Iraq's New Death Squad
In January 2008 the US Special Forces started allowing ISOF commanders to join missions with them and the ISOF rank and file. Starting last summer--when Hassan's family was attacked--ISOF battalions began launching missions on their own, without American advisers, in Sadr City, where political agreements forbid the Americans from entering. Accusations of human rights abuses, killings and politically motivated arrests have surfaced, including assaults on a university president and arrests of opposition politicians.
The US government has been focused on turning out "as many men in arms as possible, as quickly as possible," says Peter Harling, senior Middle East analyst at the International Crisis Group. "There has been very little impetus to build checks and controls to prevent abuse. It's been very much about building up capability without the oversight that could prevent some of the units [from] turning into proxies working for some politician."
In Sadr City opposition to the Iraqi government and the US occupation is strong. There is no longer any visible militia presence, but pictures of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr still stick to the US-built concrete walls that enclose the city, and calls to prayer end with a demand for the hastened exit of "the enemy." There, the ISOF uses a policy of collective punishment, aimed at intimidating civilians, charges Hassan al-Rubaie, Sadrist member of the parliamentary Security and Defense Committee. "They terrorize entire neighborhoods just to arrest one person they think is a terrorist," he says. "This needs to stop."
US Special Forces advisers have done little to respond to allegations of abuse. Civilian pleas, public protests, complaints by Iraqi Army commanders about the ISOF's actions and calls for disbanding it by members of Parliament have not pushed the US government to take a hard look at the force they are creating. Instead, US advisers dismiss such claims as politically motivated. "The enemy is trying to discredit them," says Carstens. "It's not because they are doing anything dirty."
On the same night Hassan Mahsan's house was raided, 26-year-old Haidar al-Aibi was killed with a bullet to the forehead. His family says there was no warning. They tell me how it happened as we drink tea on the floor of their living room, furnished only with thick foam cushions and mournful depictions of the Shiite martyr Hussein. A woman weeps loudly in the corner, the sleeping child of her dead son almost obscured by the folds of her black garments.
Fathil al-Aibi says the family was awakened around midnight by a nearby explosion. His brother Haidar ran up to the roof to see what had happened and was immediately shot from a nearby rooftop. When Fathil, his brother Hussein and his father, Abbas, tried to bring Haidar downstairs, they were shot at, too. For about two hours he lay lifeless on the roof while his family panicked as red laser beams from rifle scopes danced on their windows. "We had tests the next day at the university," Hussein says. "We didn't think he would go like this."
Down the road, around the same time that night, police commando Ahmed Shibli says he was also being fired on. He illuminates two bullet holes in his house with a kerosene lamp as we talk. The men who busted open his front door called themselves the dirty brigade, he says, and they were carrying American weapons, not the AK-47s or PKCs the National Police use. When they entered, they fired immediately. "It wasn't a warning shot. They shot at me like they wanted to kill me as I was getting down on the ground. It was like we were first-degree terrorists." They fired again, he says, fatally shooting his ailing 63-year-old father. As blood poured from the old man's hip, Ahmed says the men held a gun to his little boy's head and forced his wife to search the room for the police-issued weapon he had left at work.
Ahmed and his brother were hauled to the outskirts of the city, along with Hassan, where they were lined up with other men in the dark. Hassan insists on substantiating his story by showing me an official complaint issued by a local army commander named Mustafa Sabah Yunis, alleging that an "unknown armed squadron" entered the area and arrested him.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi Army was rushing in to respond to the gunfire, and according to Hussein al-Aibi, these soldiers were shot at as well. He tells me the army got Haidar off the roof and drove him to the hospital. On the way, Fathil says, the vehicle was stopped by a dirty brigade operative, who asked Iraqi Army Major Abu Rajdi where they were going. According to Fathil, Rajdi told the operative, "This is a college student who has nothing to do with anything, and you shot him recklessly." The operative responded by hitting Rajdi and saying, "Turn around and go back, or we'll shoot him and we'll shoot you too."