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Training Iraq's Death Squads | The Nation

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Training Iraq's Death Squads

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Some cases demand direct US action. West of Khadimiya is the Shula police station. Last year the 57th came under frequent attack when convoying to the heavily Shiite Shula neighborhood, which McNellis describes as "death squad territory." Company intelligence found the Shula police to be complicit, so in October, the 57th relinquished support for the station. "If they're involved in attacks, why should we train them?" The problems in Shula continue. In March McNellis learned that the station was holding a man captive without documenting his arrest--a prime indicator that the police or an affiliated death squad would execute him. The second battalion of the 12th Cavalry Regiment marched into Shula and took direct custody of the prisoner, most likely saving his life.

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.

In terms of abuse, "a close second," McNellis says, was the Hurriyeh IP station, a dismal outpost responsible for about 500,000 residents in a mostly Shiite area. "The IPs were either involved in extrajudicial killings or IED/EFP [improvised explosive device/explosively formed penetrator] attacks or they let it happen," McNellis remembers. "Hurriyeh was so close to being cut off." A new commander, Colonel Majid, arrived in November and expressed his desire to turn the station around. McNellis continues to support Hurriyeh; his confidence was bolstered when soldiers from the first battalion of the 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment moved into the station as part of the surge.

One way Majid approached the problem was to come to a modus vivendi with the militia elements. He freely explains that he can live with a certain amount of infiltration. "More and more IPs and Iraqi Army join with a militia while they work at their jobs, at the same time. Some guys sympathize with the militias, but I can still work with them," Majid, who is bald with a thick mustache, says through translation. "I can't deny that they're here, but just because they sympathize with a militia doesn't mean they can't do their job." His calculation is the same as the Americans'. "When the government becomes better, the militias will collapse," he says, "and when the IPs do their job in a good way, locals will trust the IPs and give them support, so there won't be a rationale for the militias to exist."

Soldiers stress that they still need to focus on strengthening the IPs' chain of command and encouraging them to pay closer attention to detail on logistics and equipment. Overall, however, the 57th gives high marks to its Iraqi police counterparts. On patrols, unarmored IP flatbed trucks carrying officers with thin blue bulletproof vests weave through the streets in formation with US Humvees. But no one believes the IPs in Khadimiya and Saliyah are ready to operate independently. "We wouldn't want to see stations turned over," says Wellman. "The worst thing would be to turn them over too early." There's no consensus on when their fifteen stations will no longer require US mentoring--perhaps next year, perhaps later--but all agree that when the 57th leaves in June another unit must replace it.

That's what the military plans. In April the Pentagon reluctantly announced months-long extensions of all active-duty Army units in the Middle East in order to sustain the surge through the next year; and in May, it announced the summer deployment of 35,000 soldiers as replacements. But time is a rapidly diminishing commodity for the Iraq War. GOP Congressmen warn Bush that the party will be decimated if the war continues through the 2008 elections. No one may be able to agree on a timetable to end the war, but vast majorities in the United States, Iraq and the region desire the departure of US forces. In May, for the first time, a bill demanding that the United States schedule a withdrawal gained majority support in the Iraqi Parliament.

More than four years into the war, the discrepancy between the scope of Iraq's challenges and the ability of the United States to alleviate them is greater than ever. The commander of Iraqi police in western Baghdad, Gen. Saleh Alany, insists that the United States can't leave--"the terrorists would win"--but says the real problem in Iraq is the entire "generation that was born in the 1980s, during the war with Iran," whose minds have been corrupted by violence. He includes his own men in his assessment: "Loyalty is the biggest problem. The security forces don't have loyalty to the country. They're loyal to the different parties, or other forces." Alany's dim view of the new Iraq is surely colored by his status as a veteran of Saddam's Republican Guard. But if he's right, then to improve the quality of the police force entails increasing the lethality of the militias.

Major Ali in Khadimiya needs no reminder. He picks his security detail personally--he must be wary of those assigned to guard him because of whom they might actually work for. He fears being transferred to the MOI, and vows to take his men to the ministry with him if he is. "I need to know who they are," he says. "Otherwise, they'd kill me." Sherrill sees help on the way. "It's all about weeding out the bad apples," he says, "and for the most part, we've been doing that." After Sherrill leaves, there will be another lieutenant to lend his helmet to Ali's son, and more US troops to mentor Ali's progress. But even with them there, Ali must still fear the uncertain loyalties of his own men, and what they will do with their newfound skills.

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