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Saddam’s pilots hunted down by death squads

Ali Rifat and Hamoudi Saffar, The Sunday Times

April 8, 2006

IRAQI pilots who flew in Saddam Hussein’s air force are being targeted by armed militias in an apparent witch-hunt against veterans who fought in the war against Iran two decades ago.

According to official military statistics, 182 former pilots and 416 senior military officers had been killed by the beginning of January 2006 as part of the campaign. At least 836 pilots and high-ranking military officials have fled to neighbouring Arab states.

Many of the assassinations have been blamed on militias from the Shi’ite Badr Brigade who were trained and financed by Iran and who now form the backbone of Iraq’s police and special forces.

A delegation of more than 1,000 members of the former military elite — mainly from the Sunni minority — appealed recently to President Jalal Talabani to intervene to end the attacks.

The officers and their families have accused Iran of inciting Iraq’s Shi’ite militias to carry out acts of vengeance. The organised nature of the attacks has reinforced their claims that elements within the Iranian-backed government are behind the attacks.

"Anyone who participated in the former war against Iraq is now a target, not knowing when the death sentence will be carried out against him," said the brother of Imad Mohammed Marhoon, a pilot assassinated last December. "We cannot escape and we are unable to defend ourselves. We are the walking dead."

The attacks have occurred against the backdrop of worsening sectarian strife between the Shi’ite majority and the Sunnis who dominated Iraq under Saddam.

Shi’ite religious leaders issued an appeal for calm after at least 85 people died in an apparent triple suicide bomb attack on a important Shi’ite mosque in Baghdad on Friday. As their funerals were held yesterday, another six people were killed by a car bomb near a Shi’ite shrine in Musayyib, 40 miles south of the capital.

The problem has been exacerbated by the continued political vacuum in Iraq, caused by the refusal of Ibrahim Jaafari, the interim prime minister, to step down, despite pressure from America and Britain for the formation of a permanent government of national unity.

The individual killings, meanwhile, continue. A 57-year-old man, who declined to be named, described last week how he and two former pilots, Major-Generals Qathem Chaloob and Suad Bahaa al-Deen, were kidnapped last month during late afternoon prayers when 30 men, dressed in black, raided a mosque in Baghdad.

In front of a police checkpoint, the three men were dragged away by the armed kidnappers. According to the man, he and his companions were beaten, abused and tortured before the pilots were separated from other civilian captives.

"They beat us with electric cables and logs all over our bodies and we could hear them receiving telephone calls in the interrogation room next door. Sometimes they were told to release people, other times to kill others," he said.

"When Major-General Suad demanded that he speak to the man in charge, they beat him continuously for 15 minutes and after that none of us dared utter another word."

The man was eventually released when his captors were convinced he was not linked to Saddam’s former military forces. A day later the bodies of his two pilot friends were found near the mainly Shi’ite Sadr City. Suad’s hands had been cut off, his head had bullet and axe wounds and a hole had been drilled into his neck.

In another incident last month, gunmen wearing uniforms of Iraq’s interior ministry commandos raided a private security company in the centre of Baghdad, kidnapping more than 35 employees.

At least 20 of those abducted were former high-ranking Sunni pilots in Saddam’s air force. Witnesses said the kidnappers were armed and they arrived in a large convoy of military vehicles, backed up by two trucks mounted with heavy machineguns. They have not been seen since.

The interior ministry has denied involvement in the daylight raid, but ministry sources alleged that the gunmen were from its major crimes unit.

:: Article nr. 22372 sent on 09-apr-2006 01:34 ECT


Link: www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2089-2125230,00.html

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