Iraq’s Armed Forces Sinking Into Sectarian Chaos

While the George W. Bush administration launches a campaign to persuade the public that an accelerated buildup of Iraqi security forces will permit substantial numbers of U.S. troops to begin returning home next year, recent reports from Iraq suggest that the security forces – and their sectarian make-up – are themselves contributing to the country’s destabilization.

A spate of articles in the mainstream U.S. media since the discovery two weeks ago by U.S. troops of a secret underground prison in the Iraqi Interior Ministry, where some 170 Sunni Arab men and boys had been subjected to torture and ill-treatment, has detailed the existence of death squads in the largely Shi’ite police and special commandos or operating with their support.

These units appear to be under the control of two sectarian militias that have successfully infiltrated the state security forces – the Iranian-trained Badr Organization, the armed wing of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI); and the Mahdi Army, which is led by the Shi’ite nationalist politician, Moqtada al-Sadr.

Operating through or with the Iraqi security forces, the two groups, which are themselves rivals, have abducted, tortured, and executed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Sunni males, according to front-page reports that have appeared this week in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Knight Ridder newspapers.

"Hundreds of accounts of killings and abductions have emerged in recent weeks, most of them brought forward by Sunni civilians, who claim that their relatives have been taken away by Iraqi men in uniform without warrant or explanation," the New York Times reported Tuesday.

"Some Sunni males have been found dead in ditches and fields, with bullet holes in their temples, acid burns on their skin, and holes in their bodies apparently made by electric drills. Many have simply vanished."

The motives for the abductions are mixed, according to the reports. In some cases, they appear directed against suspected insurgents or their supporters. In others, they seem designed to "ethnically cleanse" certain neighborhoods. In still others, they appear aimed at achieving revenge for decades of discrimination and repression by the Ba’athist regime, which generally privileged Sunni citizens.

In any case, the repression that is now directed against the Sunni community by the police and commandos and their sectarian auxiliaries threatens the Bush administration’s newly-touted plans to reduce the U.S. military presence from nearly 160,000 to less than 100,000 troops over the next year by rapidly expanding the size and capabilities of Iraq’s security forces to fight the largely Sunni insurgency on their own.

In a major policy address today at the U.S. Naval Academy designed to convince an increasingly skeptical public that he has a viable "exit strategy" from Iraq, U.S. President George W. Bush is expected to stress the key role that Iraqi security forces, currently estimated at just over 200,000, will play in assuring the nation’s stability and defense.

But the perception that those security forces – about 110,000 of which are controlled by the Interior Ministry – are in fact acting against Sunnis on behalf of Shi’ite political parties will likely only fuel the insurgency, despite new U.S. efforts to persuade Sunnis that their interests will be protected, according to the reports.

"[The abuses] undermine the U.S. effort to stabilize the nation, and train and equip Iraq’s security forces – the Bush administration’s key prerequisites for the eventual withdrawal of American troops," said the Los Angeles Times in a lengthy article that noted that U.S. military advisers in Iraq, as well as the Interior Ministry’s inspector general, concurred that "death squads" were indeed operating within the security forces.

"It’s increasingly becoming a war of all against all, with no rules," Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, told the Wall Street Journal this week. "The Iraqi security forces themselves are becoming just another of the players, and if they owe allegiance to anything, it’s to their commanders or communities, and not remotely to the state itself."

The problem itself is not a new one, particularly after U.S. forces began conducting "joint" operations with Iraqi forces – which had been largely purged of Ba’athists by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) – in 2004. The newly constituted Iraqi forces consisted largely of units recruited from Kurdish peshmerga or Shi’ite militias. Their operations in the so-called "Sunni Triangle" – combined with and often following those of U.S. forces – clearly helped fuel the insurgency.

While U.S. commanders have tried to remedy this problem – in part by ending the Iraqi Army’s ban on recruiting most former Ba’athist junior officers in early November and paying tribal militias to maintain order – the SCIRI-controlled Interior Ministry has been more resistant, even after the discovery of the secret prison. While Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari promised that the incident would be fully investigated and those responsible punished, Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, a former leader of the Badr militia, played down the abuses.

But it now appears that the prison was just the tip of the iceberg of anti-Sunni operations conducted by the police and commandos and their auxiliaries, as hundreds of bodies of Sunni males, many with their hands still bound by police handcuffs, have turned up in garbage dumps, rivers, and alongside roads in recent months, according to the newspaper reports. In many cases, the victims had been abducted, sometimes in groups of a dozen or more, by individuals who identified themselves as police or commandos.

"These reports are definitely credible and very worrisome," said Joe Stork, a veteran Middle East specialist at Human Rights Watch (HRW) here.

Last week, former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi’ite who is trying to woo Sunni support in next month’s elections, charged that the level of repression recalled former President Saddam Hussein’s reign. "People are doing the same as Saddam’s time and worse," he told the London Observer.

While Stork called that characterization"a bit much," he stressed that Washington should be very concerned about the situation.

But while U.S. military commanders were willing to tell reporters about the abuses, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld discounted the reports as "unverified" during a press conference here Tuesday.

"There’s … a political campaign [in Iraq] taking place, and we ought to be aware of that, that there are going to be a lot of charges and countercharges and allegations," he told a reporter who asked about the death squad reports.

"And they may very well be timed – as they are in every country in the world that has a free political system – they may be timed in a way to seek advantage," he said.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.