BAGHDAD, Iraq—A militant Shiite Muslim group with close ties to Iran has gained enormous power since Iraq's January elections and now is accused of conducting a terror campaign against Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority that includes kidnappings, threats and murders.
But in spite of concern among Sunni Arabs that the Badr Brigade is behind a series of brutal attacks against Sunni clerics, including cases where victims appear to have been tortured with electric drills, the group was praised by top Iraqi government officials last week.
"Today, there is a sacred mission of sweeping away the remnants of the dictatorship and defeating the terrorism, and your role with your brothers in the (Kurdish militia) is required and necessary to fulfill this sacred mission," Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Sunni Kurd, told a meeting of Badr members.
At the same gathering, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari praised Badr for its restraint, saying "force without integrity is evil and integrity without force is weakness."
The Badr Brigade was organized and trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guards in the early 1980s and served as the armed wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an organization of exiled Iraqi Shiites then based in Iran. During the 1980s it gained fame for its guerrilla raids against Iraqi military units during the Iran-Iraq war.
Now, with the Supreme Council leading the Shiite coalition that dominated Iraq's elections, Badr members have gained unprecedented authority. The interior minister, who controls the nation's police and commando forces, is a former Supreme Council official with close ties to Badr. At least six provincial governors, including Baghdad's, are Badr members, according to the organization.
Badr's commander, Hadi al-Ameri, is a driving force in the Iraqi national assembly's public integrity committee, which is investigating former Iraqi officials, many of them Sunnis, over allegations of corruption.
Al-Ameri says the Badr Organization, as the group is now called, has given up its weapons. "We are serving the country by participating through the political process," al-Ameri said.
But many in the Sunni community charge that Badr's claim of political transition is an attempt to hide the fact that it still controls thousands of militia troops that harass and kill Sunnis in back and forth bloodshed with Sunni insurgents.
Others say they were kidnapped or tortured by people who claimed to be from Badr. The organization is also accused of killing at least five Sunni clerics during the past month and kidnapping 30 Sunni worshippers from a Baghdad mosque.
U.S. officials in Iraq express concern about the allegations but say they don't know whom to believe.
"People are killed in Iraq for various reasons. It's not always clear why people were killed or who killed them," said a U.S. Embassy official in Baghdad who spoke on condition of anonymity because he's not authorized to speak on the matter. "Sometimes it's clear, sometimes it's not clear. But I don't want to go any further."
A high-ranking U.S. military officer in Baghdad said that while intelligence reports haven't shown who's killing Sunnis, he suspects that it may be the work of al-Qaida-linked Sunni terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi or Sunni fighters loyal to former dictator Saddam Hussein, not to a Shiite group empowered by the recent election.
"I don't know who's doing the killings," said the officer, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. "I think that it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the Zarqawi network and (Saddam loyalists) are doing this to create sectarian violence."
Perhaps more than any other organization in Iraq, the Badr Brigade has come to symbolize the deep ethnic divisions that threaten Iraq's stability.
U.S. and Iraqi officials agree that for Iraq to avoid civil war, its Shiite majority and its minority Sunni population must learn to coexist.
But the task is made difficult by the bloody history that pitted a Sunni community that enjoyed status and privilege under Saddam against the larger Shiite community he brutally oppressed.
In Baghdad, the mention of the Badr name can silence a room.
"There is no real difference between the Badr Brigade and the former Special Forces we had," said a Sunni brigadier general in the interior ministry, referring to Saddam's troops. He asked that his name not be used for security reasons. "If you talked badly about them in the past, you could be killed. And it is still the same: If you talked about the Badr Brigade, you might be killed."
Recent accounts of the kidnapping and killing of Sunni clerics often include men wearing police uniforms and driving police vehicles—a detail that interior ministry officials ascribe to stolen equipment but many Sunnis point to as evidence that the Badr-dominated interior ministry has police death squads.
The first public accusation against the Badr Brigade was made last month by Harith al-Dhari, the leader of Iraq's Muslim Scholars Association, an influential group of militant Sunni clerics. In a news conference broadcast over Arabic satellite TV, he said that "the parties that are behind the campaign of killings of preachers and worshippers are ... the Badr Brigade."
