City of vengeance

A savage outbreak of retaliatory killings has pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war. In the first of three exclusive reports, our correspondent investigates the Mahdi Army's Baghdad death squads.

Published July 12, 2006 1:00PM (EDT)

Iraq is accelerating toward civil war. Over the weekend and on Monday, July 10, Baghdad witnessed the most savage outbreak of revenge killings to date. Shiite militiamen, who witnesses claimed were members of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, set up checkpoints in the city's al-Jihad neighborhood, inspected ID cards and killed 42 people they identified as being Sunnis. They also broke into homes and killed their inhabitants. Corpses were found in the street with drill holes and pierced by nails and bolts. These attacks, which took place after sunrise, were clearly acts of revenge for two earlier car bombings near Shiite mosques. In turn, the checkpoint killings spurred two more huge Sunni car bomb attacks in the Sadr-dominated neighborhood of Talbiyeh, killing 25 and wounding 41.

On Tuesday, violence flared again, as suicide bombers detonated bombs across the street from the heavily-guarded Green Zone in Baghdad, killing as many as 16 people. Across Iraq, about 60 were killed, including 10 Shiites who were gunned down on a bus as it left for a funeral.

The killings are ominously similar to the "Black Saturday" massacre in December 1975 that helped precipitate the Lebanese civil war, when Christian Phalangist militiamen stopped 40 unsuspecting Muslims at a checkpoint in Beirut and cut their throats. In retaliation, Muslim militiamen set up their own checkpoint and slaughtered Christians.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appealed for calm, but the situation is beyond his ability to control. Sunni politicians accused Iraqi police of collaborating with the attacks, and said Iraq's two key security ministries were also infiltrated. Iraq's deputy prime minister for security affairs, Salam al-Zobaie, told Al-Jazeera, "Interior and Defense ministries are infiltrated, and there are officials who lead brigades who are involved in this."

At the same time as the sectarian killings erupted, Maliki began his most serious attempt to rein in violent Shiite militias. On Friday, July 7, Iraqi troops joined Americans in raids in Baghdad's vast Sadr City neighborhood, Sadr's stronghold. U.S. helicopters and Iraqi troops engaged in a fierce battle, killing seven militiamen and wounding 34. According to news reports, the troops succeeded in capturing a dreaded Shiite commander named Abu Dereh. Dereh is closely linked to death squads that kidnap, torture and murder Iraqis who are accused of taking part in bombings of Shiite shrines. Sunni leaders have also accused him of being involved in the kidnapping of Taiseer al-Mashhadani, a Sunni lawmaker abducted on Saturday. U.S. officials said that Dereh was setting up a breakaway insurgent operation and was involved in smuggling weapons from Syria into Iraq.

Dereh is a shadowy figure who has deep connections with the Mahdi Army. A spokesman for the group, Abdel Hadi Al Darragi, has stated that Abu Dereh is not part of the Mahdi Army, but this is implausible. Anyone operating openly in Sadr City would almost certainly have at least tacit support from Sadr's men. Sadr City is tightly controlled by the Mahdi Army and other groups are not allowed to operate there. For its part, the Mahdi Army condemned the joint American and Iraqi attack as a major escalation and disavowed knowledge of any death squad activities.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has stated that he wants to bring the militia groups under the control of the government, but it is not clear how he will be able to control forces that have so deeply infected Iraqi institutions.

I recently left Baghdad after a month, my fourth assignment in Iraq. I was looking into the culture of revenge that has gripped the country, and the role played by militias like the Mahdi Army. Again and again, Abu Dereh's name came up. So did a vacant lot at the edge of Sadr City called al-Seddeh.

Al-Seddeh is the place where the Mahdi Army dumps the bodies of the people it has killed. Iraqis have given it a macabre nickname: the "Happiness Hotel." For months, the Baghdad police have regularly found bound corpses there, although it is likely that the victims were not killed at the site. The executions probably took place at a secret, improvised sharia (Islamic) court in Sadr City. Victims, usually buried in shallow graves, are always discovered bound and bearing signs of torture.

When I arrived in Baghdad on May 25, I looked out from my hotel across Jadriyah Boulevard. It was 2 in the morning and a dark reef of palms and blacked-out houses spread out like the edge of a dead continent. The moon lay in the center of the sky, shining dully through a shroud of dust. It was the only steady light now that the power had failed. Across the street there was the sound of a Kalashnikov. Someone was emptying an entire magazine at a target, and then after pausing to reload, unloaded a second clip for good measure. There was no answering rifle, no further information. A donkey woke and began to scream.

The Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias have filled a power vacuum in Iraq. With U.S. forces and the Iraqi government unable to prevent Sunni bombings that cause mass casualties, the militia group offers a measure of protection from such attacks and a means of retribution. The rise of sectarian militias represents a sea change in Iraqi society, one marked by a steady increase in the flow of corpses to the Baghdad morgue. Statistics from the Ministry of Health show that 40 people a day, not including bomb victims, were killed during the first four months of the year. But the true numbers are likely to be higher. Not all bodies make their pilgrimage to the morgue.

The mode of killing varies with the group and the area, but most of the bodies of victims are found in shallow graves in fields, or simply abandoned where they were executed.

"You know the difference between the Mahdi Army and the Sunni groups?" a young filmmaker named Haidar said recently. "The Mahdi Army bury the dead, and the Sunni militias throw them on the trash."

The population of Baghdad is shifting as large numbers of urban Iraqis try to move to safe areas, or areas thought to be safe. I can now count half a dozen Iraqi friends who have already fled the country, and an equal number who are actively making plans to leave. Everyone in Baghdad seems to be on the run, or changing neighborhoods.

One of those who had to move was the manager of the storied Dulaime hotel. Sadiq al Dulaime has no connection to armed groups, and his family are all Baghdadis, very well known in the city. But he recently moved his wife and three young children into the hotel to avoid Shia militiamen on the road to his house. "When I asked my father what I could do for him, he told me, 'What I want you to do is stay in the hotel, nothing more. That is what I want.' The road is very bad now," he said.

Dulaime is not alone. Other urban refugees have been turning up in the hotel complex, keeping quiet about their problems in the hope of not making them worse.

On June 9, a day after U.S. bombs killed the Jordanian head of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Maliki's government instituted a sweeping Baghdad security plan. But the crackdown only slowed the pace of bombings for a few days, a lull that might have been due to the mourning period for Zarqawi. Traffic moves at a perpetual crawl, and the simplest trips around Baghdad can take several hours. Meanwhile, new sections of the city in thrall to militia groups are becoming fundamentalist enclaves.

In Mansour, one of Baghdad's upscale neighborhoods, a flier is circulating announcing that any man caught wearing jeans will be killed. "We used to see things like that under Saddam," Ahmed D., a guitar-playing 19-year-old student whose parents are a mixed Sunni-Shiite couple, told me. Ahmed said the flier closely matched the threats the security services delivered under the old regime, and was written in the same style. "That's why I think it's the same people. If they caught a man wearing hair that was too long, they would beat him in the street. Those ideas of not wearing jeans and not wearing shorts, those are Saddam's sick ideas, and they just wanted to keep people freaked out." The violence under the old state was meant to intimidate, control the population through fear, and it bears a close resemblance to the information in the fliers distributed around Mansour.

In Mansour, it is now a crime for a woman to go out with her hair uncovered, and she can be publicly beaten for it. By contrast, in the vast slum of Sadr City, filled with impoverished and conservative Shiites from the countryside, such strictures are well known. In rich, mostly Sunni neighborhoods like Mansour it is a new development, but it also gives a clue about the nature of the insurgency and the current alliances. It is a natural metamorphosis for the former intelligence men, skilled in torture and abduction, to exchange the tyranny of Saddam's regime for sectarian fanaticism. It merely requires a change of clothes.

Both sides in the sectarian conflict, if a simple binary division is possible in this country, now employ death squads, anonymous bands who abduct civilians, torture them until they make a confession, then stage executions. But the Sunni extremist groups, which include al-Qaida, are far more brutal and less discriminating in their violence. Their members regularly target places where Shiite civilians gather, in particular markets and mosques, using car bombs and suicide bombers to create daily scenes of massive carnage. Shiite groups have not as a general rule used these indiscriminate means.

One of the most disturbing developments in Iraq is that some ordinary Sunnis now support such mass attacks on civilians. A 30-year-old engineer, Aymen al Salihee, from the Saydiyah neighborhood, whom I have known for more than a year, became increasingly religious after making the hajj to Mecca. In a confused phone conversation, he told me, "You know, Zarqawi was a good man because he protected Sunnis." Last year he had told me, "I hate the Shia. I hate them so much." When I asked what they had ever done to him, he said, "Nothing." The young man's hatred is categorical, beyond reason.

