How Washington ignored abuses by Iraqi militias
Erbil - It was one of the most shocking events in one of the most brutal periods in Iraq’s history. In late 2005, two years after the US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, US soldiers raided a police building in Baghdad and found 168 prisoners in horrific conditions.
Many were malnourished. Some had been beaten.
The discovery of the secret prison exposed a world of kidnappings and assassinations. Behind these operations was an unofficial Interior Ministry organisation called the Special Investigations Directorate, according to US and Iraqi security officials.
The body was run by militia commanders from the Badr Organisation, a pro-Iran, Shia political movement that today plays a major role in Baghdad’s war against the Islamic State (ISIS).
Washington pressured the Iraqi government to investigate the prison but the findings of Baghdad’s investigation — a probe derided by some of its own committee members as a whitewash — were never released.
The US military conducted its own investigation but rather than publish its findings, it chose to lobby Iraqi officials in quiet for fear of damaging Baghdad’s fragile political set-up, according to several current and former US military officials and diplomats.
Both reports remain unpublished. Reuters has reviewed them, as well as other related US documents from the past decade. They show how Washington, seeking to defeat Sunni jihadists and stabilise Iraq, consistently overlooked excesses by Shia militias sponsored by the Iraqi government.
The administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have both worked with Badr and its powerful leader, Hadi al-Amiri, whom many Sunnis accuse of human rights abuses.
Washington’s policy of expediency has achieved some of its short-term aims but in allowing the Shia militias to run amok against their Sunni foes, the United States has fuelled the Shia-Sunni sectarian divide that is tearing Iraq apart.
The decade-old US investigation of the secret prison implicates officials and political groups in a wave of sectarian killings that helped ignite a civil war. It also draws worrying parallels to the US government’s muted response to alleged abuses committed in the name of fighting ISIS.
Those accused of running the secret prison or of helping cover up its existence include the current head of the Iraqi judiciary, Medhat Mahmoud, Transport Minister Bayan Jabr, and a long-revered Badr commander popularly referred to as Engineer Ahmed.
“Special Investigations Directorate personnel illegally detained, tortured and murdered Iraqi citizens,” the US report states. “Iraqi government officials failed to take action to stop the crimes.”
Mahmoud declined to comment for this story. A former colleague close to him said Mahmoud knew about the secret prison’s existence but did not know what went on there. Jabr did not respond to Reuters’ queries but has previously stated publicly that no wrongdoing occurred at the prison.
US officials acknowledge the constructive role that Shia militias such as Badr play in fighting ISIS but former and current US officials say Washington needs to stop downplaying abuses by the Shia militias.
Robert Ford, a former US diplomat who served as the US embassy’s political officer from 2004-06, said the US government’s decision not to punish those behind the secret prison sets a damaging precedent. “A few people were transferred elsewhere,” he said. “That’s not a punishment. You are supposed to scare them into not doing it.”
The Badr group spent years in exile in Iran. Its parent organisation, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (ISCI), was the most powerful Shia political force in Iraq.
After Saddam’s fall, Washington hoped ISCI and Badr would be reliable partners for the security forces, which Badr members joined in large numbers but despite claims that they had demobilised after their return to Iraq, Badr’s fighters did not disarm, US Army intelligence officers say. Instead, they began to assassinate former Iraqi officers, influential Ba’ath Party members and civil servants.
Colonel Derek Harvey, a retired intelligence officer, said the US military detained Badr assassination teams possessing target lists of Sunni officers and pilots in 2003 and 2004 but did not hold them. Harvey said his superiors told him that “this stuff had to play itself out” — implying that revenge attacks by returning Shia groups were to be expected. He also said Badr and ISCI offered intelligence and advice to US officials on how to navigate Iraqi politics.
After Shia religious parties swept to victory in elections in 2005, Badr and ISCI were given control of the Interior Ministry. The US embassy publicly backed the move.
But James Jeffrey, the top US diplomat at the time and later ambassador to Iraq, was alarmed when Bayan Jabr, a Badr ally, became minister. “Bayan Jabr was the biggest mistake I made,” Jeffrey said. “His file was terrible.”
Jabr appointed Badr members to senior Interior Ministry posts. They created the covert Special Intelligence Directorate, which current and former US officials say coordinated the killing of former Saddam-era officials. Within months, Sunni politicians reported a sharp increase in the abduction of Sunni men. Some Sunnis blamed men in police uniforms. Corpses began to turn up around Baghdad.
