BAGHDAD, Iraq—The overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim military force at the forefront of U.S. and Iraqi plans to secure one of the nation's most fractious provinces is accused of arresting hundreds of Sunni men on little or no evidence, threatening to rape a suspect's wife to coerce a confession, and intimidating its commander's critics, according to interviews with Iraqi and U.S. officials.
Backed by U.S. troops, the Iraqi Army's 5th Division on Saturday launched a new offensive to rout suspected al-Qaida-allied terrorists from Baquba, the capital of a province infested with Sunni insurgents, Shiite militias, warring tribes and criminal gangs.
While a U.S. military statement said the weekend operation shows the "commitment of Iraqi army officers and soldiers to protect and secure the people," local residents and Sunni leaders point to the Iraqi division's track record as one of the chief problems plaguing the restive Diyala province north of Baghdad.
Brig. Gen. Shakir Hulayl al-Kaabi, commander of the division, oversees a mostly Shiite force in an area where at least half the population is Sunni. The American officers who previously worked with him have been reported as saying they tried to have him removed for refusing orders and acting on a sectarian agenda. Sunni leaders say his men are waging a campaign of collective punishment because of vicious Sunni insurgent attacks against Shiites and U.S.-led forces.
Despite the laundry list of accusations against al-Kaabi, the Shiite-led government in Baghdad keeps promoting him. With U.S. forces planning to hand over full military control of Diyala and other provinces this spring, the experience of the 5th Division is viewed by many as a harbinger of deep troubles to come as American troops gradually move on.
In the past week, the 5th Division took on supervision of even the local police force, which repeatedly has come under attack and suffers from logistical and leadership problems.
"This will just lead to more provocations and confrontations between the 5th Division and the existing groups," said Salim al-Jubouri, a Sunni law professor who represents Diyala in the Iraqi parliament.
U.S. Army Col. David W. Sutherland, commander of U.S.-led forces in Diyala, acknowledged hearing reports of questionable behavior by the Iraqi division, but said efforts are under way to turn it into a force more representative of Diyala's diverse population of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. Sunni politicians counter that the U.S. military has simply picked a side in the sectarian battles raging here—and it wasn't theirs.
"The U.S. Army does not pick sides. We are not partisan," Sutherland, who leads the 1st Cavalry Division's 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, said in an interview Friday.
"We work with elected officials," he said.
With the exception of the Iraqi Islamic Party, Sunni factions boycotted provincial elections, saying voting conducted in the shadow of U.S. forces is invalid. Diyala's provincial council comprises 20 Shiites, 14 Sunnis and seven Kurds, Sutherland said. The governor, the police chief and Kaabi, the Iraqi general, are all Shiites.
"The Shiite governor brought the Shiite 5th Division into Diyala, a Sunni area. How can we have a Shiite governor and police commander?" asked a Sunni taxi driver in Baquba who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. "The mujaheddin (Sunni insurgents) don't want them and are attacking and trying to assassinate them all the time. It's the government's fault, and we are paying for it."
Diyala's pastoral terrain of palm groves and citrus orchards make it an ideal hideout for al-Qaida-allied insurgent groups, which have carried out a series of devastating attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces as well as sectarian purges against Shiites in the area. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, was killed in a U.S. air strike in a village not far from Baquba.
Terrorist activity has made life increasingly untenable for both Sunnis and Shiites, several residents said.
In July, the 5th Division took lead control for security in Baquba after it became apparent the local police force was outgunned by the Sunni insurgents. Almost immediately, complaints poured forth that the Iraqi troops were conducting attacks against Sunni neighborhoods to avenge the insurgents' violence against Shiites.
Shiite officials argue that the 5th Division is just an aggressive force committed to weeding out insurgents. A raid on Friday in a Sunni neighborhood captured a suspected insurgent leader, according to a U.S. military statement. Wire services reported another 30 terror suspects also were detained on Saturday, among them two Egyptians.
"The police reached the point seven months ago where they could no longer hold on and fight terrorism, so that's why we had to ask for the (Iraqi) army's help," Diyala Gov. Raad Rasheed Jawad said in a telephone interview from Baquba. "Since we called in the 5th Division, we've noticed improvements to the security situation . . . People might complain about the 5th Division, but I assure you it's just individual cases, not the whole division."
Jawad said he's survived six assassination attempts. After one of the attacks, accusations swirled that his Sunni deputy, Aouf al-Rahoumi, was involved. Soldiers from the 5th Division arrested a suspect identified to McClatchy Newspapers only as a Sunni government employee named Udai.
Udai, who is still in detention, wrote a letter recounting his interrogation and sent it to the Iraqi Islamic Party. Al-Jubouri, the Sunni legislator from Diyala and a member of the Islamic Party, said Udai's letter contained details about how the Iraqi 5th Division troops dragged his wife into the interrogation area and threatened to rape her if Udai didn't confess that Rahoumi, the deputy governor, was involved in the assassination plot.
"They tortured him to the point where he confessed he was involved," al Jubouri said. "Then we in the Islamic Party called his wife and recorded her saying over the phone, `They took me and they threatened to rape me if he didn't say Aouf Rahoumi was involved in the matter.' We took the recording and the letter to the provincial officials and to the Americans. Nothing has been done."
The U.S. military, which oversees tactical operations for the 5th Division, deferred to the Shiite-led government.
"I'm aware of the Udai case," Sutherland said. "That is an Iraqi investigation."
No Iraqi official in the defense ministry could be reached for comment on the status of the investigation. Rahoumi, recently returned from Syria, also was unavailable. Jawad, the governor, spoke only vaguely about the incident.
"I can't judge people unless I have proof," he said.
Sunni residents and politicians say the Udai case wasn't the first time their concerns have been brushed aside. For months, they've complained that elements of the 5th Division are more loyal to Shiite militias such as the Mahdi Army and Badr Brigade than to the Iraqi military. Among their grievances: the 5th Division's alleged use of death squads to eliminate political rivals; the mass arrests of Sunnis who were later released uncharged and the refusal to recruit Saddam Hussein-era officers into the 5th Division.
"I understand there were operations done previously by General Shakir, before I got here," that angered the Sunni population, Sutherland said. He added that U.S. forces have helped the general introduce better training for 5th Division troops, conduct intelligence-driven operations and start a recruiting program to enlist more Sunni troops.
The 5th Division "is not necessarily representative of the population of Baquba, but it is something General Shakir is working on," Sutherland said.
Diyala's police and military were in such disarray earlier this year that the previous U.S. command delayed plans to transfer full control to the Iraqi military in October. The new handover date is just months away.
"Right now, the Iraqi Army is expected to transfer to Iraqi ground force command in early February," Sutherland said. "There's nothing I've seen to indicate that won't happen."
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondents in Baquba and Baghdad contributed to this report. They aren't named for security reasons.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.