Armed Groups Propel Iraq Toward Chaos
By DEXTER FILKINS
Published: May 24, 2006
BAGHDAD, Iraq, May 23 — Even in a country beset by murder and death, the
16th Brigade represented a new frontier.
The brigade, a 1,000-man force set up by Iraq's Ministry of Defense in early
2005, was charged with guarding a stretch of oil pipeline that ran through
the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Dawra. Heavily armed and lightly
supervised, some members of the largely Sunni brigade transformed themselves
into a death squad, cooperating with insurgents and executing government
collaborators, Iraqi officials say.
"They were killing innocent people, anyone who was affiliated with the
government," said Hassan Thuwaini, the director of the Iraqi Oil Ministry's
Forty-two members of the brigade were arrested in January, according to
officials at the Ministry of the Interior and the police department in Dawra.
Since then, Iraqi officials say, individual gunmen have confessed to
carrying out dozens of assassinations, including the killing of their own
commander, Col. Mohsin Najdi, when he threatened to turn them in.
Some of the men assigned to guard the oil pipeline, the officials say,
appear to have maintained links to the major Iraqi insurgent groups. For
months, American and Iraqi officials have been trying to track down death
squads singling out Sunnis that operated inside the Shiite-led Interior
But the 16th Brigade was different. Unlike the others, the 16th Brigade was
a Sunni outfit, accused of killing Shiites. And it was not, like the others,
part of the Iraqi police or even the Interior Ministry. It was run by
another Iraqi ministry altogether.
Such is the country that the new Iraqi leaders who took office Saturday are
inheriting. The headlong, American-backed effort to arm tens of thousands of
Iraqi soldiers and officers, coupled with a failure to curb a nearly equal
number of militia gunmen, has created a galaxy of armed groups, each with
its own loyalty and agenda, which are accelerating the country's slide into
Indeed, the 16th Brigade stands as a model for how freelance government
violence has spread far beyond the ranks of the Shiite-backed police force
and Interior Ministry to encompass other government ministries, private
militias and people in the upper levels of the Shiite government.
Sometimes, the lines between one government force and another — and between
the police and the militias — are so blurry that it is impossible to
determine who the killers are.
"No one knows who is who right now," said Adil Abdul Mahdi, one of Iraq's
The armed groups operating across Iraq include not just the 145,000
officially sanctioned police officers and commandos who have come under
scrutiny for widespread human rights violations. They also include thousands
of armed guards and militia gunmen: some Shiite, some Sunni; some, like the
145,000-member Facilities Protection Service, operating with official
backing; and some, like the Shiite-led Badr Brigade militia, conducting
operations with the government's tacit approval, sometimes even wearing
Some of these armed groups, like the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi police, often
carry out legitimate missions to combat crime and the insurgency. Others,
like members of another Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army, specialize in
torture, murder, kidnapping and the settling of scores for political
Reining in Iraq's official and unofficial armies is the most urgent task
confronting Iraq's new leaders. In speeches and private conversations, Prime
Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki says he intends to clamp down on the death
squads operating within the Iraqi government, and to disarm the militias
that provide the street muscle for Iraq's political parties.
That presages an enormous political battle, one that extends beyond the
Interior Ministry's police officers and paramilitary soldiers.
A larger and possibly more decisive struggle looms to disarm myriad other
armed groups, including the Shiite militias, most of them answerable to the
Shiite political parties that dominate the new government.
The outcome of the struggle has far-reaching implications for Iraq's future,
as Iraqi and American officials try to curb the abuses that threaten to push
the country closer to a sectarian war without impeding the government's
ability to fight the Sunni-led guerrilla insurgency.
"I think they have the evidence now as to who is doing most of the killing,"
said an American official in Baghdad who is not authorized to speak
publicly. "It's a question of political will, the political will to do what
needs to be done."
"I have just not seen it yet," the official said.
Tales of Uniformed Killers
Every week, mothers and wives from Baghdad's Sunni neighborhoods stream into
the makeshift human rights office at the Iraqi Islam Party, bearing tales of
torture, kidnapping and murder at the hands of government security forces.
