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Corruption plays key role in Iraqi justice

Sheik Maher Sirhan says his interrogators tortured him with electric rods and demanded $50,000 in cash to free him from the Iraqi jail where he is being held on terrorism charges.

But the Sunni Arab paramilitary leader, who has worked closely with U.S. forces, says he is hanging tough.

“I said that I’m not giving you the money,” Sirhan said in a phone conversation from his latest jail cell. “There is a government and coalition forces. Justice will release me, not you.”

The accounts of Sirhan and two other prominent Sunni paramilitary leaders, one recently released and the other on the run, provide a window into the role that political disputes and corruption appear to be playing in at least some arrests as the American era in Iraq draws to a close, with this week’s departure of most U.S. troops from the nation’s cities.

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An Iraqi government official who works on security issues said the problem of Iraqi forces jailing people for ulterior motives is a long-standing one.

“There are many cases of ransoms and deals,” the official said, adding that some Sunni paramilitary leaders who have fought alongside American forces to eliminate such insurgent groups as Al Qaeda in Iraq have been jailed by Shiite Muslim-led security forces at least in part for purposes of extortion.

Two months ago, several senior interrogators at the Defense Ministry’s Harthiya Detention Center were arrested for shaking down businessmen they had jailed, the official added.

Questions of collusion between corrupt security forces and judges who issue warrants are so great that Iraq’s Supreme Judiciary Council ordered an inquiry into the matter this month, the official and a Western advisor to the Iraqi government confirmed.

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The government official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said security forces are also dealing with credible reports of torture and of undisclosed or secret prisons.

Last month, a Defense Ministry delegation found more than 100 detainees held secretly by the Iraqi army in the city of Mosul, the official said, adding that 73 of them had been immediately picked back up by the Iraqi army after being released by the Americans.

Despite such cases, Iraqi lawmakers say the army and police are making strides in ridding their forces of corruption, human rights abuses and allegiance to political parties.

This month, Interior Minister Jawad Bolani announced that 43 police officers were under investigation on suspicion of torturing detainees and Prime Minister Nouri Maliki had ordered an inquiry into prison abuse. But with a country clawing its way out of anarchy and facing myriad political, ethnic and religious divisions, officials believe it will take years to right the system.

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Some U.S. officials continue to express serious reservations about arrests that have been carried out, particularly of some Sunni paramilitary leaders they have worked with.

“If [the security forces] have evidence, then why do they hide it from us? If they truly have credible evidence, OK, then we should have someone with every one of these [government and security] organizations and we have a right to look at that evidence,” a senior U.S. military officer said.

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Sheik Maher Sirhan

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The soldiers came for Sirhan in the Baghdad suburb of Hor Rajab early one morning in March, according to his family. Iraqi forces knocked down the gate to his yellow brick villa. His wife describes watching them beat her husband with sticks, and then take him away.

“It seemed like they wanted to kill him. They didn’t have to attack the house. They could have done it quietly,” says Shaada Rashid.

The arrest warrant, she said, stemmed from the testimony of three women who said their husbands were killed in the last two years by Sirhan’s men. However, the husbands had been fighting for Al Qaeda in Iraq when they were killed, Rashid said.

U.S. military officers have confirmed that the Iraqi government has started enforcing warrants against Sunni paramilitary commanders based on statements from relatives of slain fighters from the insurgent group.

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At first, Sirhan was held in what some detainees have described as a secret jail. There, Sirhan said, he underwent 16 days of beatings and torture, including the use of electric rods, to extract confessions. Officers gave him the option of paying $50,000 to have his accusers drop their allegations.

“They forced me to say things I did not do. They forced me to say I killed [people]. . . . I don’t [even] know what I said. I was in pain. . . . I requested to see a doctor. They refused and hid me from the Americans,” Sirhan said by phone. Sirhan has since been moved to a general population prison, where, his wife worries, he is a sitting target for Al Qaeda in Iraq supporters. Her brother, Hadi Jamal, a retired engineer, said he is sure that Sirhan’s release will come only after they have paid a ransom.

“It will be settled by money. We don’t know where we will get it -- whether from the tribe, selling property, maybe the car, we don’t know,” he said, shaking his head. “A person who is Qaeda, if he pays $50,000, he will be on the street the next day. This is normal. . . . You pay money to be released.”

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Lt. Col. Raad Ali

Raad Ali, a Sunni paramilitary leader in west Baghdad, is a free man after nine days behind bars with Sirhan in late March and early April.

Rather than end his troubles, the lieutenant colonel worries his incarceration has left him more vulnerable to his enemies.

It started at midnight on March 24, he said, when officers knocked at his door in the Ghazaliya district. An Iraqi colonel in fatigues identified himself as coming from the joint army-police headquarters responsible for west Baghdad, and insisted he needed Ali’s help to find someone in the neighborhood. Ali, who heads the local U.S.-backed Sunni paramilitary group for northern Ghazaliya, said he was blindfolded as he sat in the colonel’s Humvee.

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After several hours, Ali said, he was escorted to a facility where officers snapped his photo. His cellmates told him it was a secret prison for the Interior Ministry. Some of the men said they had been held for over a year without trial. It was here that Sirhan introduced himself and showed his bruises to Ali.

“No one can see you there. No lawyer. No one can come in. No one can ask about you. It’s a secret prison,” Ali said.

In interrogations, officers accused Ali of being an Al Qaeda in Iraq mufti who planted bombs, kidnapped people and killed police, allegations he vigorously denied. After more than a week in custody, he was escorted to a court in west Baghdad where the judge dismissed the charges.

Ali said he would later learn that the senior U.S. military commander in Iraq, Army Gen. Ray Odierno, had met with Prime Minister Maliki over his arrest -- an account confirmed by Western officials.

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Ali now thought no one could touch him. But at the end of April, a relative from the Iraqi Defense Ministry told him that the Iraqi military held a new warrant for his arrest that would be quashed if he paid $15,000 to officers in the ministry and worked for them as an informant.

“In Iraq, you have to belong to one of their gangs or they will destroy you,” Ali said. “This time I spent nine days in jail. Maybe next time I spend eight years there.”

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The sheik

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It was after local elections that things went wrong for the sheik, who asked that his name not be disclosed because of security concerns. He had fought Al Qaeda in Iraq, struck an informal truce with the Americans in late 2007 and had fitful talks with Iraqi officials about reconciliation.

Last winter, he says, a security official approached him in his home province of Salahuddin in northern Iraq about voting for a national party in the local elections. He says he was promised money and a leadership role in a branch of the Sons of Iraq paramilitary. He refused and boycotted the vote.

Two days after the elections, he says, a warrant was issued for his arrest. Soon after, he claims, security force officers began a series of taunting phone calls about how much money he must pay to avoid arrest. The sheik played back one he taped for The Times in which the caller demanded $100,000.

The sheik said he had only $20,000, but the caller held firm at $50,000 and then the line went dead. The sheik is now in hiding, hoping the government will intervene and treat him fairly.

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ned.parker@latimes.com


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