Amid the acrid smoke and dust, the cries of the injured being dragged
out of the rubble, General Adnan Thabit arrived at the Hamra hotel bomb
site in sunglasses, pressed fatigues and a crimson beret.
"Well, gentlemen," he said to me and another journalist who had just
been blasted out of our hotel rooms by suicide bombers, "this is what
happens when terrorists carry out terrorism - a lot of people dead, a
lot of people hurt. Now you can see what we are up against."
The general was savouring his moment. His special forces have been
accused by the media and others of carrying out the worst human rights
abuses against "suspected insurgents" in what is becoming an ever more
savage and dirty war.
Behind the daily reports of suicide bombings and attacks on
coalition forces is a far more shadowy struggle, one that involves
tortured prisoners huddled in dungeons, death-squad victims with their
hands tied behind their backs, often mutilated with knives and electric
drills, and distraught families searching for relations who have been
This hidden struggle surfaced last week when US forces and Iraqi
police raided an Interior Ministry bunker only a couple of hundred
yards from where we were standing. They found 169 tortured and starving
captives, who looked like Holocaust victims. The "disappeared"
prisoners were being held, it is claimed, by the Shia Muslim Badr
militia, which controls part of the ministry. Bayan Jabr, the Minister
of the Interior, is himself a former Badr commander, but the ministry's
involvement does not end there: General Adnan's commandos come under
its control. So does the Wolf Brigade, which vies with the commandos
for the title of most feared.
Baghdad is now a city in the shadow of gunmen. As I left the Hamra
to replace what was lost in my bombed room, I had to negotiate
checkpoints of the Badr militia, their Shia enemies, the Mehdi Army of
the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Kurdish peshmerga. The
Iraqi police and the government paramilitaries have their own
And there are others: the Shia Defenders of Khadamiya - set up under
Hussein al-Sadr, a cousin of Muqtada, who is an ally of the former
prime minister Iyad Allawi - and the government-backed Tiger and
Scorpion brigades. They all have similar looks: balaclavas or
wraparound sunglasses and headbands, black leather gloves with fingers
cut off, and a variety of weapons. When not manning checkpoints, they
hurtle through the streets in four-wheel drives, scattering the traffic
by firing in the air. Out of sight they are accused of arbitrary
arrests, intimidation and extrajudicial killings.
The US and Britain, which trained many of the forces involved, and
which still have ultimate responsibility for them, are implicated. But
the pattern of illegality is also the continuation of a process that
began with the questionable justification for the invasion. American
and British forces have played their own part, from the abuses of Abu
Ghraib to deaths in British military custody, from the deployment of
white phosphorus as a chemical weapon in the assault on Fallujah to the
wild use of overwhelming American firepower, which some have called
almost as indiscriminate as the killings caused by Sunni insurgents'
But more than two years after President George Bush officially
declared a victorious conclusion to the war in Iraq, the body count
continues to rise. Faced with an insurgency that shows no signs of
abating, the US and Iraqi government rely more and more on the
paramilitaries. Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, has said
units such as General Adnan's commandos are among "forces that are
going to have the greatest leverage on suppressing and eliminating the
Those on the receiving end of some of this "leverage", however,
describe terrifying experiences. Ahmed Sadoun (not his full name) was
arrested in the middle of the night at his home in Mosul by government
paramilitaries accompanied by American soldiers. He was held for seven
months before being released without charge and left Iraq as soon as he
Speaking from Amman, Mr Sadoun, a 38-year-old engineer, said: "They
kicked down our door and asked about a neighbour. When I said I did not
know where the man was, they started kicking me and beating me. The
soldiers had paint on their faces and did not have same uniforms as
other troops. The Americans did not take part, but they saw what was
"But this was nothing. When they took me to their base I was
blindfolded and beaten very, very badly with metal rods. They then hung
me up on hooks by my wrists until I thought they would tear off. I
think that stopped because one of the Americans said something. I could
hear English spoken in an angry voice. But this happened again later.
"I was in a room which was so small that not all the prisoners could
even lie down properly. All night we could hear people screaming,
people being hit. One day they said I could go, but after what happened
to me I know they could do this to me again. So I left."
