BAGHDAD, Iraq—Days after Iraq's new Shiite-led government was announced on April 28, the bodies of Sunni Muslim men began turning up at the capital's central morgue after the men had been detained by people wearing Iraqi police uniforms.
Faik Baqr, the director and chief forensic investigator at the central Baghdad morgue, said the corpses first caught his attention because the men appeared to have been killed in methodical fashion. Their hands had been tied or handcuffed behind their backs, their eyes were blindfolded and they appeared to have been tortured. In most cases, the dead men looked as if they'd been whipped with a cord, subjected to electric shocks or beaten with a blunt object and shot to death, often with single bullets to their heads.
Marks on the bodies were similar to the injuries found on prisoners who were rescued from secret Interior Ministry jails by representatives of the Iraqi ministry for human rights, according to family accounts and medical records.
Iraqi and American officials said the murders aren't being investigated systematically, but in dozens of interviews with families and Iraqi officials, and a review of medical records, a Knight Ridder reporter and two special correspondents found more than 30 examples of this type of killing in less than a week. They include 12 cases with specific dates, times, names and witnesses who said they might come forward if asked by law enforcement.
The Interior Ministry, which oversees the Iraqi police, denies any involvement in the killings. But eyewitnesses said that many of the dead were apprehended by large groups of men driving white Toyota Land Cruisers with police markings. The men were wearing police commando uniforms and bulletproof vests, carrying expensive 9-millimeter Glock pistols and using sophisticated radios, the witnesses said.
U.S. officials, who have advisers in the Interior Ministry, have said that they're aware of the abductions and killings, but that they think the murders are the work of insurgents posing as police.
"The small numbers that we've investigated we've found to be either rumor or innuendo," said Steven Casteel, a senior U.S. adviser to the ministry and former Drug Enforcement Administration intelligence chief. "You can buy a police uniform in 20 different places in the market."
While he admitted that Interior Ministry troops have at times abused detainees, Casteel said he knew of only one instance in which they falsely detained an Iraqi and beat him. And in that case, the troops and their commander were convicted and jailed, he said.
Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, a Shiite, had family members killed by Saddam Hussein's regime and has little patience for human rights violations, Casteel said.
Saddam's security forces tortured and killed thousands of Shiite Muslims and the Sunni-led insurgency has slain thousands in car bombs, assassinations, beheadings and drive-by shootings during the past two years.
Jabr's office said it couldn't schedule an interview with the minister for comment.
The murders and the allegations about who's committing them add another explosive element to Iraq's growing sectarian strife at a time when the Bush administration has begun saying that it's up to the Iraqi government to defeat the insurgency by attracting broader popular support, especially from Sunni Arabs.
If the killers are proven to be Sunni insurgents masquerading as Shiite police, the murders raise troubling questions about how insurgents are getting expensive new police equipment. The Toyotas, which cost more than $55,000 apiece, and Glocks, at about $500 each, are hard to come by in Iraq, and they're rarely used by anyone other than Western contractors and Iraqi security forces.
Further evidence that a police force created, trained and funded by the United States has been abusing human rights, on the other hand, would complicate the Bush administration's efforts to muster greater domestic support for its Iraq policy and more international support for the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari.
The U.S. government has appropriated more than $11 billion for training and equipping Iraqi security forces, including the police. At least 55,000 Iraqi police officers have undergone training, including thousands trained in neighboring Jordan.
However, a March report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found that police were trained mainly for civilian law enforcement duty.
"The Multinational Force in Iraq and the Iraqi ministries find it difficult to train a national police force that abides by the rule of law while operating in a hostile environment," the report said.
Raad Sultan, an official in Iraq's ministry of human rights who monitors the treatment of Iraqis in prisons and detention centers, said some Interior Ministry employees have tortured Iraqis whom they suspected of supporting the insurgency.
Officials in the Interior Ministry's intelligence division deny having detainees, saying they only question those in Iraqi prisons. But one investigation by the Human Rights Ministry found 32 detainees, and another found 67 in Interior Ministry intelligence facilities. The majority of the detainees had been tortured, Sultan said.
Most of those who were tortured had their hands cuffed behind their backs, were blindfolded and had been beaten by cords or subjected to electrical shock, Sultan said. Baqr, at the morgue, said the bodies that have been brought to him handcuffed and blindfolded had been similarly abused.
But when battered corpses turn up outside Interior Ministry facilities, Sultan said, "How can I prove it is the security forces?"
Ghathanfar al Jasim, who sits on Iraq's national judicial council and functions as an attorney general, said it's difficult to discuss extrajudicial murder.
"We cannot admit that our police are doing it; it would make them look weak," Jasim said, adding that Sunni insurgents often target Iraqi security forces, especially commando units such as the Interior Ministry's Wolf Brigade.