Most of the tales unfold in a grimly similar way: a group of Iraqis wearing
official uniforms showed up at the house of a Sunni family and took away a
young man. The family found his body a few days later, tossed into a ditch
or laid out at the city morgue.
"It's the Ministry of Interior," said Omar al-Jabouri, who runs the Islamic
Party's human rights office. Some of Iraq's new leaders, including its Sunni
vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, are calling for a wholesale purging of the
Interior Ministry, saying there are "thousands" of corrupt and brutal
officers who need to be fired if the government ever hopes to secure the
trust of Iraq's Sunnis.
"You ask me who is doing these things," Mr. Hashemi said. "The police, the
militias, the political parties — we don't know. But some of these people
are criminals. In the Sunni areas, there is no confidence in them at all."
It is impossible to know just how many rogue units exist among the 145,000
police officers, commandos and other officers operating out of the ministry,
most of them trained under American supervision.
That uncertainty lies at the heart of the political struggle that is now
shaping up in Baghdad: Sunni and Shiite leaders disagree fundamentally on
the nature and scope of the problem itself, which makes it harder to solve.
Leaders of the Shiite coalition, the largest partner in the new government,
say the protests about the security forces, as well as their own militias,
are being exaggerated for political effect. They say they plan to resist any
wholesale transformation of the Interior Ministry.
Car bombings and suicide attacks have markedly dropped in Baghdad over the
past several months, and the Shiite leaders say a large-scale purge of the
Interior Ministry, or a rehiring of officers fired after the fall of Saddam
Hussein, would probably revive the insurgency.
"A lot of noise comes from the fact that they are doing their jobs," Mr.
Mahdi, the Shiite vice president, said of the Iraqi security forces. "We are
in a war."
Indeed, to Iraq's main Shiite leaders, complaints about the Interior
Ministry distract from the far larger problem of Sunni death squads,
consisting of people whom they refer to as "taqfiris," the Arabic word that
describes someone who hunts down apostates and violators of the faith. It
has come to be a shorthand for insurgents who kill Shiites. In this
formulation, the Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry is merely doing to Sunni
insurgents what Sunni insurgents have been doing to the Shiites since April
"The problem is the Saddamists and the taqfiris," said Abdul Aziz Hakim, the
leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the
main Shiite parties that controls the government. "These groups are
committing genocide against the Shiite people."
Rogue Units Suspected
Bayan Jabr, who until Saturday served as interior minister, hears the
complaints about his forces and dismisses them with a wave of the hand.
"It's only rumor," Mr. Jabr said with a smile.
With a quick laugh and a fondness for powder-blue leisure suits, Mr. Jabr
hardly seems a diabolical figure. A businessman and former newspaper editor,
he portrays himself as a humble man thrust into a distasteful job.
"I'm not interested in occupying this job for myself," Mr. Jabr said. "This
job does not suit my nature. Anything related to trade or business would be
It was Mr. Jabr who presided over the rapid growth of the Iraqi security
forces, and he has been the target of much of the criticism from Sunni
leaders. He is a senior member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic
Revolution in Iraq, which oversees its own militia, the Badr Brigade. He was
once one of the brigade's commanders.
Upon taking the helm of the Interior Ministry last spring, he purged more
than 170 employees who had been hired by the previous, more secular-minded
Iraqi government. And he brought the first of thousands of Badr gunmen into
the ranks of the police.
The Sunnis accused Mr. Jabr of allowing the largely Shiite police force to
run wild in Sunni neighborhoods. American officials thought that was an
exaggerated view of Mr. Jabr; they described him as a well-intentioned man
who lost control of his ministry. For example, they point out, hundreds and
possibly thousands of gunmen from the Mahdi Army militia, a rival to Mr.
Jabr's Badr Brigade and loyal to the renegade cleric Moktada al-Sadr, also
joined the police forces across the country.
While acknowledging the well-publicized cases of murder and torture within
the Interior Ministry, American officers say that most of the atrocities are
being carried out by a small number of rogues inside the government, or by
groups, like the militias, that are not under Iraqi government control.
"The size of the problem is basically within a couple of brigades," said a
senior American official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, citing the
delicacy of the subject.
