By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 14, 2006 9:06 AM
BAGHDAD, May 14 -- Iraq's Interior Ministry has taken its first steps to rein in the Facilities Protection Service, a unit of 4,000 building guards that U.S. officials say has quietly burgeoned into the government's largest paramilitary force, with 145,000 armed men and no central command, oversight or paymaster.
Last month, Interior Minister Bayan Jabr accused the Facilities Protection Service, known as the FPS, of carrying out some of the killings widely attributed to death squads operating inside his ministry's police forces. A senior U.S. military official, speaking on condition that he not be identified further, said Saturday he believed that members of the FPS, along with private militias, were the chief culprits behind Iraq's death squads.
L. Paul Bremer, then U.S. administrator of Iraq, signed an order establishing the Facilities Protection Service in 2003, aiming to free American troops from guarding Iraqi government property and preventing the kind of looting that erupted with the entry of U.S. forces and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Initially given only three days of training, the guards were assigned to protect Iraq's ministries and other sites under government control. Bremer's September 2003 order put the guards under the command and pay of the ministries they protected, not of the interior or defense ministries, which handle the rest of Iraq's security forces. The order also allowed private security firms to handle the contracting of FPS guards for the ministries.
Although the FPS guards are not police officers, they were allowed to wear variations of the blue uniform of Iraqi police. Many witnesses and survivors of death squad-style attacks have said the assailants were dressed in police uniforms.
FPS guards often are seen roaming Baghdad's streets, holding Kalashnikov assault rifles and crowded into the backs of pickup trucks, some marked with insignia of the FPS or of the various government ministries they serve.
Increasingly, U.S. and Interior Ministry officials describe the FPS units as militias, each answering only to the ministry or private security firm that employs it. Ministries were carved out along largely sectarian lines, with many under the control of Shiite religious parties that lead Iraq's government.
When Jabr last month acknowledged death squads were at work within the Interior Ministry, he pointed his finger as well at the FPS, telling the BBC and Newsweek that the service was "out of control."
U.S. officials training Iraq's security forces say they have no more control over the FPS than the Interior Ministry does. "Negative. None. Zero," said Lt. Col. Michael J. Negard, a spokesman for the U.S. training of Iraqi forces.
In an e-mail, the senior U.S. military official said: "Our sense is that we have pretty good situational awareness of the activities of the National Police units (i.e. the former Commandos and Public Order units)." The official pointed out that there are American military advisers with each battalion of the national police, as well as in brigade and division headquarters.
"It could be that some members of the units are sneaking out at night and undertaking extracurricular activities," the official wrote. "However, that is generally unlikely, and the suspicion is that the elements carrying out the killings are either from various militia elements or security units working for other ministries," referring to ministry-level units of the FPS.
However, one former adviser in Iraq said he believes that at least some of the death squads come from the special police commando squads that the United States helped establish.
The Interior Ministry, which is trying to clean up its own reputation for harboring death squads, in recent weeks has acted to try to bring the FPS under some measure of oversight. On May 6, the private security companies that pay the salaries of FPS members agreed to several Interior Ministry proposals meant to bring some central order to the paramilitary unit, said Gen. Raad al-Tamimi of the Interior Ministry.
The Interior Ministry is to issue badges and distinctive seals for the vehicles of the FPS and supervise the kinds of weapons it uses, Tamimi said. Agents of the security companies and the ministry also made clear that FPS members were liable for prosecution for any crimes, the official said.
The security companies also agreed to bring the FPS under ministry supervision, Tamimi said, but he gave no details. Ongoing negotiations would bring the FPS under the same Interior Ministry command as the national police but with slightly different uniforms, Tamimi said.
"There is a desire to standardize the whole issue," Negard, the U.S. spokesman, said. "You want to be able to know who everybody is. You kind of can't tell now."
In violence Saturday, gunmen killed the son of Iraq's top judge along with two of his bodyguards and dumped their bodies in Baghdad, officials told news agencies.
Victims of other reported attacks included five Iraqis, a U.S. soldier and an Iranian Shiite pilgrim beheaded in Najaf. The soldier was killed when a roadside bomb hit his vehicle before dawn in south Baghdad, according to a U.S. military statement that gave no further details.
In Basra, the country's second-largest city, Gov. Mohammed Mosabbah Mohammed al-Weily issued a fiery statement blaming the local police chief, army commander and others for failing to curb or investigate killings and political assassinations. Weily suspended the police chief pending what he said would be a local council vote on the man's dismissal.
On Sunday, Suicide car-bombers killed five Iraqi soldiers at a checkpoint near Baghdad's airport, police said. Two attackers drove their car, loaded with bombs, up to the checkpoint. One stepped out to speak to police, drawing the policeman to the car, and the other then blew up the vehicle, Col. Sami Hassan of the Interior Ministry said. Four soldiers and seven civilians were wounded.
A second bomb Sunday morning, also targeting a checkpoint, killed two police and wounded four police and three civilians, Hassan said. The attack occurred in the mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhood around Palestine Street in central Baghdad.
Staff writer Thomas E. Ricks in Washington, special correspondents Saad Sarhan in Najaf and Saad al-Izzi, K.I. Ibrahim and Naseer Nouri in Baghdad, and other Washington Post staff members in Iraq contributed to this report.