Rights Under Assault In Iraq, U.N. Unit Says

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 24, 2006

BAGHDAD, May 23 -- Human rights in Iraq are being "severely undermined" by growing insecurity, violence and a "breakdown of law and order" caused by militias and criminal gangs, the U.N. mission here said Tuesday.

The human rights update, issued every two months by the U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq, cited soaring numbers of execution-style killings in Baghdad. Such slayings have increased during a surge of sectarian violence that followed the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra on Feb. 22.

Baghdad's main morgue -- which handles only the remains of victims of violent or suspicious deaths, not including bombing victims -- issued 1,155 death certificates in April, the U.N. agency reported.

The count corroborated a statement by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who this month cited morgue figures in saying 1,091 people had been killed in April in Baghdad alone. Iraq's Shiite Muslim-controlled Health Ministry had denied the figure almost as soon as Talabani made it public, saying morgue officials had accidentally given him the wrong tally.

The morgue issued even more death certificates for killings in Baghdad in March -- 1,294, the U.N. report said. Most of the victims were shot to death.

The rights mission also said the figures covered only slaying victims who had not been identified, which suggests the overall death toll in Baghdad has been far higher than any figure that officials have previously made public.

Execution-style killings -- with victims typically tortured, bound and shot to death and their bodies left in the street -- have soared as high as a reported 70 a day in Baghdad since the Samarra bombing. Police and the militias of Iraq's governing Shiite religious parties are suspected in many of the killings -- allegations they have denied -- and international rights workers, Iraqi officials and foreign officials have said that the Shiite parties put pressure on medical authorities not to report the true death toll.

The rise in sectarian tensions also has forced 85,842 people across Iraq -- mainly the central and southern regions -- to flee their homes, the U.N. agency said, citing the International Organization for Migration. Threats and violence are helping to drive Shiite families from traditionally Sunni Arab areas and vice versa, the report noted.

The U.N. report cited militias as a growing concern. Outside the north, the main militias are armed wings of two Shiite religious parties -- the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the political movement of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr -- that now dominate Iraq's government.

The rights agency said it had received increasing reports of mosques and other religious sites being used as secret prisons "and even operating as illegal courts." Sadr's Mahdi Army militia allegedly used one such mosque, al-Muhsin in Baghdad, to "investigate and try" individuals, the report said.

Sunni groups also have been reported to hold summary trials and executions, it noted.

The U.N. mission also called for urgent action on promoting the rule of law, saying the need was particularly urgent "with respect to internal regulations and accountability systems in the administration of justice, notably within the police."

Police are run by the Interior Ministry, which is controlled by Shiite religious parties. The report noted that the Interior Ministry, while having no legal authority to hold detainees for more than short periods, by April 30 was holding 5,077 prisoners.

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