Friday, November 18, 2005

Secret death squads feared among Iraq's commandos

By James Rupert
Newsday

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Among the varied armed security men on Baghdad's streets these days, you can't miss the police commandos. In combat uniforms, bulletproof vests and wrap-around sunglasses or ski masks, they muscle through Baghdad's traffic jams in police cars or camouflage-painted pickup trucks, clearing nervous drivers from their path with shouted commands and the occasional gunshot in the air.

The commandos are part of the Iraqi security forces that the Bush administration says will gradually replace American troops in this war. But the commandos are being blamed for a wave of kidnappings and executions around Baghdad since the spring.

One such group, the Volcano Brigade, is operating as a death squad — under the influence or control of Iraq's most potent Shiite factional militia, the Iranian-backed Badr Organization, said several Iraqi government officials and western Baghdad residents.

In the past six months, Badr has heavily infiltrated the Interior Ministry under which the commandos operate, the sources said. Badr also was accused of running the secret Interior Ministry prison raided Sunday by U.S. troops.

About 2 a.m. on Aug. 23, men in Volcano Brigade uniforms and trucks rolled into the streets of Dolay, a mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhood of western Baghdad, residents say. "I got a call from my cousins" around the corner, said Ahmed Abu Yusuf, 33, an unemployed Sunni. "They told me to stay hidden because the Volcano were in the streets, arresting Sunnis."

For three hours, the raiders burst into Sunni homes, handcuffed dozens of men and loaded them into vans. They ended the assault and drove out of the neighborhood just before the dawn call to prayer, which would bring men into the streets, walking to the local mosques, Abu Yusuf said.

Two days later and 90 miles away, residents of the desert town of Badrah, near the Iranian border, found the bodies of 36 of the men in a gully, their hands still bound and their skulls shattered by bullets. Two were the cousins who had phoned him the warning, Abu Yusuf said.

The Volcano Brigade's commander, Bassem Gharawi, has denied his force committed the massacre. But Shiite and Sunni Iraqis close to the unit, some of them high-ranking security officials, said it took part — whether on its own or with the Badr militia. "No one can talk openly about the Volcanoes because we could easily be killed," said a government official who discussed the matter in hushed tones this month in a corridor away from his office.

These days, the streets of Dolay and adjoining neighborhoods of the Hurriya district look like battle zones in a civil war. Many Sunni businesses, including the tire repair shop once run by Abu Yusuf's cousins, never open. Remaining Sunnis in Dolay have closed off their side streets with barricades of logs, debris and razor wire. At night, neighbors stand guard with assault rifles, and sometimes battle police.

A buildup of Iraq's army and police is deemed necessary to stabilize the country and ultimately will permit a U.S. withdrawal.

In the past year, the U.S. military has helped build up the commandos under guidance from James Steele, a former Army Special Forces officer who led U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in El Salvador in the 1980s. Salvadoran army units trained by Steele's team were accused of a pattern of atrocities.

The first commando units — the Lion Brigade, Scorpion Brigade and others — were formed last year under a Sunni interior minister, Falah Naqib, and include many Sunnis who worked in the repressive security organs of Saddam Hussein's Baath party. The Volcano Brigade was built up under the current, Shiite-led government and "is mostly made of (Shiite) men from the Badr militia," said a Shiite source close to the unit. Like most of a dozen people interviewed about the commandos, he asked not to be named for fear of being killed.

If this year's buildup of commandos in Baghdad is helping stabilize the capital, that cannot be measured in the civilian death toll, which has been running 10 to 20 percent ahead of last year, according to the city's morgue. The morgue cannot handle the daily river of bodies, so it declines to take those of bombing victims. Still, it gets 1,000 to 1,100 people killed by gunfire or other means each month.

In the first two years of the occupation, Sunni extremists dominated the violence among Iraqis, notably with suicide bombings that killed hundreds of Shiite worshippers at shrines and religious festivals. Following the Shiites' domination of the election in January for an interim government, Shiites seem to have been striking back, notably in attacks on Sunnis in Baghdad neighborhoods such as Dolay, Iskan, Ur and Shaab.

Execution-style massacres are now routine. In the 11 weeks since the Dolay victims were discovered in the desert, at least 17 groups of apparent Baghdad residents — 158 men in all — have been found dumped in empty fields, back streets or at Baghdad's sewage plant, most shot to death with their hands tied, according to a compilation of reports from news agencies and Iraq Body Count, an Internet-based voluntary organization that monitors civilian casualties.

Many are the victims of the Shiite-Sunni battles in western Baghdad and, according to news agency and Iraqi press accounts, scores of them had last been seen alive in the hands of men in police uniforms.

Interior Minister Bayan Jabr denies his ministry condones such killings and has said his ministry is investigating human-rights abuses by police. The U.S. government has "not been satisfied with the results of these investigations," a Western diplomat said, and is "pressing to make them public to demonstrate that Iraq's security forces cannot operate in a culture of impunity."

Jabr is a leader of Iraq's most powerful Shiite political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The party's longtime military wing, the Badr militia, was formed in Iran as an adjunct to Iran's hard-line Revolutionary Guards to help fight the 1980-88 war against Saddam Hussein's Baathists.

Jabr took the interior minister's post after SCIRI won big in January's vote, and he quickly named SCIRI and Badr loyalists to key security positions, said Shiite and Sunni sources in the ministry.

"Each sector of the police" has Badr cells, said Salah Matlaq, a leading Sunni politician and foe of SCIRI. They form a parallel command structure within the ministry and "are able to operate on their own, using police cars, uniforms and weapons for Badr operations, while people in leadership positions can say, some of them truthfully, that they don't know about it," he said.

Sunni and Shiite officials in two government ministries that monitor the commandos' work said Matlaq's description was basically correct, and said Volcano is one of the units most penetrated by the Badr militia.

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