Iraq: “Salvador option” revealed

In today’s headlines, up to 200 malnourished Iraqi detainees bearing signs of torture were found in a secret prison in the basement of a government building in Baghdad. The discovery came after US troops surrounded and took control of an Interior Ministry building in the Jadriya district of the capital on the night of Nov. 13.

When US troops arrived at the facility, officials there told them some 40 detainees were being held. As they searched the building they discovered at least 200, mostly Sunni Arabs and many in very poor health. The US foces had apparently been tipped off to the prison’s existence by relatives of those detained there.

The discovery came just a day after damning UN report on the brutal conditions and lack of access to legal counsel in Iraq’s overcrowded jails. The UN Assistance Mission in Iraq expressed concerns about the large number of detainees and potential human rights violations. (London Times, Nov. 15) (Note that this was the second consecutive report from the Assistance Mission to raise grave human rights concerns.)

Overshadowed by the clandestine prison revelations, comes an even more disconcerting story, largely corroborating earlier speculation about a “Salvador option” for Iraq. From today’s Newsday, “Iraq guards seen as death squads” by James Rupert (emphasis added):

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 Shia 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-Shia 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.

Massacre denied

The Volcano Brigade’s commander, Bassem Gharawi, has denied his force committed the massacre. But Shia 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.

The night after Dolay’s Sunni families received their men’s bodies from the morgue, “someone put letters in the street in front of our homes, warning us not to hold funerals” for the victims and vowing to kill Sunnis who remained in Dolay, Abu Yusuf said. His family fled their home the next morning.

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.

Life is miserable, too, for those who fled, Abu Yusuf said. “We are living like refugees in Tarmiya or Taji,” Sunni towns north of Baghdad, “and we have no money because we had to leave our businesses behind,” he said.

The Bush administration says a buildup of Iraq’s army and police is helping to stabilize the country and ultimately will permit a U.S. withdrawal. “As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down,” President George W. Bush told troops at Fort Bragg, N.C., this summer.

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.

Civilian death toll rising

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, Shia-led government and “is mostly made of men from the Badr militia,” said a Shia 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 percent 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 Shia worshipers at shrines and religious festivals. Following the Shias’ domination of the election in January for an interim government, Shias 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 Shia-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. Bodies of 22 men, who later were identified as Sunni Muslims, were found blindfolded in eastern Iraq in early October. An additional 27 bodies were found Thursday in the desert near where Sunni victims from Dolay and another Baghdad neighborhood were dumped.

Investigation under way

Interior Minister Bayan Jabr denies his ministry condones such killings and has said the department 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 Shia political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). 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 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 Shia 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 Shia officials in two government ministries that monitor the police commandos’ work said Matlaq’s description was basically correct, and said Volcano is one of the units most penetrated by the Badr militia. With the overlapping lines of authority, it is impossible to know who gives the orders for any given operation by the Volcanos, they said.

The Interior Ministry is divided between officials who “want a professional police system with international standards and help from the Americans” and those who are “preoccupied with keeping Shias in power,” said an officer who placed himself in the former camp.

See our last posts on the torture scandal and the Iraq war.