BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraqi police and intelligence agents stormed through Baghdad's roughest neighborhoods this month, arresting more than 500 men in operations they hoped would be a spectacular debut for an all-Iraqi crime-fighting force.
Days after the raids were trumpeted on the news, however, most of the suspected kidnappers and carjackers were back on the streets for lack of evidence. The 150 or so who remained in custody this week were blindfolded for interrogations that included blows to the head and threats against their families.
"Don't talk to me about human rights," said one interrogator who punched several prisoners in front of a reporter. He asked not to be named because he frequently works undercover. "When security settles down, we'll talk about human rights. Right now, I need confessions."
The first major mission for the new Iraqi Interior Ministry revealed more about the law enforcers than about Baghdad's criminals. The security forces appeared severely lacking in human rights training, lifesaving equipment and, most of all, independence.
An American military commander, acting on his own, attempted to free some of the detainees and, in the process, undermined the Iraqi authorities and humiliated them in front of the suspects.
"We have sovereignty, but there are restrictions," said an Interior Ministry official who helped plan and carry out the raids and asked not to be named. "There are still chains on us."
For two months, Iraqi agents infiltrated chop shops and kidnapping rings in preparation for the raids that began June 28, the day the U.S.-led occupation returned limited authority to an interim Iraqi government. The raids continued through last week.
Officers studied satellite maps provided by the U.S. military to chart their assaults into districts where proceeds from rampant street crime are often funneled to the anti-American insurgency, the ministry official said. They bought boxes of black ski masks to wear during the sweeps so suspects wouldn't recognize them and kill their families in retaliation.
At the first raid, they rounded up more than 150 men with alleged ties to Baghdad's two main organized-crime families. The officers dragged the suspects out of gambling houses, brothels and drug dens in the Battaween neighborhood, the official said. American troops were stationed nearby for backup, but didn't participate.
"The Americans brought us maps, but we don't need maps because we know these streets, the nature of the streets," the official said. "This operation was to show the Iraqi people the power of their police. We felt so capable. So happy."
But as police booked their suspects and celebrated their first success, U.S. armored vehicles began to surround the ministry building. Sabah Kadhim, the chief spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said an American commander objected to the detention of suspects who may have been informants for coalition forces.
The American military police commander barged into the ministry, demanding that the Iraqis release the suspects he knew. He and his men confiscated guns from the Iraqi officers and forced them to lie on the ground in front of the suspects, according to witnesses.
Kadhim described the American as a "low-level commander" and said the matter was settled with a phone call to the man's superiors. U.S. military officials acknowledged an "incident," saying only that the unidentified commander left after senior officers told him he was out of his jurisdiction.
"It was over in five minutes," one coalition official said.
But it wasn't over for Iraqi police officers struggling to be taken seriously in their mismatched uniforms, duct-taped rifles and flak vests confiscated from criminals because the new ones they've been promised by American officials haven't arrived. The triumphant night of the first raid turned into a tense one, ministry workers said, and there's still bad blood between the Iraqi and U.S. forces.
"Yes, it was settled, but after what?" the official said. "The suspects laughed at us. The Americans were like saviors to them. We all made an agreement: If the Americans release even a single one of our suspects, we all quit."
Last week's anti-crime sweep was bigger and bolder, and this time no U.S. military officer interfered when Iraqi police hauled 527 suspects into a small building on the grounds of the Interior Ministry compound. This week, about 150 men were still crammed into a single room where a menacing guard stood over them with a crude axe-like instrument.
An Iraqi lieutenant colonel, an intelligence officer under Saddam Hussein's regime, invited a Knight Ridder reporter to observe an afternoon of his interrogations. What followed was a scene that probably would have sparked a scandal had American forces been involved.
Blindfolded with scraps of cloth and bound by plastic ties, the sweaty suspects stumbled into the dim interrogation room and were pushed to the ground. The colonel kneeled and barked questions into their faces, threatening to arrest their families if they lied.
He appeared proud when his blows drew confessions from the tattooed, bedraggled suspects.
The suspects gave street names such as "Ahmed the Japanese" and at first denied membership in the House of Malkiya, one of Baghdad's most notorious gangs. The colonel stood on the toes of one suspect with a missing hand, accusing him of shooting a bank driver in the shoulder and making off with millions of Iraqi dinars.
"Sir, it wasn't me," the man cried.
"Shut up, you lying dog!" the interrogator replied.
The colonel twisted arms, grabbed hair, pinched skin and cuffed chins. Blows rained down on suspects who interrupted him. Frustrated with one suspect, the colonel took off his shoe and pounded it on the man's head.
One tearful detainee launched into a long-winded story about how he lacked male role models and never recovered from the tortuous time he spent in Saddam's prisons. When he finished, the colonel and other interrogators burst into applause and fake weeping.
By the end of the afternoon, the colonel conceded, no valuable intelligence had come from the questioning. With a sly smile, he said some of the suspects just needed some more "sweet words" to coax confessions.
Even without U.S. oversight, the colonel said, his men know there are new limits on the force they can use against suspects.
"Some of them deserve to be beaten, but we don't beat them severely," the colonel said. "These days, if there are marks of torture, a judge will come after us."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Ken Dilanian contributed to this report from Baghdad.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.