Al-Ameri, the Badr leader, responded immediately in a phone interview on Arab satellite TV, saying al-Dhari condoned attacks carried out by Zarqawi.
The attacks that triggered al-Dhari's accusation were particularly brutal: On May 12, Ayad al-Samarrae, a Sunni cleric, was kidnapped in Baghdad. Two days later he was found dead. Family members said that, judging from holes in the corpse, he appeared to have been tortured with an electric drill.
On May 15, Sunni clerics Hassan al-Naimi and Tala Nayef were kidnapped from separate Baghdad mosques by men wearing Iraqi police commando uniforms. They were later found dead. Pictures of al-Naimi show what appear to be drill holes in his shoulder, head and neck.
Similar crimes have continued. On June 5, a Sunni cleric in Basra was taken by men wearing police uniforms. His corpse was found two days later under a bridge. A spokesman for the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni group, said that the cleric's eye had been gouged out and that he had drill holes in his chest.
In an interview with Knight Ridder, al-Ameri said al-Dhari should apologize.
"His public comments are very dangerous and will lead us to sectarian war," he said. Al-Ameri stressed that Shiites make up most of the more than 700 people killed in car bombings and other violence since the seating of Iraq's interim government on April 28.
Others also voice suspicions, however. Firas al-Nakib, a Sunni and a senior legal adviser in the interior ministry, said that since the new government was installed, more than 160 senior members of the ministry have been dismissed and many police commanders have been replaced by Shiites loyal to the Shiite bloc that won the elections.
Many of the new commanders, he said, are members of Badr or are connected to the Supreme Council.
"They are putting in battalion commanders who are loyal to one idea and not the whole country," Nakib said.
When men in police uniforms stormed a mosque in his neighborhood and detained 30 people last month, Nakib said his neighbors asked him the reason for the raid.
He said he asked at work the next day and was told by other interior officials to stay out of the matter.
Five of the 30 people were later found in the morgue, their bodies mutilated and tortured, Nakib said. The rest are still unaccounted for.
An interior spokesman said the ministry's troops weren't involved and that police uniforms had been stolen.
Asked who he thought was behind the abductions and killings, Nakib paused and then said: "Badr, of course."
Al-Ameri, the Badr leader, said that while his militiamen aren't targeting Sunnis, they "still exist and they are ready. ... The sons of Badr are ready to defend Iraq from terrorism," which he said was the work of Sunni Baathists and Sunni jihadists.
Mohammed Jassim Mohammed, a 29-year-old engineering graduate student at Baghdad University, said he's proof that Badr is targeting Sunnis.
When men wearing army uniforms kidnapped him from his home south of Baghdad in April, beating and torturing him for more than 12 days, Mohammed said they made it clear they were from Badr.
"When we were tortured, they said how dare you fight against the Badr Brigade," Mohammed said, sobbing during a telephone interview.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Alaa al Baldawy and Mohammed al Dulaimy contributed to this report.)
The Badr Brigade, or the Badr Organization, is the military arm of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which was based in Tehran, Iran, until the U.S. defeat of Saddam Hussein's regime.
Until August 2003, the Badr Brigade was controlled by Mohammad Bakr al-Hakim. Hakim's brother, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, took over the organization after Hakim was assassinated in Najaf, Iraq.
The Badr Brigade was founded in 1983. Its original membership was made up of Iraqi Shiite Muslims who were trained by the Iranian government during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). Badr, a city 90 miles south of Medina in Saudi Arabia, is where the prophet Muhammad won his first battle in 624.
Sources: Strategic Studies Institute, PBS' "Frontline," Middle East Intelligence Bureau
_Compiled by researcher Tish Wells
For more information, go to:
The United States and Iraq's Shi'ite Clergy: Partners or Adversaries? http://www.army.mil/professionalwriting/volumes/volume2/july_2004/7_04_3.html
Badr Corps at Global Security.org: http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/para/badr.htm
Near East Policy Research (PDF):
Middle East Intelligence Bureau: http://www.meib.org/articles/0310_iraqd.htm
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.