Iran gaining influence, power in Iraq through militia

ImageBy Tom Lasseter

Knight Ridder Newspapers

BAGHDAD, Iraq – The Iranian-backed militia the Badr Organization has taken over many of the Iraqi Interior Ministry’s intelligence activities and infiltrated its elite commando units, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.

That’s enabled the Shiite Muslim militia to use Interior Ministry vehicles and equipment – much of it bought with American money – to carry out revenge attacks against the minority Sunni Muslims, who persecuted the Shiites under Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, current and former Ministry of Interior employees told Knight Ridder. 

The officials, some of whom agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity for fear of violent reprisals, said the Interior Ministry had become what amounted to an Iranian fifth column inside the U.S.-backed Iraqi government, running death squads and operating a network of secret prisons.

The militia’s secret activities threaten to derail U.S.-backed efforts to persuade Sunnis to abandon the violent insurgency and join Shiites and Kurds in Iraq’s fledgling political process. And by supporting Badr and other Shiite groups, Iran – a member of President Bush’s "axis of evil" that sponsors international terrorism, is thought to be seeking nuclear weapons and calls for the destruction of Israel – has used the American-led invasion to gain influence in Iraq.

"They’re putting millions of dollars into the south to influence the elections … it’s funded primarily through their charity organizations and also Badr and some of these political parties," said Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. general in Iraq. "A lot of their guys (Badr) are going into the police and military."

Current and former ministry officials said the American military hadn’t interfered with Badr’s infiltration of the ministry, either because U.S. officials weren’t fully aware of what was happening or because they didn’t want to risk arresting militia leaders who had powerful political positions and tens of thousands of followers.

Interior Ministry and Badr officials have denied any involvement in the prisons or death squads, but Gen. Muntadhar Muhi al-Samaraee, a former head of special forces at the Interior Ministry, said the prisons were run by Badr operatives.

"All prisons in the south and most of those in Baghdad are run by the Badr militia," al-Samaraee, a Sunni, said in an interview in Amman, Jordan. Al-Samaraee said he left the country for medical treatment and decided not to return because of death threats. He’s denied Interior Ministry accusations that he fled to Jordan after stealing a car.

Badr’s leader, Hadi al-Amari, has denied maintaining ties to Iran, but in a fit of anger during a recent interview with Knight Ridder he admitted as much while striking out against U.S.-backed secular Shiite politician Ayad Allawi.

"Allawi receives money from America, from the CIA, but nobody talks about that. All they talk about is our funding from Iran," he said, raising his voice. "We are funded by some (Persian) Gulf countries and the Islamic Republic of Iran. We don’t hide it."

Badr was formed and trained in Iran in cooperation with the Iranian government, and its members staged raids into Iraq during the war between the neighboring countries in the 1980s.

"The Americans use the Interior Ministry commandos as tools to fight the insurgency. They know what Badr is doing and they don’t care," charged Omar al-Jabouri, a top official with the Iraqi Islamic Party, an influential Sunni group. "The interests of the Americans are the same as Badr."

Sunni groups, including the Iraqi Islamic Party and the Muslim Scholars Association, have cataloged hundreds of instances this year in which men wearing Interior Ministry uniforms arrived in Sunni neighborhoods at night and took men who later were found dead.

Last Thursday, a raid on a detention center near the Interior Ministry building found 13 men who apparently had been tortured and needed medical treatment.

Last month, 169 men, most of them Sunnis, were found in an Interior Ministry bunker in Baghdad’s Jadriyah neighborhood. Many of them had been beaten with leather belts and steel rods and made to sit in their own excrement, according to a U.S. military official and an Iraqi who was held at the center. Police officers with knowledge of the jail said Badr ran it.

A Human Rights Ministry official who spoke only on the condition of anonymity said both places were home to clandestine operations run by the Interior Ministry’s intelligence units.

"We monitor the prisons, but there are so many secret centers that we know nothing about," the official said.

A senior U.S. military official in Baghdad, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, acknowledged that the torture at the Jadriyah site was carried out by a rogue Interior Ministry intelligence group.

