Saturday, January 27, 2007
The Guardian interview of a Shia death squad leader
'If they pay we kill them anyway' - the kidnapper's story
In the second of two remarkable dispatches from behind Baghdad's front lines, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad meets the commander of a Shia death squad
Saturday January 27, 2007
Fadhel is a slim, well-muscled 26-year-old Mahdi Army commander with a thin goatee beard and smoothed down hair that looks like a flat cap. One day last month he described how he and his men seized a group of three Sunni men suspected of killing his fellow Shia. "I followed the group for weeks and then one of them crossed the bridge to Karrada [a Shia district]. We first informed a nearby Iraqi army checkpoint that we were arresting terrorists then we attacked them and put them in the boots of the cars. We only have six to seven minutes when we grab someone - we have to act quickly, if he resists we shoot him."
In this case, he said, the men were taken to Sadr City, the Shia slum to the north-east of Baghdad, where they were interrogated by a "committee" which ordered their execution. "We ask the families of the terrorists for ransom money," said Fadhel. "And after they pay the ransom we kill them anyway."
Kidnapping in Baghdad these days is as much about economics as retribution or sectarian hatred. Another Shia man close to the Mahdi Army told me: "They kidnap 10 Sunnis, they get ransom on five, and kill them all, in each big kidnap operation they make at least $50 000, it's the best business in Baghdad."
One day as we chatted in a small squatters' community to the east of Baghdad, Fadhel showed me his badge - a square laminated card that identified him as a "Amer Faseel" or "platoon commander" in charge of a unit of around 35 fighters. He is particularly valuable to the Shia militia because he grew up in a predominantly Sunni area south of Baghdad and still has an ID card registered in the Sunni town of Yossufiya. "I can speak in their accent, so I can come and go to Sunni areas without anyone knowing that I am a Shia."
It was these qualifications plus his military experience - he was a corporal in the Iraqi military police - that earned Fadhel the role of commanding a "strike unit". His main job is kidnapping Sunnis allegedly involved in attacking Shia areas. It is men like Fadhel, responsible for the scores of bodies dumped on Baghdad's streets daily, whom the US troops pouring into Baghdad will have to bring under control if they are to have any hope of quelling the city's civil war.
Fadhel is also called Sayed, a title given to men who descend from the Prophet Muhammad. Over glasses of hot sweet tea, he told me how his family of farmers, originally from the Shia stronghold of Najaf, had resettled in the 70s in the heart of the Sunni area south of Baghdad where he went to school with Sunni and Shia kids.
A year after Baghdad fell, his family had to move again; the area had become a hub for Sunni extremists who started evicting Shia families a year earlier than their comrades in Baghdad. After a neighbouring Shia farmer was killed they packed up and moved to Baghdad: "We had 15 donums of the best land, I was born there and worked there all my life. They told us you Shia are not from here, go away."
Fadhel and his family found themselves in the squatters' compound in east Baghdad. He and his brother joined the Mahdi Army and fought against the Americans in Sadr City and Karbala. Now he lives in a small rented flat in Dora, once a mixed Sunni area but now one of the main battle fronts in this sectarian war. To gather intelligence, he set out to make Sunni friends: "I live with them, pray like them, I even insult the imams and the Mahdi Army."
Fadhel and other Mahdi Army commanders describe an intimate relationship with Iraqi security services, especially the commandos of the Iraqi interior ministry. He says the Mahdi Army often uses these official forces in conducting its own operations against Sunni "terrorists".
"We have specific units that we work with where members of the Mahdi Army are in command. We conduct operations together. We can't ask any army unit to come with us, we just ask the units that are under the control of our men.
"The police are all under our control, we ask them to help or inform them that shooting will take place in a street and it involves the Mahdi Army, and that's it."
In one operation Fadhel took part in last summer, Iraqi interior ministry commandos attacked a Sunni area in Dora called "Arab Jubour". The raid involved 28 pickup trucks, he told me. Of them 16 were ministry of interior, the rest Mahdi Army.
The new Bush plan to secure Baghdad gives a major role to the Iraqi army and police units in securing Baghdad. Few in the city expect that these predominantly Shia forces will seriously challenge their fellow Shia.
As the discussions for the new security plan were continuing, an Iraqi Shia official who belongs to another party told me: "We know that Moqtada [al-Sadr] and his men are responsible for all this mess but what can we do? We can't attack them, we can only talk to them. Its like having a mentally ill relative - you can't just throw him in the street."
Fadhel and other Mahdi army officers also describe a complex relationship with Iraq's Shia neighbour. Iran, which backs a rival Shia faction to the Mahdi Army, secured a PR success when Mr Sadr upon his arrival in Tehran last year announced that the Mahdi Army would defend Iran if attacked by the US. One Mahdi Army commander told me: "The Iranians are helping us not because they like us, but because they hate the US."
The help comes in different forms. "We get weapons from them, mortar shells, RPG rounds, sometimes they give us weapons for free sometimes we have to buy. Depends on who is doing the deal," said the same commander.
Fadhel told me that back in November he escorted a small truck filled with weapons from Kut, on the Iranian border, to Baghdad. "We get the weapons in trucks, we take a letter to the Iraqi army checkpoints and it's all fine."
Like many of their Sunni counterparts, the Mahdi commanders boast that they could wipe out the other sect and gain total control over Baghdad if the US left. "We control most of Baghdad, our main enemy is the Americans," said Fadhel. Then he paused for a second and continued: "Also we can't trust the other Shia factions. Imam Ali says 'God please protect me against my friends and I will take care of my enemies.'"