within, the police, setting up unsanctioned checkpoints and conducting unwarranted raids on houses.
Militia operations have reshaped whole neighborhoods, driving hundreds of Sunni Arab families out of mixed but predominantly Shiite areas in northeast Baghdad, said U.S. military sources and Sunni Arab leaders. They say the militias are intent on exacting revenge for Sunni Arab insurgent attacks against Shiites.
“You can spot them a mile away,” said one U.S. officer, who asked for anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to journalists. “A lot of times they’ll be in plainclothes or you ask them for police identification and they don’t have any. And there are plenty of these guys who are just regular police.”
U.S. military sources said Badr militia members in the ministry’s Maghawir (Fearless Warrior) special commando brigades were carrying out illegal raids and extrajudicial killings.
The paramilitary brigades are known for their effectiveness at counterinsurgency operations and their brutality, having conducted large-scale counter-terrorism operations in Ramadi, Mosul, Fallouja and Baghdad. A 12,000-man commando force was widely deployed this year under the interim administration of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi as a response to insurgent bombings and assassinations of policemen and Shiite civilians.
Although some brigade commanders are Sunni Arabs, rank-and-file commandos are predominantly Shiite.
International human rights organizations have charged that the commando units often arrest and detain civilians without good cause. The brigades have also been accused of torture and extrajudicial killings.
Gen. Rashid Flaih Mohammed, commander of the Maghawir, acknowledged militia infiltration among his commandos but downplayed their influence. He said that new policing procedures issued by the ministry were reining in his forces.
“We receive more information now from the Ministry of Defense about targets,” he said. “Then we assign our surveillance people to study them before we decide what size force we need to do the job. We are very clear here, very transparent. We don’t have secret things.”
U.S. and Iraqi officials believe that both militias have been responsible for scores of execution-style slayings this year.
“The Mahdi army’s got the Iraqi police and Badr’s got the commandos,” the high-ranking U.S. military officer said. “Everybody’s got their own death squads.”
Morgue officials said they have received a record number of bodies this year: more than 7,553 corpses as of September, compared with 5,239 in the same period last year. Nearly all of this year’s victims had been shot, although many may have been victims of crime or sectarian violence unrelated to the police forces.
The most troubling cases, said Baghdad Morgue Director Dr. Faik Baqr, are the mass homicides, a new development this year.
“Among them, we see many signs of torture,” he said. “Most of them have blunt trauma, cigarette burns. They have been hit with sticks, cables, kicking. Some have had drill holes into them.” Baqr said that nearly all of the mass victims arrive bound by handcuffs -- plastic flexicuffs, but also “stainless steel ones, good ones,” he said. “Sometimes we keep them. Sometimes we unlock them and return them to the police.”
Suspect Sunnis Ousted
In May, Iraq’s Shiite-led transitional government appointed Jabr to head the Interior Ministry and gave him a mandate to purge police forces of suspected Sunni Arab insurgents. Jabr said that infiltrators were providing information about police officers to insurgent groups.
But Sunni Arabs within the police force have complained that they have been singled out by the predominantly Shiite leadership of the Interior Ministry.
Brig. Gen. Mohammed Ezzawi Hussein Alwaan said that he and three of his brothers, all police officers, were among those caught up in the purge. Under Nakib, the former interior minister, Alwaan commanded the Farook Brigade, primarily made up of Sunni Arabs. They fought alongside U.S. forces in Ramadi and other areas in the western province of Al Anbar.
After Jabr’s appointment, Alwaan said, the general’s force was disbanded, and his brothers were arrested by Maghawir commandos.
Alwaan said that family members described how, on May 15, the commandos arrived at his family home in 20 cars in the middle of the night.
“They showed my brother’s wife an intelligence office arrest warrant,” said Alwaan, who was in Jordan at the time of the raid. His sister-in-law related the events of that night to him, he said. “They took away my brother’s mobile phone and his gun and arrested him.
“About a week later, we heard from the forensic department,” Alwaan said.
