“Soft despotism is a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville describing the state into which a country overrun by "a network of small complicated rules" might degrade. Soft despotism is different from despotism (also called 'hard despotism') in the sense that it is not obvious to the people."

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
The Guardian

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.'"


  1. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, freelance photojournalist, is a contributor photographer for Getty Images, and a feature writer for the Guardian. His images from war-ravaged Iraq were compiled into the book, Unembedded: Four Independent Journalists on the War in Iraq (Chelsea Green, 2005), along with three other independent photojournalists, Kael Alford, Thorne Anderson and Rita Leistner. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad studied architecture at Baghdad University. A deserter from Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army, he lived underground in Baghdad for six years, changing his residence every few months to avoid detection and arrest. He began working as a journalist after the U.S.-led invasion and his photographs have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, The Times (London), Stern magazine, and other media outlets. He was one of the last journalists to work in Fallujah during the first US siege of the city in April 2004. He also worked in Najaf during the US assault on the city in August of the same year. He has continued his work, photographing for international publications, and documenting the Iraqi life under US occupation. He is currently based in Lebanon and works from all over the Middle East. His writing has appeared in the Guardian and The Washington Post

  2. Ms Pelosi goes to Baghdad, whit reports she is briefed by Mr Maliki, who tells her he wants a US footprint of around 100,000 troops, by the end of '07.

    Ms Clinton and Mr McCain have both spoken of benchmarks to measure success in the next year.

    How many remember last year's nonbinding Resolution? '06 was to be a year of transition, leading to withdrawal. Didn't carry much wieght, aye.

    Looks like the Corporal will be told to "stand down" while the US flexs it's muscles, for the next few months. Just like during the Election Security standups, in "04 & '05.

  3. Note that the Shia storyline remains one of retaliation, not provocation. Interesting, to me, at least.

    Then in reference to the Iran "Catch & Release" story, I saw this over at BC.

    SarahWeddington said...
    jj mollo, completely agree.

    i've been a supporter of the President, but when I read this article, it was the end of the road.

    This is an impeachable offense in my view. Certainly letting the Pasdaran kill Americans for more than two years while doing nothing about it is as bad as lying about sex and attempting to cover it up.

    If this article is true, Bush is a failure as Commander in Chief and it's obvious we'll never win as long as he's in office. This is Clintonesque, and to use that about Bush is shameful. But true.

    1/27/2007 12:29:50 AM

  4. 2164th cites the Guardian: 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.

    In the US Civil War, England was more or less aligned with the Confederates because they wanted to keep cotton (analogous to oil) flowing to their textile plants and because it was an aristocracy with a jaundiced view of the American experiment with democracy. The North undertook a series of provocative acts on the high seas, reminiscent of the War of 1812, that nearly brought England into the conflict.

    The most logical strategy would have been to break the Union blockade with the Royal Navy, and then supply the South with enough troops and supplies to allow Lee to prevail at Antietam. The country would have been "partitioned" and things would have settled down. Even the "No Blood for Cotton" folks standing on their soapboxes in Hyde Park would clam up when clothing prices came back down again.

    But if the British used the strategy devised by the neo-cons for Iraq in 2003, they would have captured Lincoln and turned Washington into a "Green Zone" while making daily show of Imperial might on the turnpikes and railroads while the Army of the Potomac dissolved, faded into the populace, and became an insurgency.

    In this scenario, the definition of victory would have been an end to the violence and the restoration of law and order, and in the attempt, the officers and men of the Army of Northern Virginia could have been stationed throughout the North, invited by England to "stand up" so that he could "stand down". And Robert Lee might have thought that England was being too miserly with the weapons he needed to tamp down the Yankee Terrorists, and he might have even accepted arms smuggled across the border from Canada. This would only be shocking to the British citizens back home if their goal was a lofty negotiated peace in the Colonies, and not the peace which follows the defeat of the enemy.

  5. Really rather interesting articles he writes, another article by Ghaith in the Guardian.

    A young muj extends his hand and says: "Do you want a beer?" I am stunned, and what remains of my religious belief rapidly evaporates. But the beer is good and I sit all night with the great religious fighters, drinking beer and waiting for the shells that never come.