The official, who works closely with the Iraqi government, said he believed
there was one group inside the Interior Ministry that was responsible for
many of the atrocities: the 28th Battalion, whose official assignment is to
provide security for the ministry itself.
The American official did not specify which atrocities he believed the
battalion was responsible for. "We are very concerned about it," the
official said. "They form the core of the death squads."
The official was reluctant to go into detail. American and Iraqi leaders
agree that the subject of rogue elements operating inside the ministry is a
delicate topic, particularly since they are trying to bring Sunni leaders
into the government. Some declined to talk about the 28th Battalion, while
others, like Mr. Jabr, said they had not heard of it.
In an interview in his Green Zone office before his new appointment as
finance minister on Saturday, Mr. Jabr seemed eager to prove that he was in
command of his ministry; at one point, he passed around a photo book
containing the confessions of insurgents. They were all Sunnis.
According to Mr. Jabr, forces under the control of the Interior Ministry
cover only about 25 percent of Baghdad; the Iraqi Army and American army
cover the rest.
"Why are we just talking about MOI?" Mr. Jabr said. "The issue is fighting
terrorists. We are just a small part of those who are battling them."
Indeed, the possibilities for government-sponsored violence are enormous:
aside from the police and commandos in the Interior Ministry, approximately
117,000 soldiers are trained and equipped in the Iraqi Army. There are more
than 50,000 private security guards, most of them armed, roaming the
country. Another 145,000 men are assigned to protect Iraq's infrastructure.
Each of these units, Mr. Jabr said, could be infiltrated by insurgents or
commit atrocities against Iraqi civilians, with few people in the senior
levels of the government ever being aware.
"I am not responsible for these people," Mr. Jabr said of the other Iraqi
forces. "You can imagine. This is out of my control. Out of control."
Mr. Jabr offered an example: two weeks ago, his men arrested a team of
bodyguards protecting a person whom Mr. Jabr would describe only as a "very
senior Iraqi official." The bodyguards, Mr. Jabr said, were using their
government identification cards and official positions to run a kidnapping
ring and death squad.
The senior Iraqi official, Mr. Jabr said, apparently did not know what his
bodyguards were up to. "They said, 'We sent him home,' referring to their
boss, 'and then we do our job.' "
Mr. Jabr said criminals and terrorists often impersonated police officers,
wearing uniforms that can be bought at bazaars.
One woman, interviewed in the Baghdad neighborhood of Ur, said a group of
eight men wearing Iraqi Army uniforms pulled into a side street near her
home and parked their two cars, a black sport utility vehicle and white
sedan, earlier this month. From the back of the S.U.V., the woman said, the
men in army uniforms hauled out a blindfolded passenger, who appeared to be
still alive, and moved him to the trunk of the sedan. Then the men shed
their uniforms, tossed them into the vehicles and drove away.
The woman, whose name was not made public to protect her from possible
retribution, said she never saw the men again.
"They were terrorists," the woman said. "It's such a terrible situation."
Ministries' 'Little Armies'
Where Sunnis point to the Interior Ministry, Shiite leaders are indignant
about the Facilities Protection Service, a 145,000-man force spread
throughout 27 Iraqi ministries, each with its own agenda. The officers,
Iraqi officials say, are at the disposal of each minister.
"Now, in every ministry, there are 7 to 15,000 men who carry weapons and
official identification cards," said Mr. Hakim, the Shiite leader. "They are
under the command of the ministries. Some of them have committed many
One of the largest forces is assigned to the Oil Ministry, which maintains
20,000 troops to protect refineries and other parts of the country's oil
According to the force's director, Mr. Thuwaini, the first 16,000-member
paramilitary police force was cobbled together in a haphazard way by a
British-based consulting firm that neither trained the men nor checked their
backgrounds for criminal records or ties to Mr. Hussein's security services.
"The British company hired people randomly, without training — they were
profiteers," said Mr. Thuwaini, a Shiite civil servant not affiliated with
any of the major parties. He took over the oil protection force in July
2005. "That is what we are trying to survive now."