Average Sunnis like Salihee give tacit support to the forces that target Shiites and Americans. Those forces consist of two distinct but increasingly indistinguishable groups: secular Baathists and fundamentalists. Ever since the fall of Baghdad, members of Saddam's brutal security apparatus, the Mukhabarat, have expanded their networks -- which were never really destroyed -- and formed alliances with the fundamentalist groups, who are in turn funded by religious zealots from countries like Saudi Arabia. The old, secular insurgency of former Iraqi army officers has to a large degree been overtaken by the religious fighters and their constant stream of funds from abroad.

The result is a thoroughly efficient approach to creating a civil war, organized in part by the same people who were the state killers under the old regime. Zarqawi, the marketing genius who inspired so many jihadis with his call for the mass slaughter of Shiites, is now a ghost who hovers patiently, waiting for the day when the bloodletting becomes a flood tide.

Standing against the Sunnis, who make up only a fifth of Iraq's population, are the Shiite militias and the Iraqi police. The two are sometimes hard to distinguish, in terms of both members and methods. In one notorious example, the Interior Ministry, which controls the police, was revealed to be running a secret facility that it used to torture prisoners. The police intelligence officials involved were linked to the Badr Brigade, another major Shiite militia. Militias also control the government prisons and the transportation ministry, and have serious leverage over some of Baghdad's large hospitals.

Most of Iraq's political parties have militias. Of the Shiite militias, the most powerful in Baghdad is the Mahdi Army. (The Badr Brigade -- the armed wing of SCIRI, one of the two largest Shiite parties -- is also potent, but its power base is in southern Iraq.) The Mahdi Army is a many-headed creature -- fundamentalist religious movement, armed group and social welfare agency -- that has been long underestimated by the United States. The militia leadership has quickly moved to set up its own sharia courts, where it has unquestioned authority. In the summer of 2004, the Sadr movement ran such a court in a small alley near the shrine, where clerics schooled in Islamic law would adjudicate and render decisions about small disputes and more serious cases. Now, in Sadr City, the Mahdi Army is again carrying out its own justice. And the Mahdi killings are not being carried out by rogue or undisciplined elements within the movement; they are a carefully orchestrated response to the attacks of Sunni extremists.

Observing the growing extent of militia influence in Baghdad, I decided to visit a Mahdi Army office to understand how its operations had changed.

On a white-hot day in early June, I went to the Shia neighborhood of al Shu'ala to speak to the Mahdi Army men who ran the neighborhood. The building was crowned with a new sign in English that read, "The Sadreen Institute for Strategic Studies," suggesting a university of militiadom. As I arrived, 20 young men wearing the Mahdi uniform -- black shirts and close-cropped hair -- piled quickly out of late-model cars. As the entire Mahdi cell walked to the office in close formation, the men adjusted the pistols in their belts and pulled their shirts down to keep the guns out of sight. I waited at the door as the fighters were checked by the guard and were allowed into the office. One by one, as the office guard recognized the men, he gave them each a quick tap on the shoulder. A few minutes later, after the cell disappeared into the office, Hamdullah Rikabi, a Mahdi Army representative for Al Shu'ala, invited me in.

The Sadr office was packed with Iraqis asking for assistance with everything from ID cards to death payments to information about BKC machine guns. The Mahdi Army is doing a booming trade in community relations these days, and a citizen does not have to be a Shiite or even a Muslim to ask for their help. As uncounted numbers of Shiite families flee the extreme violence to "safe" neighborhoods, the Mahdi Army is welcoming a ready-made constituency of desperate and frightened people from all over Iraq.

"We respect all journalists and their opinions," Rikabi told me warmly, before launching into a typical conspiracy-laden rant about how American soldiers were in league with Sunni extremists. "The American soldiers were behind the al-Askari shrine bombing, directly or indirectly. If they had allowed our guards to carry weapons, we could have stopped the attack. The American soldiers must leave Iraq immediately; this is what Sayyid Muqtada says."

The thin and intense Rikabi was friendly even if his speech was pre-programmed. He went on to say that Mahdi Army soldiers were helping poor people, as I could see, and did not even carry weapons. This was an absurd and obvious falsehood, since nearly two dozen armed men had just entered the building. It is true that the militiamen were only carrying sidearms, and discreetly concealing them, but if the past is any guide, the larger-caliber material was cached close at hand. In Najaf, during the siege in 2004, the Mahdi Army leadership used a nearby religious school as an armory, and on the day the fighting ended, when Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's pilgrims flooded the city, the militia quietly disappeared with its entire stock of weapons.

