Ex-Envoy: Execution Victims Spike at Baghdad Morgue

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 3, 2006

BAGHDAD, March 2 -- Nearly three years into a war epitomized by car bombs and suicide attacks, executions -- many of them following torture -- now account for up to three-fourths of the hundreds of corpses coming in to Baghdad's main morgue each week, the former U.N. human rights chief for Iraq said Thursday.

John Pace, who headed the U.N. human rights mission here until Feb. 13, said that between two-thirds and three-fourths of the victims brought to Baghdad's main morgue are recorded as casualties of gunshot wounds. Nearly all showed signs of having been executed, tortured or both, Pace said by telephone from his home in Sydney.

Pace said he held one of Iraq's factional militias principally responsible -- the Badr Organization, the armed faction of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite Muslim religious party that is one of the most powerful members of Iraq's governing coalition.

"They have caused havoc," Pace said of the Badr group in a separate interview with the Associated Press. "They do basically as they please. They arrest people, they torture people, they execute people, they detain people, they negotiate ransom, and they do that with impunity."

Since the middle of last year, Shiite militias -- private armies that are sometimes closely integrated with the Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry -- have been accused of operating as death squads and of carrying out extrajudicial killings. The accusations have increased sharply over the past week, with the killing of hundreds of Sunni Arabs in retaliation for the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine, the Golden Mosque in Samarra. Spokesmen for several factions have denied involvement in retaliatory killings.

An international official in Baghdad who is familiar with the tabulation of the death toll said Thursday that roughly 1,000 people were killed between the day of the bombing and Monday, when the government lifted a curfew imposed to stem the violence.

The international official, who spoke on condition he not be identified further, said the figure came from morgue officials and others before the government announced a much lower toll.

He said morgue officials and others acceded to the reduced official count because they feared the militias, the death squads and the government. "They're afraid," the official said.

Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari said on Tuesday that 379 people had been killed since Feb. 22, and he described as inaccurate and exaggerated a Washington Post report that put the death toll at 1,300. The Post's tally was provided by a morgue worker, and an international human rights official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the source's job entailed close familiarity with the number of bodies the facility received.

The acting director of the morgue, Qais Hassan, also denied The Post's figure. "That's a lie," he said of the number on Thursday.

Hassan began running the morgue when the director, Faik Bakir, fled the country a few months ago after being threatened over the release of morgue information seen as linking many killings to death squads, officials said.

Another morgue official declined to comment, and the spokesman for the Health Ministry, which oversees the facility, did not answer his telephone Thursday. The Health portfolio is held by the party of the Shiite cleric and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr.

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