    Of course, Ghaith was one of those marvellous objective independent press chaps braving Israeli missiles in Hezbollah country in south Lebanon this summer. Here, a Gaith Guardian article headed with a photo featuring the Green Helmet Guy.

    Gaith can claim to be independent all he likes, but he who embeds with the Muj is a legitimate target.

  6. Another interesting thing I saw, yesterday, was a tidbit about the speed of the Surge. Seems General P wanted the troops there NOW, not all there by May. According to the piece, the most the Army could move, due to logistical constraints, was a Bde a month.

    Now if logisticly we can only move one Bde per month in, it stands to reason we could only move one Bde a month out. There are 4,000 troops in a US Bde. 160,000 troops make for 40 months of withdraw.
    More or less.

    Now we could race for the boats in Kuwait, but we'll be there, for a while to wait.

  7. MG Pagonis memoire mentioned about how long it took them to de-stock Kuwait after the first gulf war (years).

    It will be cheaper to scrap much of the equipment now in Iraq than withdraw it.

  8. Then, peacekeeper, that equipment could just be handed off to the Iraq Army, US troops flying out on commercial jets leaving their trucks and humvees behind, solving in a day the Iraqi's logistical challenges.

  9. DR, there will probably be a big element of that, with old humvees, dozers, utility vehicles (from forklifts to airfield stuff) , trucks, tentage, spare containers, ammo, building materials, bottled water, MREs, air conditioners, barrier materials and all the other low value crap and corruption being handed over to the Iraqis.

    Most of the rest will go out by boat, whether it rolls on or containerized. Getting the men out is the easy part.

  10. Similar to the Reforger movements in the late '70's peacekeep.

    We railheaded the equipment and flew home to Texas. The equipment eventually followed on a boat.
    We could have just as easily left the dump trucks, gamma goats and APCs behind.

    The idea that we are building a viable Mohammedan Army is a bit disconcerting, but ...

  11. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich noted that the president seems confused about Iraq. In his State of the Union address, Bush said Iraq was a matter of crucial national security for the U.S., but he also said, ‘We're going to do as well as the Iraqi government lets us do.’ Both statements cannot be true, Gingrich said Wednesday at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee::

    “If Iraq is genuinely a matter of vital national interest, then, as Americans, we have an obligation to do what it takes to win. If Iraq is so unimportant that it's up to a new, relatively incompetent and untested Iraqi government, then why are we risking a single young American?

    “They can't both be true....We did not say in the Second World War that as soon as the Free French liberated Normandy we would be glad to land... And this is the core problem the administration faces: that it has a harder problem than it wants to confront and therefore it doesn’t undertake the scale of change it needs.”

    Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar is the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee:

    “Even if additional troops have a discernable impact on the violence in Iraq, this progress in the street may be immaterial to achieving political reconciliation.

    “If this is true, all we would gain with a surge is a temporary and partial reduction of violence in Baghdad. That would have some salutary benefits for some Iraqis, but it would not help us achieve our strategic objectives.”

    So even if, in Mr Lugar's opinion, we tamp down on the violence, it will not be enough to "Win".
    Mr Lugar, an extreme example of a BDS disciple, I'm sure.
    Both he and Mr Warner. Mr Coleman as well.

    Newt, he's lost in the woods, as well. aye?

    Mr Patrick Buchanan writes:
    "... But when Bush started to describe the ideological war we are in, one began to understand why we are in the mess we are in.

    "This war," said Bush, "is an ideological struggle. ... To prevail, we must remove the conditions that inspire blind hatred and drove 19 men to get onto airplanes and to come to kill us."

    But the "conditions" that drove those 19 men "to come to kill us" is our dominance of their world, our authoritarian allies and Israel.

    They were over here because we are over there.

    If Bush is going to remove those "conditions," he is going to have to get us out of the Middle East. Is he prepared to do that? Of course not. ...
    In the free elections Bush demanded in Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq, the winners were the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, Hamas and Shia militants with ties to Iran.

    If a referendum were held in the Middle East on the proposition of the U.S. military out and Israel gone, how does Bush think it would come out?

    "So we advance our security interests by helping moderates, reformers and brave voices for democracy," said Bush. But how many of those "moderates" -- Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait, the Gulf States -- are ruled "by brave voices for democracy"?

