Baghdad, March 11, 2006
THE Sunni imam in Baghdad's al-Salam City clings to sanity but his mixed community is a sectarian tinder-box and, increasingly, Sheikh Fadal Kalaf Jasam struggles to maintain his grip.
He has been working tirelessly to hold the community together, shuttling between Shiite and Sunni mosques and the offices and compounds of the US military, Iraqi security forces and the religious-backed militias that make up their own rules in the new Iraq.
But now he is tortured by indecision. The 42-year-old cleric fears information he is sitting on could spark the sort of sectarian violence not previously seen in his pocket of north-west Baghdad. There are about 3000 working-class families in the area — half Shiite, half Sunni.
Local gossip is filled with speculation about the fate of more than 50 locals who, two weeks ago, were dragged from their beds in the dead of night by masked gunmen.
All were carted away handcuffed and blindfolded. But Sheikh Fadal has been able to confirm that 12 were later shot in the head and their bodies dumped in nearby suburbs and on the other side of the city. Three of the bodies have been brought back to al-Salam City.
Hassan al-Rahami, a 50-year-old grain merchant, was punished for his membership of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. Two other bodies were found on a garbage tip on Wednesday.
Sheikh Fadal has confirmed the other nine deaths from pictures filed at the central morgue where, he said, he was informed that the bodies had already been taken to Najaf, in the Shiite south, to be buried in a mass grave because their relatives had not claimed them.
The imam cannot decide if he should risk an explosion of Sunni anger by informing the community that so many of their brothers and fathers have been executed, or if he should just sit tight, leaving them to stew in a cauldron of suspicion and faltering hope.
"What can I tell them? I fear how they will respond."
The timing of the abductions meant they received little attention. In the midst of the crisis sparked by the bombing of the Shiites' revered Golden Mosque in Samarra on February 22, the unexplained disappearances in the early hours of the next day hardly rated as news.
As the country erupted in Shiite fury, al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya news channels ran ticker-tape reports of official denials of any involvement by Iraq's US-trained security forces in the abductions. But chilling as it was, the story quickly died for want of detail and an explanation.
Now the finger of suspicion is falling on the Wolf Brigade, an Iraqi Interior Ministry commando unit that is frequently accused of running — or protecting — groups of freelance killers. These are the death squads that haunt liberated Iraq.
The mass abductions and killing of Sunni men, often by a signature gunshot to the back of the head, happen with increasing and disturbing frequency.
Members of Shiite religious militias loyal to the parties that control government, or units made up of their fighters who have been folded into the ranks of Iraq's security forces, are accused of using their government-issued weapons, uniforms, vehicles and licences to move during curfew as they take revenge against Sunnis for three years of the insurgency and 30 years of Saddam.
In January, US troops caught one of the squads red-handed, and 22 police commandos under the control of the Interior Ministry were arrested as they set about executing a Sunni hostage.
Observers were struck most by what was presumed to be US Army General Joseph Peterson's deliberate use of the plural when he told reporters: "We have found one of the death squads and we believe there's more of them out there."
The director of the Baghdad morgue, Fakir Bakir, recently estimated that the squads were responsible for as many as 7000 summary executions and the UN's outgoing human rights officer in Baghdad, John Pace, last week laid blame for most of the deaths at the feet of the Badr Badr Brigade, the militia wing of SCIRI, the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is one of the biggest Shiite parties.
In a series of interviews this week, several people who witnessed or claimed to have direct knowledge of the February 23 round-up in al-Salam City claimed it was the work of the much-feared Wolf Brigade and, in the case of one well-informed source, that all the prisoners had been executed.
A man who was in a good position during the dawn raid is Commander Hytham Aboud al-Ameer, the leader in al-Salam City of the Mahdi Army, a militia run by the young firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The Mahdi Army competes with the Badr Badr Brigade for turf and loyalty.
