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.
Three men who claim to be former bodyguards of Abu Diri reject that photo, however, and vouch for a different image of him: a short, stocky man, almost clownish, shown in a video distributed on cellphones and DVDs around Baghdad. The image shows a smiling man pouring a soft drink from a bottle into the gulping mouth of a camel.
Abu Diri meant the video to be a warning to Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, according to the bodyguards, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He aspires to capture and behead the Sunni politician and will sacrifice the camel to celebrate the day he does, they said.
Abu Diri's hideouts long included a far northeastern corner of Sadr City known as "the Lost 70s," after the area's street numbers and isolation, U.S. military officers say. Many mornings, after Baghdad's nightly curfew, U.S. troops find corpses dumped along the streets of the Lost 70s, a junkyard of rusted car hulks and trash, with rats that gallop along the sidewalks in daylight.
Iraqi and U.S. forces raided a house belonging to Abu Diri in Sadr City on July 9, marking the beginning of stepped-up joint operations against alleged criminals in areas under Sadr's control. Iraqi officials said the raid killed nine people. Abu Diri escaped and is believed to have fled Sadr City.
In interviews in Baghdad, the three men claiming to be former bodyguards of his said he carried out killings largely as a free agent, rather than under orders from Sadr's organization. Abu Diri used the fact that he had a brother with a high position in the Mahdi Army to play up his alleged connections with the militia, and had associates in the heavily Shiite Interior Ministry police forces, including its intelligence services, the men alleged.
Interior Ministry officials independently gave some of the same details regarding Abu Diri; some of the other details from the purported bodyguards could not be separately confirmed.
Asked why the Mahdi Army does not shut down Abu Diri's activities, Nouri said, "Like everyone, he has his own gangsters protecting him."
In Najaf, another senior Sadr official, Aus al-Kafaji, said, "We are looking for him ourselves."
Other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.