The Najaf battle was a demonstration of faith that ended as a shattering military defeat for the young militia, but those awkward adolescent days are gone. Muqtada al-Sadr's followers are more disciplined and have more public support than they did in the violent summer of 2004. But a trace of the old fervor remains, and I could hear an almost plaintive note in Rikabi's accusation of U.S. complicity in the catastrophic bombing of the holy al-Askari shrine. The Mahdi militia has good reason to want the immediate departure of U.S. forces: They are the only power in Iraq they fear and cannot influence.

I wanted to understand how the Mahdi Army was responding to the attacks on Shiite civilians, a side of their movement they do not readily discuss with outsiders. A Shia contact in Baghdad made a telephone call and organized a meeting with a midlevel commander in charge of a number of smaller Mahdi cells. On June 6, I was instructed to wait at the Habaibna restaurant in Talbiyah, a mixed neighborhood known for bomb attacks.

Within five minutes of the scheduled appointment, two serious men in a BMW rolled up in the parking lot and told us to follow them. Instead of taking us back to Sadr City, the Mahdi Army stronghold, we headed all the way back into town, to the Sunni neighborhood of Zayouna.

We arrived at the house of the Mahdi commander, Salman al-Darragi. The house was set back from the highway, on a street barricaded by palm logs and debris. A dozen Mahdi Army men, ranging in age from early 20s to 40s, gathered in the living room. A few were veterans of the street fighting in 2004. Everyone was ready to participate in the discussion, but they politely let Darragi speak first and listened quietly to our discussion.

The genial Darragi is well respected in the militia. His group makes money by running a propane gas franchise behind the house, part of the vibrant sectarian militia/business environment found in Baghdad these days. Darragi, who resembles an Iraqi Buddha, relaxed against the wall as one of his children brought in soft drinks. The young men, all fighters without weapons, came and sat on cushions against the wall and brought their difficulties to him. One young fighter complained that Iraqi police kept cutting in line for fuel at their gas station and it was causing problems. We did not talk about where Darragi got his fuel stock, but behind the house was a government gasoline tanker unhitched from its cab.

The Mahdi commander began our conversation by laying out a long and ridiculous conspiracy theory that involved American soldiers burying improvised explosive devices in Sadr City. But then he began to talk openly about the Mahdi Army's military operations. This is highly unusual. It may have only happened because the political leadership in Sadr City had no idea Darragi was meeting with a reporter.

We were talking about Sunni groups that were targeting Shiite civilians when Darragi volunteered that the Mahdi Army in Sadr City was holding a man it believed had taken part in the bombing of the al-Sharoufi mosque a few months earlier. Darragi said, "We talked with him and he said that he worked with men to set off explosions. He is inside the jail now." I asked what would happen to him. "If he is guilty of killing, then he must be killed. That is the sharia law. This man already confessed that he was killing people." Darragi shrugged as if to say, "This is how it works, what can I do?"

Darragi went on to describe a secret court in Sadr City where the Mahdi Army held people it captured, tried them and passed sentence. When I asked to visit the sharia court and talk to the mosque bombing suspect, Darragi said, "I would have to blindfold you and that would be embarrassing for both of us. The court is in a secret place, but I will ask if it is possible." When I called Darragi the next day, his phone was switched off. I tried to visit him a few days later but he was gone. One of his men said he was in Turkey.

Before I left Darragi's house, the commander talked about his frustration with the current arms ban in Baghdad. Only the Army, the police and U.S. forces are allowed to carry arms on the street. "If I could bring my weapons I could go to al Rusafa [Baghdad east of the Tigris] and capture the terrorists who are building the bombs and sending them to this side of the city. Now, I can do nothing." If the U.S. pressure was off Darragi and his men, it is a safe bet that there would be open conflict on the streets of Baghdad, this time not with the Americans, but between the Shia and the Sunni groups. As the recent bloodletting shows, the battle for the control of Iraq will be fought in these neighborhoods.

I decided to try another approach to get information about the secret court. After a few phone calls, I found a Shiite police source who was willing to meet near the hotel and talk about the situation with the Mahdi Army. Meeting in Sadr City was out of the question.