Commander Hytham was on guard duty on the roof of his house when a convoy of white, late-model vehicles, like those supplied to government agencies, swept into his street.
"Five vehicles without numberplates came into our street — four Chevrolets and a Nissan pick-up. There were many men with new-looking weapons. They had a list of names and a masked guide who pointed to houses and then to individuals when they were brought out.
"Ishmail Aghedi tried to put up a fight — he was in his bathroom with a gun, but they killed him. His brother, Uday, was killed in a separate attack on their real estate office 48 hours before this attack."
Such was the dawn show of Badr Badr force that the Mahdi Army commander made no effort to protect his turf. Admitting that he was afraid, he said that he opted to remain in the shadows and watch the Badr Badr boys at work: "They were very professional."
"They wore Iraqi police uniforms and I'm sure they were policemen because a few days later I saw some of the same vehicles with a US patrol when they returned to our neighbourhood to arrest Ibrahim al-Jabouri and his brother," Commander Hytham said.
"The Sunnis I saw being piled onto the Nissan pick-up were bad people — mostly from the al-Ghadi tribe. One of them worked with the insurgency and some of the others made two attacks on Shiite mosques. In the first they injured Akiel, the muezzin, and sent him to hospital for three weeks; the next time they sent him to his grave."
Commander Hytham explained that he had his own working relationship with the Wolf Brigade: "When our units captured criminals we used to give them to the Americans — but they were always released and came back to cause trouble; now we give them to the Wolf Brigade and they never come back.
"The al-Ghadi tribe accuses the Mahdi Army of these abductions, but I swear it was not us — it was the Badr Badr Brigade."
Another who observed the raid at close quarters was Abdul Latif Kathan, who was among those rounded up. The 30-year-old electrician is utterly confused — he was given no reason for his detention and no explanation for his release within a few hours of his capture.
"When they took us away, the Nissan drove for about 15 minutes and then pulled up at an office building where they switched us to a Landcruiser."
He said that nine prisoners were squeezed into the vehicle and, importantly, he remembered seeing the now dead grain merchant Hassan al-Rahami among those in the vehicle.
"After 10 more minutes we stop at a building where they locked us in a room. We are not blindfolded now, but they said anyone who opens his eyes is dead. Myself and three others were taken from the room — they swapped our handcuffs for plastic wire, made new blindfolds from strips of blanket and drove us to al-Waizeriah, where we were dumped at the back of the al-Bakir Military College."
On Thursday, Baghdad was taking a whipping from the tourab, a violent dust storm that strikes at this time of year. And in the still air of the National Security Ministry bunker deep inside the Green Zone, Abdul Karim Al-Enzey was whipping up his own storm of denial at The Age's suggestion that death squads were at work in Iraq.
"This is all the work of the residue of the Baath Party trying to start civil war," the Security Minister insisted. "These allegations against our security forces are an attempt to divide us. Never!"
Did the security forces give cover to killers from the Badr Badr Brigade or the Mahdi Army? "The Interior Ministry would not allow it. As a minister I'm fully aware of what is happening — and what you claim is not happening. It's the duty of the Interior Ministry to attack terrorists. The local and foreign media are trying to stir sectarian violence but we're building the new Iraq on human rights and democracy."
The Shiite minister, a member of the Dawa religious party, explained that just because killers wore police uniforms it did not mean that they were policemen. He added, helpfully: "A lot of thieves in Australia wear police uniforms — that doesn't mean that all policemen in your country are thieves."
It has been a bad week in Iraq. Inevitably, the Sunni families of al-Salam City will hear of the fate of their men, and in the meantime Sheikh Fadal will wrestle with his limited options.
Publicly, the local Shiites sympathise.
But one man was quick to justify the actions of the death squads and what he saw as a shift in the balance of power.
He said: "We have a saying, 'If a man is not scared of the punishment he might get, he'll do anything.' The Sunnis in our district will not respond now — they know the punishment and they are scared. Look into their eyes — you can see it."