A 1,500-member Iraqi police force with close ties to Shiite militia groups has emerged as a focus of investigations into suspected death squads working within the country's Interior Ministry.
Iraq's national highway patrol was established largely to stave off insurgent attacks on roadways. But U.S. military officials, interviewed over the last several days, say they suspect the patrol of being deeply involved in illegal detentions, torture and extrajudicial killings.
The officials said that in recent months the U.S. has withdrawn financial and advisory support from the patrol in an effort to distance the American training effort from what they perceived to be a renegade force.
"We don't train them, we don't give them equipment, we don't conduct site visits over there. They are just bad, criminal people," said a high-ranking U.S. military officer who advises the Interior Ministry. The officer was one of three who each spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they wanted to maintain relationships with Iraqi police officials and avoid retaliation by U.S. military superiors.
Last month, Iraqi army soldiers stopped a 22-member squad of uniformed highway patrol officers at a nighttime checkpoint in northern Baghdad and discovered a man in their custody who told them the police planned to kill him. His contention was supported by confessions of officers in the squad, U.S. advisors said.
U.S. officials have called 2006 "the year of the police" and have placed a renewed emphasis on training officers. The Bush administration repeatedly has said the development of Iraq's security forces must occur before withdrawal of U.S. troops can begin.
The U.S. military works closely with Iraqi army units, conducting joint operations and sharing space on some military bases. By contrast, police forces have evolved far more independently in approximately 11,000 stations and outposts around the nation.
The result is a motley conglomeration of agencies under the Interior Ministry with overlapping jurisdictions and poorly defined functions.
"You've got the facilities protection service, the public order brigades, the commandos, the highway patrol, the regular police, the traffic police, patrol officers," said a second U.S. military official.
"Who knows who they all are? Nobody controls them but the minister," the officer said, referring to Interior Minister Bayan Jabr.
Jabr, a Shiite with close ties to the Badr Brigade, a paramilitary group, has been at the center of allegations of abuse at the hands of Iraqi security forces. The minister's notoriety rose last year as the bodies of hundreds of men -- mostly Sunni Arabs -- started appearing in sewage treatment plants, garbage dumps and desert ravines. Most of the bodies showed signs of torture and execution-style killings. Many families of the deceased said their kin had last been seen in the back of a police vehicle.
The Shiites, who constitute about 60% of the Iraqi population, were severely repressed under Saddam Hussein's regime, which favored the Sunni minority. The Shiites came to power in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion of March 2003. A Sunni-led insurgency has carried out a campaign of bombings and assassinations against the government.
Over the last two years, Shiite militias within Iraq's security forces have been accused of staging reprisals for the Sunni attacks. Leading Sunni figures have blamed the reprisals on Jabr. Sunni political parties have made his removal from office a key issue in negotiations over whether they will take part in Iraq's Shiite-led government.
In a recent interview, Army Maj. Gen. Joseph Peterson, who is leading the multibillion-dollar effort to train and equip Iraq's police forces, vigorously defended the minister and said he was heartened by Jabr's pledge to investigate the abuse fully.
"Death squads -- they're a real issue," said Peterson. "I can tell you, we caught our first death squad," he said, referring to the unit that was apprehended last month. "The minister of Interior is elated that we caught them," he added.
Peterson said U.S. and Interior Ministry officials were investigating the highway patrol squad to determine "where these guys came from and how they were organized and who was leading them and what was their purpose."
Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a U.S. military spokesman, said that the Interior Ministry was leading the investigation into the suspected death squad.
Ali Hussein Kamal, the Interior Ministry's intelligence chief, said in an interview Sunday that investigators were also trying to determine whether the Iraqi general in charge of the highway patrol was linked to the squad.
"If we find that these allegations that he is involved are true, we will be taking very firm measures against him," Kamal said. "But generally speaking, high-ranking officers are usually ignorant of what their lower-ranking officers are doing."
U.S. personnel who have been training Iraqi police officers said they long had suspected the highway patrol of conducting illegal raids and killings but had little oversight of the force.
The black-garbed highway patrol officers rarely attend U.S.-financed police academies aimed at improving professionalism and sensitivity to human rights within Iraq's security forces, police trainers said, and have refused to share information about their activities.
U.S. police advisors said the highway patrol was almost entirely Shiite and included a core of 400 to 800 Badr militia members who make up the patrol's 4th Company, which was created last year.
"The 4th Company is filled by people with unconventional militia ties," said the U.S. military officer who advises the Interior Ministry. "Minister Jabr is very supportive of them. The general in charge [of the highway patrol] is very supportive of them."
After the suspected death squad was stopped last month, U.S. police advisors said, four members of the squad confessed to several sectarian killings.
The highway patrol officers were asked, " 'Who are you doing this for?' " said a third U.S. military officer who is involved in training Iraqi troops and has knowledge of the interrogations of the suspected death squad. "And they're telling us, 'Jabr.' " The rest of the squad, said the advisor, has been released.
Sunni Arab leaders complain that an earlier investigation into alleged police abuse has yet to show results.
In November, a U.S. Army unit discovered a secret detention and torture facility run by police officers affiliated with the Badr militia. In all, 169 people had been detained at the secret prison, and photos showed that some inmates had been severely beaten and malnourished.
Jabr pledged to investigate the origin of the detention facility and the possible existence of other secret prisons, even as he downplayed the abuse that had taken place there.
"OK, there were signs of torture ... but there were no killings and no beheadings, as some have said," Jabr told reporters in November.
But inmates at the bunker compiled a list of 18 detainees who they said had been tortured to death.
Two U.S. Embassy officials said Monday that Iraqi authorities were conducting visits of Interior Ministry jails and prisons, but declined to release details about the facilities.
Kamal, the ministry's intelligence chief, said of the detention probe, "we are still investigating this, but it is better if we do this quietly, without any media."
Peterson, the U.S. officer in charge of Iraqi police training, said that so far, no other secret prisons had been discovered. U.S. officials were trying to help the Interior Ministry centralize and upgrade its detention system, he said, so that it would be more transparent and acceptable by international standards.
"I've seen all the reports that say there are secret prisons out there," Peterson said. "So where are they? We have not found them. We have gone out there and looked for them. Can they exist? Well, the bunker existed, so yeah, they can exist. Is the ministry trying to find these things? Well, yes, they are."