    Our Islamist enemies would likely endorse unanimously a Bush call for free elections in all those countries, as elections could not but help advance to greater power, at the expense of our friends, those same Islamist enemies.

  12. Pity, Kerry dropped out of the race so soon:

    Kerry says US `a sort of international pariah`

    Davos, Jan 27: Massachusetts Senator John Kerry slammed the foreign policy of the Bush administration on Saturday, saying it has caused the United States to become "a sort of international pariah."

    The statement came as the Democrat lawmaker responded to a question about whether the US government had failed to adequately engage Iraq`s government before the election of hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005.

  13. Why of course, trish.
    If a citizen or a politician takes a stand against the War in Iraq then it stands to reason that they are for a nuclear armed Iran.

    It's a 1% probability, prudence demands that it has to be treated as a 100% fact.

    For Security reasons.

    Per Mr Cheney.

  14. While bloggers obtain 20,000 some e-mails to promote Republican solidarity on the "Surge" issue, the opposition rallies 20,000 or so real people on the Mall in DC.

    It's a matter of Will.
    Some people will press the "Send" button, the truly committed will vote with their time and their feet.

    Seen this all before, the "silent majority" will stick it's head out of the tent, soon, I'm sure.

  15. The Two Year Program of Catching and Releasing Iranian Saboteurs

    What would have happened to the Bush administration and the Republican Party in the 2006 election had the public known of the two year policy of catching and releasing Iranian saboteurs - some of whom killed American troops?

    Where were the military bloggers, who knew or reasonably should have known of the two year policy of catching and releasing Iranian saboteurs – some of whom killed American troops?

    The administration and their friendly military bloggers will be pleased with the distraction of the slap on the wrist planned by the United States Senate next week, with Republican senators in tow.

  16. > While bloggers obtain 20,000 some e-mails to promote Republican solidarity on the "Surge" issue, the opposition rallies 20,000 or so real people on the Mall in DC.

    > It's a matter of Will.

    Yes, but the will comes from the politicians, not the people. Those protestors are paid, as was the organization of the rally. The press has reported that Leftist groups like labor unions have donated millions of dollars for this anti-war campaign. They also have already filmed TV ads with disabled Iraqi veterans saying that we should get out of the war.

    President Bush responded by saying that he thinks the battle field is the only thing that matters to people, so his administration won't bother to try and win support for the war. They will just ignore the Left.

    Bush did a decent job on Iraq in his State of the Union speech, but the next day he switched to selling his energy plan instead of getting support for the war.

  17. trish,

    re: two year program

    I'm fishing, trish, not biting.

  18. Anyone who knows anything knows that Iran has been up to the tip of its dorsal fin in Iraq long before day “one” of American involvement. Those who claim first hand knowledge of military planning in Iraq know this. Some of those who have served in Iraq and blogged know this. Members of the Congress of the United States certainly ought to know this. The Bush administration definitely knows this. Why have those in the know chosen to withhold this information from the public, choosing, instead, to feed the public a series of distracting, ultimately inconsequential leaks and futile gestures (such as the upcoming Senate vote of no confidence)?

  19. Expand the War into one theater, from Warizistan to the Med.
    Then Win at all costs, using all the assets in the arsenal that are needed to ensure that victory.

    World War III, if need be.

  20. Or decide that it's not worth the effort.

  21. DR,

    And do not antagonize the Iranians, please. Oh, and do not ruffle the feathers of the Saudis. By all means, keep the Kuwaitis content. Whatever you do, don't destabilize Syria. Send massive aid to Fatah. Tread lightly with Pakistan. Don't alarm Turkey.

    Other than that, DR, I see no problem.

    PS: Rest assured, entrophy is the administration's secret weapon.

  22. Sorry all, "entropy"

    "The tendency for all matter and energy in the universe to evolve toward a state of inert uniformity."

  23. trish,

    As you know, I am all in favor of a "bigger" military. Indeed, I'm even willing to pay for one. But, as you suggest, "bigger" is not necessarily "better". If I understand DR, he would like both. That is possible, but I think not under the current administration.

  24. For some reason Catherine de Medici comes to mind.