Militias Wresting Control Across Iraq's North and South
Saturday, August 20, 2005; 7:00 PM
BASRA, Iraq -- Shiite and Kurdish militias, often operating as part of Iraqi government security forces, have carried out a wave of abductions, assassinations and other acts of intimidation, consolidating their control over territory across northern and southern Iraq and deepening the country's divide along ethnic and sectarian lines, according to political leaders, families of the victims, human rights activists and Iraqi officials.
While Iraqi representatives wrangle over the drafting of a constitution in Baghdad, forces represented by the militias and the Shiite and Kurdish parties that control them are creating their own institutions of authority, unaccountable to elected governments, the activists and officials said. In Basra in the south, dominated by the Shiites, and Mosul in the north, ruled by the Kurds, as well as cities and villages around them, many residents say they are powerless before the growing sway of the militias, which instill a climate of fear that many see as redolent of the era of former president Saddam Hussein.
The parties and their armed wings are sometimes operating independently, and other times as part of Iraqi army and police units trained and equipped by the United States and Britain and controlled by the central government. Their growing authority has enabled them to seize territory, confront their perceived enemies and provide patronage to their followers. Their rise has come because of a power vacuum in Baghdad and their own success in the January elections.
Since the formation of a government this spring, Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, has witnessed dozens of assassinations, claiming members of the former ruling Baath Party, Sunni political leaders and officials of competing Shiite parties. Many have been carried out by uniformed men in police vehicles, according to political leaders and families of the victims, with some of the bullet-riddled bodies dumped at night in a trash-strewn parcel known as The Lot. The province's governor said in an interview that Shiite militias have penetrated the police force; an Iraqi official estimated that as many as 90 percent of officers were loyal to religious parties.
Across northern Iraq, Kurdish parties have employed a previously undisclosed network of at least five detention facilities to incarcerate hundreds of Sunni Arabs, Turkmens and other minorities abducted and secretly transferred from Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, and from territories stretching to the Iranian border, according to political leaders and detainees' families. Nominally under the authority of the U.S.-backed Iraqi army, the militias have beaten up and threatened government officials and political leaders deemed to be working against Kurdish interests; one bloodied official was paraded through a town in a pickup truck, witnesses said.
"I don't see any difference between Saddam and the way the Kurds are running things here," said Nahrain Toma, who heads a human rights organization, Betnahrain, with offices in northern Iraq and has faced several death threats.
Toma said the tactics were eroding what remained of U.S. credibility as the militias operate under what many Iraqis view as the blessing of American and British forces. "Nobody wants anything to do with the Americans anymore," she said. "Why? Because they gave the power to the Kurds and to the Shiites. No one else has any rights."
"Here's the problem," said Majid Sari, an adviser in the Iraqi Defense Ministry in Basra, who travels with a security detail of 25 handpicked Iraqi soldiers. "They're taking money from the state, they're taking clothes from the state, they're taking vehicles from the state, but their loyalty is to the parties." Whoever disagrees, he said, "the next day you'll find them dead in the street."
British officials, whose authority runs through Basra and parts of southern Iraq, have called the killings "totally unacceptable."
"We are aware of allegations that men in police uniforms, whether they are genuine policemen or not, are carrying out serious crimes in Basra," said Karen McLuskie, a British spokeswoman. "We are raising our concerns with the Iraqi authorities at the highest level.
"The Badr Organization, one of the most powerful militias in southern Iraq and blamed for many of the assassinations, denied any role in the killings. The head of the group in Basra, Ghanim Mayahi, said his organization was only providing "support and assistance" to the police through lightly armed militiamen. "There is no law, there is no order, and the police are scared of the tribes. Badr is not afraid, and it can face those threats."
In the north, Kurdish officials acknowledged that terrorism suspects from across the region have been taken to several Kurdish-run detention facilities, but they said the practice was initiated by the Iraqi government with the blessing of the U.S. military. "It's a question of space; they have no place to put them and here it is safe," said Karim Sinjari, the minister of interior for the Kurdistan Regional Government and a senior official in the Kurdistan Democratic Party.