BAGHDAD, Iraq—Shiite Muslim assassins are killing former members of Saddam Hussein's mostly Sunni Muslim regime with impunity in a wave of violence that, combined with the ongoing Sunni insurgency, threatens to escalate into civil war.
The war between Shiite vigilantes and former Baath Party members is seldom investigated and largely overshadowed by the insurgency. The U.S. military is preoccupied with hunting down suicide bombers and foreign terrorists, and Iraq's new Shiite leaders have little interest in prosecuting those who kill their former oppressors or their enemies in the insurgency.
The killings have intensified since January's Shiite electoral victory, and U.S. and Iraqi officials worry that they could imperil progress toward a unified, democratic Iraq.
"It's the beginning, and we could go down the slippery slope very quickly," said Sabah Kadhim, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry. "We've been so concerned with removing terrorists and Islamists that this other situation has reared its ugly head. Both sides are sharpening their knives."
Since the Jan. 30 elections, Shiite militants have stepped up their campaign to exact street justice from men who were part of the regime that oppressed and massacred members of their sect for decades. While Shiite politicians turn a blind eye, assassins are working their way through a hit list of Saddam's former security and intelligence personnel, according to Iraqi authorities, Sunni politicians and interviews with the families of those who've been targeted.
Former Baathists have responded in kind, this month killing several Shiites allied with major political factions. Cases under investigation include the killings of two Shiite militiamen outside a popular restaurant in Baghdad a week ago and the deaths of three Shiite militiamen who were in police custody.
In a tactic borrowed from Sunni insurgents, Shiite militants have begun distributing printed death threats. One leaflet that lists several former Baathists targeted for assassination says: "We have given you the chance to repent for your crimes against the people of this country, but we have noticed during surveillance that you are instead trying to restore the glory of the atheist, corrupt Baath Party."
Among those killed in recent weeks:
_ Taha Hussein Amiri, a prominent judge who handed down death sentences during Saddam's regime. Two gunmen on motorcycles shot and killed him Feb. 12 as he was being driven to work in the southern Shiite port city of Basra.
_ Haider Kadhim, a former intelligence worker. He was shot in the back of the head Feb. 17 after six gunmen disguised as Iraqi security forces talked their way into his home in the Baghdad district of Saidiyah. The attack occurred at 7 a.m.—Kadhim was still in his pajamas, and his mother, wife and daughter were home.
_ At least two other former Baathists were killed in Saidiyah in the past month, including Abdulrazak Karim al Douri, who was a major in Saddam's intelligence service and most recently worked at the Interior Ministry. He and a co-worker were killed when gunmen surrounded their car and pumped more than 50 bullets into their bodies, according to death certificates and an autopsy report.
Especially besieged are Shiite Baathists who live in predominantly Shiite or mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods, where targets are more accessible than in homogenous Sunni strongholds. Militiamen have demanded that former Baathists fly white flags to atone for their party membership and let their neighbors know they've renounced their pasts. Those who refuse often end up dead.
"They're doing it in Shiite neighborhoods because it's easier," said Mishan Jubouri, a prominent former Baathist who was one of the few Sunni Arabs elected to the new Parliament. "I know a lot of Shiite Baath Party members who have had to escape to Ramadi or Mosul or Tikrit," mostly Sunni territories.
There's been little or no investigation into any of the assassinations, the slain men's relatives said. Not that they need an investigation to place blame: The families staunchly believe that Shiite militias are behind the killings.
The assassination squads are widely believed to be from the Badr Brigade, the armed wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the country's most influential Shiite political party and the biggest winner in the elections.
"I believe they were Badr forces. They're assassinating all the well-known men," said Walid Rasheed, whose brother, a former Baathist named Falah Rasheed, was gunned down Monday outside his shop in Baghdad. "They just want to provoke strife among Iraqis."
Officially, the Iran-backed Badr militia is now the Badr Organization, a political party whose leaders say it's disarmed. In reality, Badr fighters were so emboldened by their sect's victory at the polls that they're again roaming southern Shiite territories with weapons displayed, according to witnesses and Iraqi authorities.
An intelligence memo distributed Feb. 15 to the U.S. military and private security contractors in Iraq said the renewed militia presence in southern Shiite cities "may be a defensive measure by one of the successful political parties following the release of the election results, and may explain the reason for the link to the Badr corps."
Hadi al Ameri, the leader of the Badr Organization, was among the powerful Shiites elected to Parliament last month and is said to be a top contender for defense or interior minister. In an interview Friday at his heavily guarded home, al Ameri denied that Badr fighters are behind the assassinations and said his men abided by the calls for restraint from Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, Iraq's highest-ranking Shiite cleric.
"The head of Iraqi intelligence accused us of these assassinations and I told him, `If you have proof against us, give me the intelligence.' I offered to form a committee and hand over any guilty men," al Ameri said. "We don't want revenge from anyone. We've been oppressed and we shouldn't oppress others."
The guerrilla-turned-politician conceded that some Shiites were attacking former Baathists of their own accord. If al Sistani hadn't asked militiamen to use the courts—not guns—for revenge, he said, the situation would be much worse.
"The Baathists should pray day and night for Sistani," al Ameri said with a chuckle.
Knight Ridder tried to contact several former Baathists whose names appeared on a hit list; only one agreed to speak about the threat. The man, a Shiite in his 50s who was a security official under Saddam, received a note at his home last month that read: "You are a Baathist and we are watching you." He'd refused to fly a white flag in his neighborhood, he said, so he wasn't surprised to find his name among those marked for death.
Abu Muqdad—he asked that his full name be withheld for protection—said that since the elections, the targeting of former Baathists was "like a plague spreading through a town with no doctor." He accused political parties of quietly funneling names and addresses to their militias or hiring criminal gangs to carry out the killings.
"Go to the morgue and you'll find all our old (Baathist) luminaries," Abu Muqdad said. "Why were they killed, and who killed them? For revenge, by the Iranian-trained militias inside Iraq. They can do whatever they like now. Let's hope God grants us all restraint."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.