The body of Khalid Hussein Alwaan, 43, was discovered in a Baghdad garbage dump. His eyes had been gouged out and his corpse had wounds consistent with holes made by a power drill.
Three months later, two other brothers, Monieem Hussein Alwaan, 40, and Koudir Hussein Alwaan, 43, were listed in the August arrest report to Jabr’s office. The list also included the names of 12 other men. The Times obtained copies of death certificates for 11 of the listed arrestees, including the two Alwaan brothers. The documents were issued by the Baghdad morgue and officially stamped by the Forensic Institute of the Ministry of Health on Oct. 3. Morgue officials authenticated the documents.
Alwaan said that he met with Jabr to ask about the deaths, but the interior minister denied knowing anything about them. Jabr also suggested that gangs posing as police officers might be responsible, Alwaan said.
“I said, it must be someone from the Interior Ministry,” Alwaan recalled. “So many officers in 20 police cars, with guns -- it cannot be some gang.”
According to conservative estimates, more than 26,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq by violence since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
The number of armed groups and the monumental scale of violence in Iraq make it difficult to assign blame. There are multiple Sunni Arab insurgent groups, from Baathist supporters of Hussein to members of Islamic militant groups such as Ansar al Sunna and Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Violent crime also clouds the issue. Kidnappings and murders are a daily occurrence in Iraq, and with inadequate investigative capabilities and limited judicial resources, many crimes go unpunished.
When presented with witnesses’ claims that police have committed abuses, many ministry officials discount police involvement and blame street criminals impersonating officers.
But the revelation of the ministry’s secret prison confirmed the fears of some Iraqis who have for months complained about police abuses.
The low-slung bunker held 169 people in deplorable conditions. A reporter viewed pictures of inmates who appeared to have been badly beaten. One man had raw, red streaks across his back as if he had been whipped. Another man had been flogged so badly that he could not stand without assistance, according to sources who witnessed the evacuation of the prisoners last week.
Kamal, the intelligence official, confirmed that a police program called the Secret Investigative Unit was based at the bunker and that it was being run by two men, a brigadier and a colonel. The colonel is believed to be in charge of integrating Badr militiamen into the police forces, U.S. and Iraqi sources said.
The colonel is in charge of the bunker, said a U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He is in intelligence, but he doesn’t report to Kamal. He reports directly to Jabr.” Kamal said the colonel would be punished if crimes were committed, but he brooked no further discussion of the men because of the sensitive nature of their jobs.
“It’s like the CIA,” Kamal said. “You don’t tell their names because of the sensitive work they do.” Kamal said the purpose of the secret investigative unit was to track down terrorists and that he was surprised to hear of abuses at the bunker. Kamal said he is investigating the existence of other secret prisons in Iraq.
“I will not hide that I received such information,” Kamal said. “I am trying to find these secret prisons.”
Kamal said he has suspected that death squads have been operating ever since he started hearing reports about nighttime raids and mass killings.
“The killings that are happening are on two sides,” Kamal said. “There are Shiite and Sunni killings happening. These are not simple people committing these acts. Their methods, the weapons used -- the criminals doing these killings are using in their operations cars and weapons used by the Iraqi government.”
Account of Abuse
The Sunni Arab teenager stretched out his arms to show the scabbed ligature marks that encircled his wrists. “That’s where the police handcuffed me and hung me on a hook,” he said.
He rolled up his pants and took off his shirt so journalists could see red welts, glossy scabs and fresh burn marks where he said police had beat him with pipes and shocked him with wires attached to a car battery.
The interview with the boy was arranged by the Muslim Scholars Assn., which in addition to documenting abuses, has served as a go-between for kidnap victims in Iraq and insurgent kidnappers.
Two days after his alleged release Nov. 7, the 15-year-old boy spoke for more than two hours about his allegations of abduction and torture by militia-affiliated police officers.
