Behind the Shiite Death Squads

Disavowed by Mahdi Army, Shadowy 'Butcher' Still Targets Sadr's Foes

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 25, 2006

BAGHDAD -- In a dirty war where shadowy death squads claim victims daily and leaders on all sides deny blame, there's one killer to whom Iraqis can attach a name, if not a face.

Abu Diri, or Father of the Shield, is the nom de guerre of a Shiite Muslim man. Sunni Arabs of Baghdad also know him as "the Butcher." Like countless other killers in Iraq's capital today, Abu Diri and his followers dump their victims in the streets bearing bullet wounds and sometimes the smaller holes made by electric drills.

But U.S. military officers, Sunnis and even many Shiites say they believe Abu Diri kidnaps and kills Sunnis and other rivals with a zeal that has made him notorious, even in Baghdad's daily carnage.

"He is a savage criminal; tens of murderers follow in his wake," said a posting on Truth, a Sunni Web site that is supportive of Iraqi Sunni insurgent groups. Many Iraqi Sunnis monitor its allegations regarding the country's growing sectarian strife.

At least until July, Abu Diri and the dozens of men believed to be under him operated out of Sadr City and Shula, two Baghdad neighborhoods that are home to more than 2 million Shiites. The districts are heavily loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia has a significant presence there. Abu Diri's victims typically were found blindfolded, with hands bound, in the streets lining Sadr City, American officers said.

U.S. military officials, distrustful of Sadr after battling his Mahdi Army in the first two years of the war, believe Abu Diri is linked to the militia.

"He's the enforcer," said 1st Lt. Zeroy Lawson, the intelligence officer with a small U.S. Army unit that works in Sadr City and is responsible for helping train the Iraqi army there. "He goes after specific targets" of Sadr and the Mahdi Army.

Lawson called him Sadr City's agent "for external affairs," going across Baghdad in pursuit of Sunnis or any others seen as enemies.

Sadr and his top aides publicly disavow Abu Diri.

"He is not Mahdi Army, he is the head of the gangsters," Riyadh al-Nouri, a brother-in-law of Sadr's and a senior member of the Sadr movement, said in an interview in Najaf. "He is not Mahdi Army and never was. All he does is fight for his own reputation and his own crimes."

Little is known about Abu Diri's background. Baghdad residents commonly agree on a few details: His real first name is Ismail. He is in his early thirties, a father of two and a high school dropout, and allegedly was a forger during the rule of Saddam Hussein, according to ordinary Sunnis and Shiites and to officials of Iraq's Interior Ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Even his appearance is unclear. A photograph purporting to show him, distributed on Web sites frequented by Sunni Arabs in Iraq, shows a bearded, reed-thin man in white civilian clothes and a red-and-white-checked turban, squinting against the sun on a city street, a rifle slung over his shoulder.

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