One US diplomat said senior staff from the Iraqi security forces training command — then run by General David Petraeus — refused a US embassy request for information on Iraqi troop movements in areas where Sunnis had been kidnapped. The diplomat said a senior staffer from the command told him privately: “At least they (the Iraqi security services) are getting the right guys.”
Petraeus told Reuters he had been concerned about the abuses and raised the issue with the Iraqi government and General George Casey, then head of the US military in Iraq.
Petraeus said that, at the time, the “responses were inadequate, in my assessment”. Casey said the US military set up a unit to monitor sectarian violence the month Petraeus left. “We leaned hard on our advisers… to provide actionable evidence,” Casey said.
He said his officers did their best “to prevent, stop and report any illegal or immoral acts by Iraqi forces”.
Tensions exploded into the open in November 2005 when US General Karl Horst, operations officer in Baghdad, received a tip that a missing Sunni teenager was being held in a secret Interior Ministry prison.
Horst raided the police building, in the Baghdad neighbourhood of Jadriya. The troops did not find the teenager but discovered the 168 detainees.
Washington faced a problem. The US military in Iraq was battling Sunni radicals and the Shia Mahdi Army movement.
Badr was one of the few Iraqi forces not actively opposed to the Americans but, with what had become known as the Jadriya bunker, the militia had been directly linked to the bloodshed tearing Iraq apart.
US officials pushed the Iraqis to investigate and submitted evidence directly to Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the prime minister. “He said there was nothing he could do,” Ford said.
Pressed by the Americans, Jaafari created an investigative committee. Its findings were never released. Jaafari, now Iraq’s foreign minister, did not respond to requests for comment.
The committee’s report, reviewed by Reuters, absolves the country’s security services and all government officials. Instead the Iraqi investigative committee said “Ba’athist” police had treated the prisoners badly.
Disappointed, Casey launched his own probe. The US report implicates Jabr and the Iraqi chief Justice, Mahmoud. It also blames two men who ran the prison: Badr’s intelligence chief at the time, Bashar Wandi, who went by the name of Engineer Ahmed; and a second Badr official, Brigadier- General Ali Sadiq.
Despite calls from anti-corruption protesters in Baghdad for Mahmoud to be fired, the judge remains in post. In 2010, his office assigned investigative judges to interrogate detainees in another secret Baghdad prison. This second prison was run by the office of Nuri al-Maliki when he was prime minister and held more than 400 Sunni men from the city of Mosul. Some judges were implicated in torturing the detainees.
The US report said Engineer Ahmed “had knowledge” of “illegal detentions, abuse and torture and concealed them from others”.
Ahmed retained his position in the Interior Ministry for 18 months after the prison episode. The Badr Organisation says he retired five years ago. But a US military official and a former Iraqi security official say he continues to be in charge of Badr’s intelligence operations.
In February 2006, days after Casey received the US military’s investigation of the first prison, Sunni militants blew up a Shia shrine in Samarra. The attack triggered a full-scale civil war.
“Theoretically we could have punished someone, but the judgment was, ‘Let’s push the (Iraqi) government to do it,’” said Zalmay Khalilzad, US ambassador at the time. “When the government failed to, we pushed for a change in the leadership.” When Iraq’s new government was formed in May 2006, Jaafari was removed as prime minister and Jabr became finance minister.
Khalilzad said the changes halted the growth of the Shia militias’ influence inside the police, and the US military started taking the worst national police units off the streets for retraining.
But other diplomats, Iraqi officials and US military officers say the militias were so deeply embedded in the police and army that extra-judicial killings carried on until late 2007 and only faded out following an intensive US troop build-up led by Petraeus, who had returned to Iraq earlier that year as the US commander.
The people who paid the ultimate price were the secret prison’s detainees. A former Iraqi official told Reuters that at least ten prisoners were killed following their release. One bunker survivor still fears for his security. He does not believe any lessons were learned from the episode. “The militias play free,” he told Reuters.
As the militias have played a growing role defending Iraq against ISIS, their popularity has surged among the country’s Shia population.
Americans have also applauded the Shia paramilitaries’ victories. Jeffrey, the former ambassador who has retired, said he did not worry last year when ISIS swept across Sunni areas because he was confident that the Kurds and Amiri, the Badr boss, would join the battle. “(Amiri) is a radical revolutionary bloodthirsty killer,” Jeffrey said. “I like people who fight.”
In private, though, some senior US military officers raise concerns. One said he worries that the militias now control entire provinces. “Without real reconciliation, the Sunnis will stay angry and Islamic State will continue to gain support,” he said. (Reuters)