I saw this in the news a couple of days ago, and thought it was interesting. It was amazing to me since I work with these Special Units, just how much of a difference there is between what we think and what is actually going on. We would call these guys dirty cops, but this is the way things are over here. Allegiance is based on Tribal affiliation, not national unity.
Various private armies still exist, threatening Iraq’s national security –
Phil Sands, Chronicle Foreign ServiceWednesday, December 21, 2005
Samarra, Iraq — Fighters loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have set up a base in Samarra, a Sunni-dominated city 60 miles north of Baghdad and home to a powerful insurgent movement.
The troops are part of an Interior Ministry special commando unit, based in Baghdad. But while they wear the camouflage fatigues of a government security force and receive a government salary, many of the SWAT-style team members have pledged their allegiance to al-Sadr and are adamant they are part of the Mahdi Army, his private militia.
At an outpost in Samarra, dozens of officers from the 1st Brigade Special Police Commando — the Lion Brigade — told The Chronicle that they followed al-Sadr. One, who identified himself only as Saif, said the men answered to the cleric and would do as he ordered. Like his colleagues, he wore a badge bearing the commando motto: “Loyal to country.”
“There are almost 70 commandos here, and 57 of us are Mahdi Army,” he explained. “Although we are in commando uniforms, we are still Mahdi Army. We have soldiers all over Iraq now, and every place in the south has Muqtada’s men. Sadr is a hero.”
All militias were supposed to have been disbanded and absorbed into a combined Iraqi security apparatus, sworn to uphold state rules. The reality is that various private armies continue to exist unofficially.
Mohammad Auoba, from the Shiite district of Iraq’s capital where al-Sadr has drawn support from unemployed young men, insisted the commandos had enforced order in Samarra since their arrival last month.
“I’m from Sadr City — we are in control there and security is very good. There are no problems,” he said. “Samarra is bad — there are terrorists here. I have already been shot at. We will make things better here.”
He also claimed the troops did not respect their brigade commander, Col. Bashar Hussein, an ethnic Turkoman from the northern city of Kirkuk. “He is corrupt and no good,” Auoba said. Al-Sadr, he added, is a great leader.
The remarks underline the fragility of efforts to create genuine national security forces that follow the law, rather than the word of controversial religious figures. In Baghdad, the Shiite-led Interior Ministry has its own police force, which has developed a fearsome reputation — particularly among Sunnis, who accuse it of dispatching death squads against them, either with or without the permission of senior politicians.
Bodies of both Sunnis and Shiites, often handcuffed and showing signs of ritual execution, are frequently found in Iraq. With police forces too weak to conduct murder inquiries, most such deaths go uninvestigated.
U.S. raids on Interior Ministry buildings in Baghdad uncovered secret torture chambers where prisoners had been starved and beaten. The discoveries prompted former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite and a favorite of the Bush administration, to claim human rights abuses were as prevalent now as under Saddam Hussein.
Residents of Samarra, the scene of bloody clashes between U.S. soldiers and insurgents, said they feared a Shiite militia being unleashed on the city. Interviewed in their homes this week, they said they were unaware of a Mahdi Army presence, but claimed they had already suffered when commandos affiliated with al-Sadr’s militia were dispatched to the city earlier this year.
Ibrahim Farraj, who lives in the Sikek district, said, “The Interior Ministry forces are very strong. The insurgents are afraid of them, but they are corrupt and we cannot trust them. The last time the Interior Ministry was here, they were al-Sadr — people are scared of them and the Mahdi Army.”
Farraj, a taxi driver, said he and other family members had watched the growing power of religious movements in Iraq with alarm. “We don’t want clerics like Sistani (Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s Shiite religious leader) or Sadr running the country as they have in Iran. We want people, Sunni and Shiite and Christian, to have freedom and not be intimidated or forced to follow what religious leaders say.”
Qutaybah Ismail Abid Abu Abbas, another resident of the Sikek district, said residents would wait to see how they were treated. “I don’t know if there are Mahdi Army in the commandos,” he said. “If they are, it’s not a problem as long as we are shown the proper respect. All of us are Iraqi people. If they come to my house in peace, we will have no problems.”
Al-Sadr, once charged by the now-disbanded U.S. occupation with murder, is a member of the leading Shiite coalition that apparently came in first in last Thursday’s election for a new parliament. But during 2004, his forces battled the U.S. Army in Baghdad and in the key Shiite areas Karbala and Najaf.
His followers fought the Americans to a standstill, and the murder warrant was quietly forgotten.
U.S. Army Capt. Ryan Wylie, of the 3rd Infantry Division serving in Samarra, said he had heard rumors that the Interior Ministry was conducting a private war, but had seen no evidence.
“As far as I can tell, the commandos have not been abusing their power and they are behaving professionally and capably,” he said. “They seem to be popular in the city — people generally prefer Iraqi forces to Americans.”
A West Point graduate, from Lincoln, Neb., Wylie said U.S. forces involved in training the Iraqis would not permit abuses. “We have guys with them all the time, mentoring them — they’ll make sure everything is done properly.”
Col. Hussein, head of 1st commando brigade, said plans were in place to withdraw all U.S. forces from Samarra by early next year. When that happens, he insisted, his men would be merciless with any terrorists but would not crack down on civilians.
“We will not have any secret jails, and I demand my men treat everyone with dignity, even when we have prisoners,” he said. “There is a new law that anyone helping the terrorists should be killed. They should be executed. We will send them to a court of law, and there will be a government executioner. When we see terrorists, of course we are going to kill them right away.”