Training Iraq's Death Squads | The Nation


Training Iraq's Death Squads

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McNellis is a tall, good-humored officer whose ears jut out slightly from his high-and-tight blond haircut. He is responsible for Khadimiya and Saliyah Police Districts, a sixty-square-mile section of western Baghdad home to nearly 2 million people and policed by approximately 3,000 Iraqis. This early March day has been a good one for the Iraqi police, as officers at Saliyah headquarters are happy to report to McNellis when he comes in on an inspection. Off of Haifa Street, a thoroughfare once so dangerous it earned the nickname Purple Heart Boulevard, the police received a tip about a possible car bomb. At IP request, a platoon from the 57th went to investigate along with a team of Iraqi explosive specialists. "It took a little while, but they cleared up the area and then blew up the [car bomb] in place," McNellis says, with evident pride. A good day for the IPs is a good day for him.

Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.

About the Author

Spencer Ackerman
Spencer Ackerman is a senior reporter for The Washington Independent, where he covers national security.

However tense, the company has seen many good days since the surge began. In February Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki began his contribution to the surge, known as Fardh al-Qanoon, or "Enforcing the Law." It has made Baghdad a city of endless checkpoints and roadblocks manned by Iraqi police and army units. To reduce the danger from car bombs, the security forces have made driving through the city as difficult as possible. In Khadimiya, there are more checkpoints than there are heavy concrete barriers, leading Iraqi police to limit mobility on the streets with air conditioners and engine blocks.

Baghdadis are so desperate for security that many seem willing to endure higher US visibility as its price--within limits. Around ten of Baghdad's more violent neighborhoods, US troops are constructing massive concrete walls along sectarian fault lines, suggesting to many Iraqis that the United States and its proxies are seeking to redraw the city's map for their own benefit. After I left, Adhimiya, the last Sunni bastion east of the Tigris, was home to a massive protest that, ironically, united Sunnis and Shiites against America's so-called "gated communities."

Khadimiya is not as restive, something difficult to believe from its outward appearance. Throughout the neighborhood hang full-color posters of Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical cleric whose Mahdi Army militia is held responsible for innumerable sectarian murders. But when the 57th travels through the neighborhood, it meets little resistance. In fact, the beginning of the surge brought a "significant and obvious reduction" in attacks on the company, McNellis says--a prospect that both reassures and unsettles him. "What I fear is, this is just the calm before the storm," he says. "To go down a road where there was a constant [roadside bomb] presence to now being nothing--if I was an insurgent commander, I'd be taking the time to lay low and adjust."

The surge bolsters the 57th's slow successes. It took months of relentless work to get the IPs to stick to procedure: showing up in uniform, for instance, or obtaining warrants before a raid. "The IPs have come a long way, in terms of training, proficiency, the maintenance of their vehicles and command and control of their people in both districts." McNellis's efforts, in other words, are bearing fruit. "The momentum is now on our side," he says. "We really can finish what we've begun."

But the initial promise of Fardh al-Qanoon has begun to unravel. Sectarian murders in Baghdad are down to a third of what they were before the surge, according to US officials. A United Nations report on human rights, however, blasted the Iraqi government for refusing to release statistics on civilian casualties--and nevertheless found that by the end of March, violent deaths had begun to tick back up, with "large numbers" of Iraqis "experienc[ing] intimidation and killings." A US official conceded to the Washington Post in May that, overall, attacks have "stayed relatively constant" since the troop buildup began. On April 12 insurgents destroyed the Sarafiya Bridge, a crucial artery across the Tigris, while also brazenly killing eight in the cafeteria of the Iraqi Parliament, deep within the US-secured Green Zone. Insurgents have increased mortar attacks on the Green Zone to the point where the US Embassy has ordered its personnel to wear body armor while walking around an area that used to be an oasis of calm. Despite the high-profile violence, McNellis tells me in May that the 57th hasn't come under increased attack.

The broader problem is that sectarianism remains deeply entrenched. Gen. David Petraeus, the highly regarded commanding general in Iraq, has stated that success can only come through a political settlement. Yet practically every significant reconciliation effort pushed by the United States--a relaxation of the de-Baathification law, a more equitable distribution of the nation's oil wealth, a new round of provincial elections--has bogged down in Parliament. Popular sentiment is no less divided. According to a March poll by ABC News, more than 95 percent of Sunnis believe Baathists should be allowed back into government positions, while two-thirds of Shiites and Kurds reject the idea. Only 4 percent of Sunnis believe their lives will improve over the next year, though 51 percent of Shiites remain optimistic.

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