Iraq Probes Reports of Police Death Squads

The Iraqi Interior Ministry is investigating the case of 22 men dressed in Iraqi police commando uniforms and holding a Sunni prisoner who said they were going to execute him. The incident follows numerous reports of abductions throughout Iraq of Sunnis by men dressed in police uniforms.

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A report we're now about to speak of could be the first concrete case of widely reported police death squads operating in Iraq. The Iraqi Interior Ministry is investigating 22 men dressed in Iraqi police commando uniforms. They had been stopped with a Sunni prisoner who said he was about to be executed. The incident follows numerous reports of abductions throughout Iraq of Sunnis, by men dressed in police uniforms. Many Sunni leaders say Iraq's largely Shiite police force is out of control.

NPR's John Hendren reports from Baghdad.

JOHN HENDREN reporting:

It happened less than two weeks ago, Major General Hussein Kamal, Iraq's deputy Interior Minister in charge of domestic intelligence, says the police were stopped when they ran into a U.S. patrol. After some questioning, officials say, the men acknowledged that they planned to execute their prisoner.

Major General HUSSEIN KAMAL (Deputy Minister of Intelligence, Iraq): (Through Translator) According to what we know, it was a U.S. patrol that saw these men holding this man in custody. So they were interrogated, because they were sure that something unusual was going on. This is the most important case that is being investigated.

HENDREN: He says the ministry has created a committee to investigate this and other incidence of alleged death squads within the police. Dozens of handcuffed and blindfolded bodies of Sunni men are routinely dumped in the largely Shiite slums of Baghdad's Shula and Rastomiah(ph) Districts. Baghdad's morgue reported 46 bodies yesterday, including 12 Sunni men found in Shula who died of gunshot wounds to the head. By midday today, there were 47 bodies found. It's unclear how many of them are Sunnis, but four were bound and killed execution-style. Sunni politicians say as many as 1600 Sunni men detained by police have been found dead.

What makes this story more complicated is that the police were apparently not members of the feared police commando squads, the equivalent of American SWAT teams. According to a U.S. official, they worked for the highway patrol, but were wearing commando uniforms. The deputy interior minister says who the men are is among the issues the police probe is trying to find out.

Major General KAMAL: (Through Translator) They were supposed to be working on the Highway Patrol, subject to the Ministry of the Interior. But the question is whether they are really working for the highway patrol or not, and whether they are truly working in the Ministry of the Interior.

HENDREN: In an interview earlier this week, before the incident was disclosed, General John Abizaid said U.S. forces are working to curb abuses within the Interior Ministry.

General JOHN ABIZAID (Commander, Central Command, Iraq): Clearly, there's a need to make sure that in certain areas, and in certain units, that reforms are made, that leaders are instructed properly, and that oversight is held at the national level. And at the Iraqi national level, is what I mean. And so, there's work that has to be done there. There have been some abuses. I think Iraqi leadership notes that there have been abuses. And there's an awful lot of dialogue within the political parties to address the abuses that have taken place. And clearly, we have to help them through this, as well. And we will.

HENDREN: Sunni leaders are keen to get rid of the current Interior Minister, Bayan Jabr Solagh, in the new government. Sunni leaders say he has allowed Shiite death and torture squads to operate throughout the country. Iraqi and American military officials recently discovered two jails, in which U.S. officials say Sunni prisoners were beaten and starved. Sunnis accuse the ministry of being infiltrated by Shiite militias, seeking revenge against the Sunni minority that dominated Iraq's government under Saddam Hussein.

In many cases, there's little evidence to show whether the men who are abducting Iraqi Sunnis are actually police, or merely wearing their uniforms, which are readily available here.

John Hendren, NPR News, Baghdad.

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