By Ellen Knickmeyer and Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 14, 2006
BAGHDAD, Oct. 13 -- Operating between the insurgent Sunni Arab suburbs of Baghdad and the Shiite militia-dominated south, Col. Salam al-Mamuri and his Scorpion commando team were a rarity among Iraqi security forces, American and Iraqi colleagues said: a police unit fighting on both sides of the country's sectarian divide.
On Friday, a bomb blew apart Mamuri and an aide at the Scorpions' headquarters in the southern city of Hilla. The attack ended the life of a broadly respected commander who had been one of the longest-serving and longest-surviving men in a cadre of Iraqi army veterans struggling to restore law and order after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Mamuri's comparative evenhandedness enforcing the law may have earned him an enemy within his own sect, the Shiites. Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani in Baghdad called it a "possibility and a probability" that the assassination was at least in part an inside job, because the killer was able to gain access to Mamuri's office to plant the bomb.
Mamuri had founded the Scorpion brigade soon after Americans arrived and had led it ever since. Though the unit, whose commandos wore the emblem of a black arachnid, was known to locals as the Scorpions, successive deployments of U.S. Special Operations members and Marines generally called it simply Hilla SWAT.
The Scorpions were made up of about 800 men, most of them Shiites from Hilla. The unit, which Bolani called "one of the most important and vital of the Ministry of Interior," has remained relatively stable and cohesive since its early days, as other U.S. efforts to build Iraqi security forces have collapsed.
"The way I look at it, I am not here to serve Sunnis or Shiites. I am here to serve Iraq," Mamuri said in early May, in an interview in the office in which he was killed Friday. His close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair made him look a decade older than his 35 years.
His expression of neutrality was indistinguishable from those issued up and down the ranks of Iraq's predominantly Shiite police forces, many members of which are accused by Sunnis and Americans of a role in the country's escalating Shiite-Sunni killings. The difference, many Americans and Iraqis said, was that Mamuri acted as if he meant it.
"They are literally the only Iraqi unit under arms in the south that is completely independent of the political parties and the militias," a Special Forces intelligence specialist and medic said this year. "Everyone else -- the police, the army -- is playing ball for somebody. They won't."
An American Special Forces team leader who worked with the Scorpions for several months said, "We look at them as peers, we don't look at them as below us." As a matter of policy, Special Forces soldiers speak only on the condition of anonymity.
In Hilla on Friday, the commando leader's funeral dirge was the rattle of automatic-weapons fire, as the Scorpions shot into the air to mark Mamuri's death. Many residents of the flat, sprawling market town stayed indoors, taking shelter from the gunfire and fearing the killing would spark retaliatory violence.
"Ninety percent of the people are so sad about what happened, because the colonel was a very good man with the good people, but he was an iron hand against the outlaws," Hayder Foaud, a lawyer in Hilla, said by telephone.
Seven other officers were wounded by the bomb that killed Mamuri.
Capt. Muthana Ahmad, a spokesman for the provincial police force there, said the bomb may have been attached to a window of Mamuri's office. Others, including Abdul Kareem al-Kinani, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry in Baghdad, said investigators believed the wreckage indicated that the bomb had been placed under his desk.
"This is correct," Ahmad said, asked whether authorities suspected that one or more of the commando leader's aides collaborated in the killing. "As you may know, infiltration has taken place" in Iraq's security forces.
Bolani told reporters that he had ordered an investigation.
Hilla, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, is markedly more peaceful than the towns on the capital's southern outskirts that serve as strongholds for Sunni insurgents. Shiite schoolchildren today sing the Sunni towns' names, such as Latifiyah, in chilling songs equating them with hell.
On the other side of Hilla is the almost entirely Shiite south, free of the brunt of Sunni insurgent attacks but the scene of growing clashes between militias and security forces loyal to rival Shiite religious parties.
Hilla residents said Friday that local forces of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr especially disliked Mamuri, more than ever after the Scorpions raided a Sadr office in mid-September. Sadr's militia, known as the Mahdi Army, is one of the most powerful forces in Iraq.
Shiite politicians and officials from the Shiite-run Interior Ministry frequently threatened to have Mamuri replaced. Several attempts were made on his life, including a roadside bomb attack on his convoy in late April that was blamed on the Mahdi Army.
Because of its makeup and the fact that it fought al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni-led insurgent groups, Hilla SWAT swiftly earned a reputation as a feared anti-Sunni force. It was heavily involved in the operations around Yusufiyah in April and May that led to the capture of several top al-Qaeda lieutenants and, the military later said, the eventual killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
But the unit cracked down as fiercely on Shiite militias, which Mamuri blamed this spring for what by then amounted to at least a half-dozen attempts to assassinate him. He barred militia members from serving in his brigade, despite intense political pressure from the provincial governor, who Mamuri said repeatedly pressured him to accept more militia members into his ranks.
"The militias consider us the only thing preventing them from completely taking over the south," Mamuri said in the spring interview. "They are bad for the country."
Mamuri rejected the idea of giving up in the face of the assassination attempts. "You can get killed in Iraq even if you sit all day in your house," he said. "What should I do, sit around and wait to die, or try to stop the people who are killing?"
Finer reported from New Haven, Conn. Special correspondents Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.