The police officer, Sgt. Jasim, was a well-groomed man in his 40s, clean-shaven except for a large mustache. He wanted to meet at a restaurant called Say Saban, a fancy garden place not far from the bomb-damaged Hamra hotel and the University of Baghdad. In more peaceful times, Say Saban is a restaurant that caters to families on a Friday night out. The place is like a miniature golf course surrounded by palm trees and tiny lakes, with a slightly unsettling and formal atmosphere. On the day we met, June 7, it was empty, except for Sgt. Jasim, his enormous, shiftless brother, and my driver and translator. Waiters hovered too closely around our table and the fixer who set up the meeting, Amar, continually looked around, afraid of being seen with a Westerner.

Sgt. Jasim worked in the police department in Sadr City. He said that he personally knew of many incidents where people were found killed at al-Seddeh. When I said that bodies had been found hanged, which suggested a judicial process, he said, "They aren't hanging them now, they are killing them by suffocating them with electrical tape." He illustrated the grim workings of the death squads with a grisly example.

"The Mahdi Army soldiers come in a convoy and put the victims in the trunk of the car. About a month ago, there was this guy they put in the trunk but they didn't search him first, and this civilian happened to have a pistol on him. The Mahdi Army drove him to a place where he heard people being executed, and from inside the trunk he pulled his pistol out and shot himself."

I asked what it was like to work as a police officer in Sadr City. He said, "Our job is to get rid of bodies and take them to the morgue. That is the only thing we do, day and night. On a quiet day we find five bodies."

Jasim did not support the Mahdi Army. In fact, he was disgusted with them and seemed to hate his role as a corpse bearer. More than once, he said he wished that the U.S. military would intervene and stop the killings. After describing a massive protection racket Muqtada al-Sadr's followers were running on the merchants in the Jamila market, he said, "Whenever an explosion goes off in Sadr City, the Mahdi Army brings three bodies to the place where it happened and they leave them there, saying, 'Here, we are dealing with the terrorists, these people are responsible for the bombings.' They don't really deal with those responsible for the bombings, they just do whatever they want."

The killings are a form of theatrical control, and this gruesome public display, in which brutal neighborhood thugs pose as Robin Hood's merry band, sums up the Mahdi Army perfectly. They simultaneously want to appear virtuous and to scare the daylights out of anyone who might oppose them. It is a preview of how they will govern if they seize power. With each new mosque bombing and assassination it is easier to imagine the advent of maximum darkness, a future where no Sunni Arab family is safe and the entire society falls under the control of militia groups.

Over the lime sodas, Jasim suddenly fell silent and decided to leave Say Saban. Something had spooked him and it also had the fixer Amar about to jump out of his skin. Under his breath, Sgt. Jasim said he had seen someone he knew sitting nearby and wanted to move the meeting to another spot. No one wanted to be heard speaking English, so we paid and left. We decided to move the meeting down Jadriyah Boulevard, to a ratty, abandoned cafe near the Hamra. When we assembled in the back of the place, away from the street, I asked the officer for specific information about the sharia court that the Sadr official Darragi had alluded to in our interview.

"Yes, I know where it is. The court is in a school in Sector 30. The Mahdi Army takes their prisoners to the court where they obtain forced confessions. Then they kill them because they can't let them walk out of there even if they are innocent." I asked if he knew of anyone who had survived and could describe his experience. He shook his head.

Jasim said that U.S. forces had placed Abu Dereh on a target list and had tried to capture him in several raids, but had failed.

What about the police -- could they intervene and stop the killing in Sadr City? Jasim vehemently insisted it was impossible. "No. They threaten us every minute. They [the militiamen] are not allowed to be arrested or brought up on charges." Jasim accused a senior official in the Interior Ministry, Hussein Neuma, with covering up and protecting the militia members from prosecution. "He's one of them," Jasim said.

A few days after my meeting with Jasim, Ahmed, the student, told me, "The killings are becoming something that's normal. When you hear about someone you know who has been killed, there's a part inside of you that shakes. Now when I hear that someone I know has been killed, I don't feel anything. It's like a part of me has died."

This is the first of three articles. Tomorrow: the daily nightmare at Baghdad's morgue, and an encounter with a grieving woman who is sheltered by the Mahdi Army

By Phillip Robertson

Phillip Robertson is reporting from Iraq for Salon.

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