"When a man kills another man (from their group), what do you think will be the result?" he said. "How do you think the Wolf Brigade would behave? If you arrested (Osama) bin Laden, what would you do with him?"
Asked who he thought was behind the upsurge in such executions, Baqr said, "It is a very delicate subject for society when you are blaming the police officers. . . . It is not an easy issue.
"We hear that they are captured by the police and then the bodies are found killed . . . it's obviously increasing."
Baqr said he's been unable to catalog the deaths because so many bodies have been brought through his morgue and because he doesn't have enough doctors. Before March 2003, he said, the morgue handled 200 to 250 suspicious deaths a month, about 16 of which included firearm injuries. He said he now sees 700 to 800 suspicious deaths a month, with some 500 having firearm wounds.
Many Iraqis say the giveaway that the abductors are at least connected to the police is the preponderance of reports involving Land Cruisers, Glocks and other expensive equipment.
On May 5, for example, 14 Sunni farmers were picked up from an east Baghdad vegetable market. The farmers had driven to the capital from Madain, a town south of Baghdad where the month before Sunni insurgents allegedly had kidnapped and executed a number of Shiites.
The bodies of the farmers were discovered in shallow graves the next day. They'd been blindfolded and tortured, and their hands had been cuffed behind their backs.
In separate interviews this week, two men who were at the east Baghdad market at the time said they saw a large group of police detain the farmers.
"A patrol of more than 10 police vehicles drove up and parked," said Ali Karim, a fruit vendor. "They were running through the street with their guns, saying that the farmers had a car bomb with them. They pushed them against the walls and asked them for their IDs."
Another vendor, Ahmed Adil, gave a similar account in a separate interview.
"We were sitting, and the police cars pulled up and spread in different directions," Adil said. "A neighborhood guard asked the police what they were doing—he said these are just farmers—and the police said don't get involved, they have a car bomb with them."
A brigadier general in the Interior Ministry, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said his brother was taken during a large raid on May 14 in his working-class Sunni neighborhood in western Baghdad.
His brother's body was found a day later. It bore signs of torture.
The general, who wasn't there when his brother was detained, said he canvassed the neighborhood and interviewed one family after the next.
The descriptions of the abductors were identical in every case, he said: They came in white police Toyota Land Cruisers, wore police commando uniforms, flak vests and helmets. They also had Glocks.
The general said he's tried, through the Interior Ministry, to find out which commando unit was in that neighborhood when his brother disappeared. He also said colleagues have told him that his own life is now in danger.
A day before the general's brother disappeared in west Baghdad, Anwar Jassim, a Sunni welder at Iraq's ministry of industry and minerals, went missing from his south Baghdad home.
Jassim's family said he was taken by a large group of men dressed and equipped like police commandos.
Another man taken in Jassim's neighborhood, a local grocer who gave his name as Abu Ahmed, said he was taken to the same detention facility as Jassim. While he was there, he said, he and other men sat on the floor blindfolded and handcuffed. They listened to other prisoners screaming.
When the other prisoners were brought back into the room, Abu Ahmed said, they said they'd been pummeled with long wooden staffs.
"When we were in detention, they put blindfolds and handcuffs on us. On the second day, the soldiers were saying, `He's dead,' " said Abu Ahmed. "Later, we found out it was Anwar."
The abductors dropped Jassim's body at Baghdad's Yarmuk hospital the next day, hospital staffers said. According to hospital records, Jassim had a bullet wound in the back of his head and cuts and bruises on his abdomen, back and neck.
The man in charge of the Yarmuk morgue, who gave his name as Abu Amir, said he remembers the day the commandos brought Jassim's corpse.
"The commandos told me to keep the body outside of the refrigerator so that the dogs could eat it because he's a terrorist and he deserves it," Abu Amir said.
The killings didn't stop in May.
Saadi Khalif's body was also found at Yarmuk. The 52-year-old Sunni, along with his brother Mohammed, was taken from his home in western Baghdad on June 10. His abductors rode up in pickup trucks painted with Iraqi police insignia, his family said. About 10 came into the house, while about twice as many fanned out in the street outside, forming a security perimeter. They had radios, uniforms, flak vests and helmets, family members said.
"The doctor told us he was choked and tortured before they shot him," said Ahmed Khalif, one of Saadi's brothers. "He looked like he had been dragged by a car."
Mohammed Khalif, 47, also beaten and shot, still had on metal handcuffs at the Yarmuk morgue.
(Salihee was a special correspondent. He was shot and killed last week in Baghdad in circumstances that remain unclear. Special correspondent Mohammed al Dulaimy also contributed to this report from Baghdad.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-KILLINGS