Violence highlights fears of Iraqi security forces taking over after U.S. leaves

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By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 18, 2010

RADWANIYAH, IRAQ -- Raw welts and purple bruises run down the backs of dozens of Sunni Muslim men in a small village west of Baghdad -- evidence, local residents say, of abuse by the Iraqi army that threatens to widen a sectarian rift.

The wounds came from beatings administered last month by soldiers from the predominantly Shiite force charged with protecting the Sunni community here, villagers said. One by one, they said, the Sunni men were questioned, beaten and shocked with electricity in a roundup by mostly Shiite Iraqi soldiers, who were reeling from the killing of five comrades at a checkpoint.

The violence comes at a time when the performance and professionalism of Iraq's security forces are facing a crucial test. With U.S. troop levels scheduled to drop to 50,000 by summer's end, Iraqi security forces control the streets. But they face deep mistrust in particular from Iraqi Sunnis, who in some areas consider the Army a less-than-neutral instrument of a Shiite-dominated government.

In Radwaniyah, Sunni tribal leaders say the beatings have cemented fears about what might happen when the U.S. military leaves for good. They worry about being caught between the Sunni insurgents they turned against and a Shiite-led government they do not trust.

"These things can destroy the whole security situation," said Hamid Obaid Sahar al-Hamdani, a tribal leader in Radwaniyah who said he addressed the problem with the U.S. military and complained to police. Since the incident, al-Qaeda in Iraq has approached the tribes about collaboration, he said. "We can see the collapse on the horizon," he said.

Spokesmen for Iraq's defense ministry and a military official with the U.S. Army said that the incident is not being investigated and that they have seen no signs of mistreatment. An Iraqi spokesman said an investigation could not be initiated unless a complaint was made against soldiers in the 23rd Brigade of the 17th Division -- something many of the families are too afraid to pursue.

Lt. Col. Gregory Sierra, the commander of the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Infantry Regiment, which advises the Iraqi division, said the U.S. military could not comment on "what we did not see." But he said his Iraqi counterparts assured him that no mistreatment had occurred.

While 140 men were rounded up, all were released except for two who confessed involvement in the soldiers' killings, Sierra said.

But villagers and tribal leaders interviewed on the vast farms of Radwaniyah, once a hotbed of the Sunni insurgency, provided detailed accounts that appeared to corroborate the physical evidence of wounds that some men willingly displayed.

They described what they called a quick and powerful reaction by the predominantly Shiite force that followed the early-morning killing of the soldiers on March 24, when gunmen used weapons capped with silencers to execute at least five Iraqi soldiers at a checkpoint. The army quickly homed in on the Sunni community, which commanders believed was harboring the killers.

Most of the villagers spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying they were afraid of retaliation. Just a few hours after the soldiers were killed, the first targets of what appeared to be a rampage of revenge were three brothers in a pickup truck with two others, driving on a road they traveled every morning near the family farm.

Relatives who saw the confrontation at a checkpoint visible from the family home witnessed the soldiers dragging them from their truck and beating them. Family members said they heard snippets of the conversation:

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