BAGHDAD, Aug 7, 2006 (AFP) - In a network of secret torture cells and ad-hoc
religious courts, Iraqi death squads are carrying out scores of punishment
killings a week and filling Baghdad's canals and sewers with the dead.
Tit-for-tat murders have set Shiite versus Sunni on the streets of the city,
pushing Iraq towards a sectarian civil war that could sound the death knell
for attempts to rebuild the country as a united, stable democracy.
After a few false starts, Iraqi and US forces have responded to the menace
with a beefed-up security plan and reinforced their troops in the capital.
On Sunday night they raided an alleged torture cell in Shiite east Baghdad.
But Iraqi and US officials warn that the death squad networks are extensive,
enjoy the backing of some religious leaders and are hard to track.
They operate with the support of the militias, which control large tracts of
the city, and with the complicity of corrupt or terrified Iraqi police
When Iraqi troops and US advisers attempted to storm the suspected hideout
in the impoverished Shiite district of Sadr city late on Sunday, they came
under fire from radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's militia.
"Many police sympathise with the death squads, but mainly it's that many
live in Sadr City. If they they close their eyes, they're well thought of,
sometimes even paid," an Iraqi military intelligence officer told AFP.
"If they try to do their jobs, they put themselves in danger and their
families are threatened," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Some of the death squads' targets are political.
Shiite gangs target former members of ousted president Saddam Hussein's
hated Baath party or security services. Sunni extremists kill those who are
seen as collaborators with US-led coalition forces or Iraq's coalition.
Other killings are more purely sectarian. The numbers of dead and tortured
corpses turning up in the streets of Baghdad have spiralled since February
22 when suspected Sunni bombers destroyed a holy Shiite mosque in Samarra.
Many of the bodies are thrown in giant sewer that crosses Sadr's territory
in Sadr City. From there they float, many of them in a terrible state
following beatings and torture, towards a treatment plant near a US base in
Lieutenant Colonel Mark Bertolini, who commands the US base Camp Rustamiya,
said: "There was a significant increase after the Samarra shrine bombing."
In April, Bertolini ordered some access channels to the sewer to be sealed
off. "It doesn't stop people from killing each other but at least it isn't
as easy to get rid of them and it doesn't go completely unnoticed," he told
Many of the bodies are found bound and blindfolded. Some are decapitated or
have their throats cut, others burned or mutilated with power tools.
Nevertheless, many of the gangs follow what they regard as a proper trial
process before doing away with their victims.
"They target someone -- and kill them if there is a difficulty in the
kidnapping -- but they usually bring the person to a safe place to be
interrogated before the execution," the Iraqi intelligence officer said.
"A sheikh or imam comes and listens briefly to what the accused and accusers
have to say and then gives his decision -- usually death. It only lasts a
few minutes. They kill the victim minutes later," he said.
Many of the killings carried out by Shiite gangs are seen by them as
reprisals for attacks -- such the Samarra bombing or suicide car bombs in
crowded Baghdad markets -- carried out by Sunni extremists.
Mainstream Shiite parties have won power since a US-led invasion in 2003
toppled Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime, and foreign fighters inspired by
the al-Qaeda Islamist network have stirred the resentment of Iraqi Sunnis.
Observers fear, however, that the death squads' reign of terror has now
developed a self-sustaining logic of attack and response all of its own.
"People are angry because of the car bombs and suicide attacks on the
markets. But you have to face the facts: Sadr city is cotrolled by Mehdi
Army and the Iraqi police are their accomplices," the Iraqi officer said.
Checkpoints have been set up around Sadr City's sprawling slum, but an
American officer patrolling the area agreed with his Iraqi colleague,
noting: "The Iraqi police are not doing their job".
If Sunday night's raid is any guide, the security forces are now more
determined and able to take on the death squads. But until they succeed,
Baghdadis will pull corpses out of their waterways every day.