At one roadblock I met the Wolf Brigade, which was widely involved
in suppressing disturbances in Mosul around the time Mr Sadoun was
being held, though he does not know which paramilitaries seized him.
One of them took off his balaclava and turned out to be in his late
teens, belying the ferocity of the snarling wolf badges on his arms.
The young man shook his head about what happened at the Hamra. "That
is bad, very bad," he said. "But you are alive, that is good - too many
dead people in Baghdad." He was keen to make the point that "the people
like us because we kill the people who try to kill them. Listen,
mister, we are fighting bad people, you cannot treat them like normal
But what about the innocent who get caught and end up being abused
in detention centres? "Mister, those are just lies, you must not
believe them. These people are terrorists. We are here because the
police cannot do the job by themselves."
The paramilitary influence on the police is particularly overt in
the British-controlled south of Iraq, where the British invited the
militias to join the security forces, and then saw them take over.
Nothing was done by the British authorities when police in plain
clothes, along with their militia colleagues, killed Christians,
claiming they sold alcohol, or Sunnis for being supposedly Baathists.
Action was only belatedly taken when a particularly menacing
faction, a "force within a force" based at the Jamiat police station on
the outskirts of Basra, captured two SAS soldiers who were gathering
information on their mistreatment of prisoners.
British troops smashed into a police station to rescue the two
soldiers and later arrested more than a dozen others. But now they more
or less stay out of Basra, leaving Iraq's second city at the mercy of a
police force that even its commanders say they barely control. There
have been dozens of assassinations, including that of at least one
Even families of fellow policemen are not exempt. Ammar Muthar, a
member of the border police, knew his father, Muthar Abadi, was on the
Shia militia hit list, because he had acted as a missile engineer in
the war against Shia Iran. Ammar brought his father from Al-Amarah to
Basra for safety. But while he was out one day, six policemen, in
uniform but wearing black masks, dragged Abadi away. His body was later
found, shot five times, three in the face.
"The neighbours could do nothing because it was the police who took
him away," said Ammar. "They wanted to kill him, and no one could stop
One British officer said: "You hear about the militias infiltrating
the police. But they did not have to. We invited them to join."
THE CHARGE SHEET
Endemic torture of prisoners
The discovery last week of starved and tortured prisoners in an
Interior Ministry bunker emphasised that detention without due process
remains endemic in Iraq, echoing the Saddam era. In Basra, militia
elements in the police used cells to imprison and torture their
enemies. When the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal broke, it emerged that among
the prisoners being maltreated by US soldiers were "undocumented"
detainees who had been kept hidden from the Red Cross. And Britain was
shamed by the death of Baha Mousa, a Basra hotel clerk, in British
Use of napalm and phosphorus
Last week the Pentagon admitted using white phosporus as an
offensive weapon in last year's assault on Fallujah. Its official use
is to create smokescreens to shield troop movements, but if fired into
trenches or foxholes it can burn victims to the bone. The legality of
this use is debatable. Last year the US also admitted, after previous
denials, that it had used napalm - which Britain has banned - against
Iraqi forces during the invasion. There is also controversy over the
deployment of cluster munitions, which Britain has said should not be
used in or near civilian areas.
Early in the insurgency, it appeared that Sunnis loyal to Saddam
were attacking defenceless Shias - an impression the coalition
authorities sought to reinforce. Extra-judicial killings by Shias in
the paramilitary groups operated by the Interior Ministry, or in party
militias, have become increasingly open. Victims are rounded up in
house-to-house raids at night and their bodies, frequently handcuffed,
are found dumped later. Sunni civilians are the main target, but Shias
seen as collaborators under Saddam, or connected with rival militias,
have also "disappeared".
Indiscriminate 'spray and slay'
Heavy-handed tactics against the insurgency, dubbed "spray and
slay", have attracted much criticism. The current American offensive in
the west and north-west appears to replicate the methods used in
Fallujah: the population is ordered to leave before the town is sealed
off and subjected to an air and ground assault. Those killed are
invariably described as insurgent fighters, even in incidents where
there is strong evidence that groups of civilians, including women and
children, have been caught up in airstrikes.