The Facilities Protection Service was first set up in 2003 with only 4,000
men to protect crucial parts of Iraqi utilities like power plants and oil
refineries. As insurgents stepped up their attacks, and the Americans needed
to free up their troops for combat, the service was rapidly expanded. From
August 2004 to January 2005, the number of the service's men grew to 60,000
The man who oversaw that expansion was B. J. Turner, a 64-year-old
consultant from Florida. Mr. Turner said he was the lone American assigned
to the effort for the first several months. Facilities Protection Service
guards received just three days of training and half the pay of regular
police officers. They had no power of arrest.
"We actually trained people at times, firing one to two rounds, "Mr. Turner
said. "Because that's all the ammunition we had."
Once the ministries starting paying their salaries, Mr. Turner said, the
individual F.P.S. units became "little armies," loyal to the ministers who
Last month, an inspector general assigned to check American programs in Iraq
released an audit of the $147 million F.P.S. program. The report said the
auditors were never able to determine basic facts like how many Iraqis were
trained, how many weapons were purchased and where much of the equipment
Of 21,000 guards who were supposed to be trained to protect oil equipment,
for example, probably only about 11,000 received the training, the report
said. And of 9,792 automatic rifles purchased for those guards, auditors
were able to track just 3,015.
The Americans exercise no oversight over the F.P.S., nor does any central
authority in the Iraqi government.
Oil Pipelines at Risk
As much as Mr. Thuwaini despairs over the men under his command, he saved
his fiercest criticism for the pipeline protection units run by the Ministry
of Defense. One of those units was the 16th Brigade, which he and other
Iraqi officials said was operating as a death squad in Dawra.
Mr. Thuwaini said there were at least three other such brigades operating in
Iraq that were also similarly out of control: the 9th, 10th and 11th
Brigades of the Ministry of Defense's pipeline protection forces. Those
three groups, Mr. Thuwaini said, appear to be cooperating with insurgents,
regularly allowing oil pipelines to be destroyed.
Maj. Gen. Mahdi al-Gharawai, a senior official at the Interior Ministry,
said he had no specific information on the 9th, 10th or 11th Brigades. But
he said the Iraqi units assigned to guard the oil pipelines were widely
regarded as useless. "Most of these oil pipeline protection brigades are
corrupt and have ties to the insurgents," General Gharawai said.
Among the responsibilities assigned to Mr. Thuwaini's men is the protection
of the oil refinery in Dawra. That, Mr. Thuwaini said, was a good thing.
"If those guys guarded the refinery," he said of the Ministry of Defense
pipeline units, "it would be sabotaged every day."
Curbing the violence in Iraq, American officials say, means shutting down
the private militias that roam the streets of most cities. That includes the
Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army, both allied to the Shiite-led government.
American and Iraqi officials say they believe that the Badr Brigade is
responsible for killing hundreds, and possibly thousands, of Baathists after
the fall of Mr. Hussein. The militia was set up in the early 1980's and
trained in Iran, where many Shiite leaders were forced into exile during Mr.
The Mahdi Army, an informal militia that emerged after the American invasion
to support Mr. Sadr, has engaged in two armed uprisings against the
Americans and the Iraqi governments they backed.
Shortly after invading Iraq, the Americans outlawed the militias, but,
despite many pledges to do so, they never disarmed them.
Now Shiite politicians say they need the militias to protect themselves from
the insurgency. When the Shiite-led coalition first took power last spring,
Mr. Hakim, whose party controls the Badr Brigade, publicly announced that it
would carry on.
These days, the Mahdi Army is the most fearsome of the Shiite militias:
after the bombing of the Askariya Shrine in Samarra in February, the
militia's black-suited gunmen poured into Baghdad's mixed neighborhoods and
killed hundreds of Sunnis. Through most of those chaotic days, the American
military and the Iraqi police did nothing to stop them.
Militiamen or Policemen?
But confronting the Shiite militias head-on is a delicate and difficult
The two — government security forces on one hand, private militias on the
other — are often indistinguishable. Many of the
militiamen-turned-policemen, wearing Iraqi uniforms and driving Iraqi
vehicles, carry out operations at the behest of their old commanders,
sometimes after work.