His account could not be corroborated because it is too dangerous to interview people in his Baghdad neighborhood, a known Al Mahdi militia stronghold, which will go unnamed out of concern for his safety. The boy will go unnamed for the same reason.
The teenager said he was watching television at 1 p.m. on Nov. 2 when about 10 armed, masked men stormed into his home.
“They hit me in the back of the head and pulled me away by the collar,” the boy said. “They led me to a Caprice car.” He said the gunmen forced him to lie on the floor of the back seat and that they drove to a house he did not recognize.
The men took him inside, blindfolded him and started to beat him, the boy said. He said he could hear other beatings taking place around him and the screams of other captives.
“And when we scream or shout, they told us to shut up or they’ll use electricity on us,” he said. “They were telling us, ‘You will confess that you exploded an IED [improvised explosive device] on civilians.’ They told me, if I don’t confess they would beat me harder.”
When night fell, the men drove the blindfolded youth to a police station where officers locked handcuffs tightly around his wrists. The boy, who said his blindfold was removed after his arrival, recognized and identified the police station.
After one night, police blindfolded him again, put him in a car and drove for what he estimated was about two hours. The boy said that as he was taken into a large room, his blindfold had slipped enough so that he could see approximately 50 other handcuffed and blindfolded men.
The boy said that he and others were shocked with wires hooked up to a car battery. The boy also described how some prisoners were tortured by guards pressing superheated silverware into their skin. Some guards rubbed salt into wounds they inflicted on inmates, the boy said.
Two or three days into his ordeal, the boy heard guards angrily questioning a man somewhere in the room.
“They told him, ‘You are the guy with the booby-trapped car.” And the man said, ‘Yes.’ And they said, ‘You want to kill people, don’t you?’ and I heard them cock the gun and shoot him.” Later, when the guards had left the room, the boy peeked under his blindfold and saw the man lying in a pool of blood.
The boy said that after three or four days, three guards appeared to take pity on him. They allowed him to use the bathroom and spoke more kindly to him than the other guards. He believes they managed to win his release.
In July, Dhiaa Adnan Salah, a 26-year-old Sunni Arab, and 10 other relatives were at a hospital in northwest Baghdad visiting three cousins who had been shot by U.S. troops after their minibus drove too close to a military convoy.
Suddenly, a band of Maghawir commandos stormed into the emergency room and began barking questions to the family members, Salah said. They accused the men of being insurgents who had engaged in a gunfight with them a day earlier.
“They asked me who I was,” Salah said. “I told them I worked for the Oil Ministry and they started beating me with their hands and the butts of their guns.” Salah said they handcuffed all 14 of the men, including the three injured men, and continued to beat them.
“The place was filled with people,” Salah said. “Doctors, [regular] police, patients -- they all saw what was going on. They took one cousin, he was very badly injured, from the emergency room bed. They took off his oxygen mask and took him outside.” In a recent interview, two hospital administrators confirmed the raid took place. They asked for anonymity, fearing police reprisal.
Salah said that the commandos handcuffed and blindfolded the group and shoved them into a police detention van. On a day when temperatures hit three digits, Salah said that several of the men started crying and pleading to be released from the hot, dark van, but after a few minutes they fell silent.
“It felt like we had no tears, no sweat, not even spit in our mouths,” he said. “I think we fainted after 15 minutes. Twelve hours later, I awoke in the Yarmouk Hospital emergency room.” Salah said he saw several of his cousins lying dead on stretchers. Three of his cousins were still alive, but they died later.
Salah said he is the only survivor of the incident.
Mohammed, the Maghawir commander, said that his officers did not know how to operate the detention van’s air-conditioning unit and meant no harm to come to the men.
Salah said he spoke with a police officer stationed at the hospital about what had happened. Salah said the officer told him he would report the matter to the Interior Ministry.
“Only 30 minutes later, the Maghawir returned to the hospital,” Salah said.
“One of the officers I had spoken to earlier at the hospital came to me and said, ‘You have to rescue yourself.’ He helped me open a window and told me to run.”