When his father disappeared Dec. 18, Alaa Dawood reported him missing to the police but had little faith that they would find the elderly man, who had suffered brain damage when he was kidnapped six years ago and tortured by militants.
So he went looking for him at the city morgue.
Dawood, 42, a Shiite Muslim, works at the Trade Ministry for Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government and lives with his family in Ghazaliya, a mixed-sect neighborhood policed by Shiite militias, which he does not trust. He said he believes the militias have eroded the rule of law in the capital, leading to kidnappings and disappearances undertaken by them or their enemies. Dawood, a broad-chested man in a leather jacket, spoke in a low voice as he stood outside the morgue, worried about being overheard.
“Violence creates violence,” he said of the militias. “Each action has an equal and opposite reaction.”
Shiite militias empowered by the government to fight Sunni militants have been asked to stand down by Prime Minister Haider Abadi, and police say they have assumed control of investigations and patrols. But many Baghdadis, including Shiites like Dawood, said they still fear the militias, which they said operate with impunity.
Casualty figures in 2014 were the highest since Shiite-Sunni sectarian warfare in 2007, with 12,282 civilians killed by violence, according the United Nations. In December, the highest concentration of civilian deaths was in the capital: 320.
Dr. Taha Qasim, head of forensic medicine at the morgue, said that kidnappings of both Sunnis and Shiites had increased, the motives unclear.
“These days in Baghdad everyone is a target, so where’s the sectarianism?” he said.
Baghdad police supervisors and officers who were questioned in the Shiite-majority city insisted that they were patrolling the neighborhoods, though they acknowledged that Shiite militias provided assistance.
First Lt. Zuhair Rifaai attended American police training in Jordan years ago and handles major crimes in the mixed-sect Karada neighborhood. He said some kidnappings have been disguised as sectarian, with kidnappers posing as militia members.
“They try to pretend it’s a sectarian thing, but in reality it’s over money or a vendetta. They use it as a cover,” said his supervisor, Col. Ghaleb, 60, who oversees police working major crimes citywide.
Ghaleb, who is Sunni, said that police have a significant number of Sunni officers and that they screen out sectarian recruits through probation and internal affairs investigations.
“If people don’t trust the police,” he said, “how can you succeed?”
The police commander said Shiite militias have helped fight crime.
About two months ago, after eight armed robbers posing as members of the Shiite Peace Brigades militia stole $70,000 from a bank in the Sadr City neighborhood, militia members helped apprehend the gang and recovered about $26,000, he said.
Col. Abbass Ismail, who leads the major crimes unit there, said during a recent visit that residents increasingly avoid the police.
“People come to the police only after consulting with the tribal elders. They ask, ‘Is it OK to go to the police?’ Or after tribal justice has taken its course,” said Ismail, whose desk featured Shiite ceremonial swords.
Capt. Abdil Ali Taher, a Shiite, polices the Sunni Adhamiya neighborhood, where he said he feels safe.
“We’re getting information and the trust is there,” he said as he drove around, although passersby glared and he did not stop or get out of the car.
Some Adhamiya residents and business owners interviewed separately said they still fear sectarian attacks by Shiite militias and others.
“I never trusted the police. I try not to go to them,” said a merchant at an open-air market as he stood in his shop, near piles of dried apricots, almonds and raisins.
The man, who is Sunni and did not give his name for fear of reprisals, said one of his neighbors was recently kidnapped by men in uniform. His body showed up later at the morgue.
Abu Khalil, a tire salesman, said that a month earlier members of Asaib Ahl Haq, a Shiite militia, kidnapped and killed a youth. Although the motive for such kidnappings may be financial, Abu Khalil said the outcome is always worse for fellow Sunnis.
“The Shiite, they take him, pay the money and release him. The Sunni, they take him, pay the money and kill him,” he said.
An Asaib spokesman said that the militia does not condone kidnapping or other crimes, and that it supports police.
“If the government asks us to help them here in the neighborhoods, we will do it. But we can’t take the place of police,” said Naeem Aboudi, the spokesman for Asaib, which he prefers to call a political movement.
Aboudi said sectarian kidnappings for which Asaib was blamed in recent months were the work of wannabes or rogue militants who have since been suspended.
Speaking at its office, surrounded by blast walls and uniformed armed guards, he said Asaib has helped police catch gang members and is fighting Islamic State outside the city to restore government control to Sunni areas in the ring of towns known as the Baghdad Belt.
“We believe in one Iraq and stand for one Iraq; there is no difference Sunni and Shiite,” Aboudi said.
At Baghdad’s morgue, relatives searching for missing loved ones are directed to a spare room with several flat-screen televisions on which employees display images of the unidentified dead.
After Dawood arrived looking for his father, staff members showed him photos of five men. His father was not among them.
He left feeling frustrated, headed for nearby hospitals, still skeptical that police would ever help.
“Iraq needs to be secured,” he said.
Special correspondent Murtada Faisal contributed to this report.