Take, for instance, the case of Saud Abdullah Obeid, a 47-year-old Sunni man
who disappeared from his Baghdad home last fall. According to his family,
Mr. Obeid was taken away by a group of men wearing Iraqi commando uniforms
and driving trucks bearing Interior Ministry insignia.
Shortly after Mr. Obeid was taken, the family said, they were contacted by
members of the Mahdi Army, who demanded a ransom for Mr. Obeid's release.
Iraqi officials told the family that Mr. Obeid was being held at the Mustafa
Husseiniya, a Mahdi Army stronghold near Sadr City.
Mr. Obeid's relatives said they borrowed $50,000 from friends and turned it
over to a middleman to deliver to the Mahdi Army. Mr. Obeid never came home.
Instead, his body turned up in the city morgue, burned with acid and shot
twice in the mouth.
"I can tell you, this government is the Mahdi Army," said Abdullah Obeid,
the surviving son. "The government did this."
Late last year, a senior American commander said, American soldiers captured
Mahdi Army fighters dressed in Iraqi police uniforms, carting away prisoners
in Iraqi police cars to be tried in front of one of the Mahdi Army's Shariah
courts, which operate independently of the government and deliver a harsh
brand of Islamic justice.
"There are extremist elements of Badr and of the Mahdi Army who are using
their positions in the police to carry out operations against the Sunni
population," said a senior American military officer, who spoke on the
condition of anonymity.
A Test of Political Will
Mr. Maliki, the new Iraqi prime minister, has taken the first small steps to
control the militias. This month, the government decided to combine the
different branches of the security forces in Baghdad to bring them under
tighter control and curb the sectarian violence.
The key to Mr. Maliki's plan is a single uniform and a single identification
card which, Iraqi leaders say, will allow them to spot private militiamen
and rogue officers within the security forces.
Mr. Maliki also traveled to Najaf, the Shiite holy city, to persuade Grand
Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shiite religious leader, to deliver a
religious pronouncement against militias.
"Weapons should be carried only by government forces," Ayatollah Sistani
said in his pronouncement. For all of his moral authority, though, it seems
unlikely that the militias would disband merely at his command.
Mr. Maliki said he wanted to enforce a militia-demobilization law enacted by
L. Paul Bremer III, who ran the Coalition Provisional Authority that ruled
Iraq until June 2004.
But neither he nor subsequent Iraqi governments carried it out. The Bremer
plan calls for militia fighters to be dispersed across the security forces
so that their old units and chains of command are broken up.
In January, American military commanders said they would deploy more than
2,000 military personnel to work directly with Iraqi officers on the job, a
Disbanding the militias means confronting the parties that control them, and
the parties control the government. The Supreme Council, which controls the
Badr Brigade, has 30 seats in the new Parliament; Mr. Sadr, who controls the
Mahdi Army, has 31 seats.
Both parties appear to be reluctant to disband their forces, if only because
of the inability of the government to guarantee their safety.
"We don't think the problem in Iraq is militias," Mr. Mahdi, the vice
president, said. "People have to defend themselves."
In the end, whether the Iraqi government and their American backers are able
to rein in the security forces will probably depend, more than anything, on
political will. On that point, the Iraqis and the Americans appear to
Some American commanders say that a confrontation with Mr. Sadr and his
militia is probably inevitable. Very few Iraqi leaders publicly agree.
Yet the dilemma for the Americans and the Iraqis seems clear enough. Without
confronting Mr. Sadr, there seems to be little prospect of cleaning up the
police force or the Mahdi Army. But, having faced two armed uprisings by Mr.
Sadr in the past, the Americans hardly seem eager to incur the political
fallout that another uprising would bring.
For their part, the Americans, privately at least, are hoping the Iraqis
will take the lead. But they are not holding their breath.
"They need to begin by setting examples," an American official in Baghdad
said of the Iraqi government. "It is just very noticeable to me that they
are not making any examples."
"None," the official said. "Zero."
John F. Burns, Qais Mizher, Khalid al-Ansary and Ali Adeeb contributed
reporting from Baghdad for this article, and David Rohde from New York.