"It’s not clear this was an official MOI (Ministry of Interior) organization," the official said. "If you look at the MOI organizational charts, you will not find the Jadriyah bunker."

After Iraq’s national elections last January, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a political party that’s tied to Badr, took power and installed an official with strong ties to Badr, Bayan Jabr, as the head of the Interior Ministry. The ministry’s ranks, particularly intelligence and commando units, were quickly stocked with Badr militia members, according to interviews with current and former ministry officials.

"Everybody says you have a Badr guy in the MOI. Well … he was elected," said the senior U.S. military official in Baghdad. "And they say he’s appointed a bunch of Badr guys. We have a Republican administration in America, and guess what? They’ve appointed a lot of Republicans. You elected SCIRI, and SCIRI is Badr."

The American officer said it would be up to the Iraqi government to deal with the Badr organization and other militias.

Sunni leaders say the Shiite-controlled government will never police Shiite militias.

There also have been allegations that the militia that’s loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who also has Iranian support, is responsible for some of the killings. Many of the details of the incidents, however, point more to Badr. For instance, the killers often are reported as traveling in white Toyota Land Cruisers and carrying Glock pistols. Both are common at the Badr headquarters in Baghdad, but not with al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army fighters, most of whom are poor and travel in beat-up vans and cars.

Asked who was behind the rounding up and killing of Sunnis, Casey said, "I don’t know that it’s the quote Badr corps that’s doing it or the … Mahdi (Army) that’s doing it, but I have no doubt that people who are associated with those groups are involved."

Although militias are illegal under Iraqi law, Badr has flourished as U.S. forces have declined to crack down.

"It’s not infiltration. They’re upfront about it (their militia affiliation) and day to day things are OK, but then there’s a crisis," Casey said. "What you see happening is that people are … signing up (for the security forces) but their loyalties lie more to a militia leader than a chief of police."

A document obtained by Knight Ridder appears to reveal the existence of an Interior Ministry death squad.

A memo written by an Iraqi general in the ministry operations room and addressed to the minister’s office says on its subject line: "Names of detainees." It lists 14 men who were taken from Iskan, a Sunni neighborhood in western Baghdad, during the early morning hours of Aug. 18. It also marks the time of their detention: 5:15 a.m.

The bodies of the same 14 men were found in the town of Badrah near the Iranian border in early October. Hussein Sayhoud, a doctor at Baghdad’s main morgue who examined the bodies and signed one of the death certificates, said that most of the men had been killed by single gunshots to their heads.

"I remember when they brought in the whole group," Sayhoud said. "They were so badly decomposed we couldn’t identify any marks of torture."

The general who signed the Interior Ministry memo, Brig. Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf, confirmed its authenticity. But despite a heading that reads "Names of the detainees in the Iskan District," Khalaf maintained that insurgents, not Interior Ministry police, had abducted the men.

It’s unclear, however, why an Interior Ministry general would refer to men who’d been kidnapped by Sunni insurgents as "detainees" in an official government document, or how the general knew the exact time of the abduction.

Pressed for more details, Khalaf said: "The minister is very upset. He wants to know how such a document slipped out of the ministry."

Col. Joseph DiSalvo, who commands a brigade of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division in eastern Baghdad, where there’s a heavy Shiite militia presence, said it would be all but impossible for the American military to defeat the militias.

The largest neighborhood in DiSalvo’s area of operations is Sadr City, home to 2.5 million to 3 million people. It was the site of fierce clashes last year between al-Sadr’s militia and U.S. forces.

"Sadr City is probably our most secure zone because of the de facto militia presence … the Mahdi militias doing their neighborhood patrols," DiSalvo said. "And you also have Badr patrols where you have SCIRI enclaves."

There’ve been reports of several instances in DiSalvo’s area of Sunni men being rounded up by vehicles with Interior Ministry markings, then found murdered.

"The coalition forces cannot enforce it (the law forbidding militias). We cannot negate the militias. It would be like having a 2 million-man tribe, and all of a sudden saying, `Tribe, you do not exist,’" DiSalvo said. "You’d have to have more manpower than is feasible."