This is the first in a three-part series.
The Major Crimes Task Force is Iraq's first professional investigative agency. It takes on the politically explosive cases no one else will touch — and what some members of the task force have learned has put their lives in jeopardy.
Col. Akram is one member of the pioneering agency. On a recent day, he stands in the evidence room at the task force's office in Baghdad. He is literally knee deep in brown paper bags. Some contain bloody clothes, others contain murder weapons. They are all full of evidence and carefully inventoried and cataloged.
Evidence in brown paper bags isn't an Iraqi thing. Any cop will tell you that for a lot of evidence, brown paper is a better choice than the zip-lock bags so often seen on TV crime shows: Plastic bags retain moisture and can corrupt evidence.
One of the bags contains hundreds of wooden blocks and rubber seals. They look harmless enough — like the wood block pieces from a children's printing set.
Col. Akram — for security reasons, he would allow only his last name to be used — explains that they are seals from universities, colleges and government institutions.
"Suspects used these to create fake letters — they were forging documents and selling them so people could say they are working for certain government agencies or to pretend to be police officers or security," he says.
Iraqis Adopt U.S. Investigative Model
A bag of evidence is so commonplace in America that the idea of gathering it, preserving it and building a case around it hardly gets a second thought.
But here in Iraq, the concept represents a revolution. During the years under Saddam Hussein's rule, evidence was beside the point.
"Before, the accused used to tell us what we wanted to hear because we beat them up or tortured them," Akram says.
"Now, we collect evidence, bring the individuals in for interrogation and then send them to court. This is one of the great changes that has happened here in Iraq."
Ask the colonel if that makes him feel better about his work and his face softens and his head bows. He uses just one whispered word — "nam," Arabic for yes. He seems relieved that his job no longer requires him to beat people up.
Task Force Takes on Cases No One Else Wants
The corridors of the Major Crimes Task Force headquarters echo with a cacophony of English and Arabic. The office is in an undisclosed location in the Green Zone.
The FBI helped create the unit, known in Arabic as the Joint Investigative Force, a little more than two years ago. One of the key people behind it is a man called Judge Muqdad. He is the task force's chief investigative judge; he, too, would allow only his last name to be used.
Muqdad is the person who signs the warrants that kick-start these cases. He is 42, although he looks older.
When a reporter visits him recently, he has a major new case on his desk. For security reasons, he asks NPR not to identify the case by name, which involves theft and high-ranking Iraqi officials.
"There are some cases the government doesn't want to reveal or investigate all the way to the end," Muqdad says.
A thick, pale blue folder sits on his desk. He opens it up to reveal handwritten documents in Arabic. Official red seals dot the sheets.
"This case was transferred to our office here because no one else was willing to investigate it," he says.
Iraqis Conducting Investigations for Iraqis
From the start, the Major Crimes Task Force was envisioned as an elite institution. Its investigators were hand-picked by top officials at police agencies in the Interior Ministry. They underwent rigorous vetting by the Iraqis; even Muqdad inserted himself in the hiring process. Then American authorities subjected the candidates to intensive interviews and polygraph tests to ensure there were no double agents among them.
"This is not the FBI conducting investigations for the Iraqis," says the FBI's legal attache in Baghdad, Tom Larned. "It is the Iraqis conducting high-level, sensitive investigations for the people of Iraq."
Task Force Tests Iraqi Commitment to Rule of Law
That's why Judge Muqdad travels with a security detail. His family lives in the heavily fortified Green Zone. All of the task force members are in constant danger — not only from insurgents, but also from some corners of the Iraqi government.
"There are people who would like to eliminate the task force because [it] has taken on some very powerful government officials," says Larned.
"There are components of the government that would like to control the cases we prosecute and the ones we don't. There are instances in which they have tried to retaliate because we have taken on an investigation."
That naturally raises the question of whether the Iraqi government is really committed to establishing justice in the new Iraq. Both Iraqi and U.S. officials seem unwilling to say for sure. Instead, they say that this is a key moment.
Until now, the rule of law was aspirational, something Iraqi leaders thought about in theory — something that they could be concerned about in the future. But now, with an investigative force conducting real investigations, the landscape has changed and a moment of truth may have arrived.