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Iraq as Revenge Tragedy

Time of the Death Squads

by PATRICK COCKBURN

Death squads are returning to the streets of Baghdad despite the security plan for the capital launched with great fanfare by the US two months ago.
As Iraqis bury the 230 people killed or found dead on Wednesday, ominous signs are appearing that the Shia militias have resumed their tit-for-tat killings. There is a sharp increase in the number of dead bodies found bearing signs of torture, with 67 corpses discovered dumped in Baghdad in the first three days of the week.

People in Baghdad, both Shia and Sunni, do not dare move bodies left lying in the rubbish outside their doors though they sometimes cover them with a blanket. One corpse was left lying for days in the centre of a main commercial street in the Sunni bastion of al-Adhamiyah in east Baghdad. He was believed to be a victim of al-Qa’ida in Iraq, which has been killing Sunni who belong to other guerrilla groups or are associated with the government. Local people say that US and Iraqi forces stationed in a newly renovated police station in al-Adhamiyah as part of the security plan seem unaware of what is happening around them.

Shia militiamen are likely to seek revenge for recent horrific bombings since most victims were Shia. The bomb used in the most deadly attack, which killed 127 people and wounded 148 in Sadriyah, was meticulously planned to explode just as minibuses were collecting workers who had finished work at 4pm.

As wakes for the dead were held in huge mourning tents in nearby alleys in Sadriyah, Akram Abdullah, owner of a clothing shop, said: "It’s a tragedy – devastation covers the whole area. It’s as if a volcano erupted here. Charred bodies are still inside the twisted cars, some cars are still covered with ashes."

The attacks are likely to speed the return of the Mehdi Army in Shia areas to provide protection. It was stood down by its leader, the nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, as the US-Iraqi security crackdown began on 14 February. When Iraqi army soldiers and a US patrol entered Sadriyah after the bombing they were met with jeers and stones.

The truce by the Mehdi Army militia, though never total, may now be ending because it was met with an escalation in violence by the Sunni insurgents. In a gruesome video posted on the internet a group linked to al-Qa’ida showed a masked gunman shooting 20 kidnap victims, all police or soldiers, in the back of the head. The group had demanded the freeing of all female prisoners by the government.

There was a further suicide bomb in Baghdad yesterday which killed a dozen people in the mainly Shia Karradah district 500 yards from the heavily guarded home of President Jalal Talabani. Hours later the US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, arrived on an unannounced visit saying he would tell Iraqi leaders that America’s commitment was not open-ended.

The US security plan has never had the political as well as the military components essential to success. It should have encouraged more Iraqi groups to enter the political process and eschew violence. In fact it has done the opposite. The US has been pushing the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to break with Mr Sadr, who has a very large following among the Shia majority.

Mr Sadr withdrew his six ministers from the government this week saying that Mr Maliki had failed to set a deadline for a US troop withdrawal. But the Sadrists are also angry that US and Iraqi government troops have arrested 800 of their men, including Sheikh Qais Khazali, one of their leaders. Mr Sadr reportedly believes the Prime Minister reneged on an agreement not to purse the Mehdi Army if it did not fight.

The soaring number of people being executed by the government since the death penalty was reintroduced in 2004 is condemned in a new report by Amnesty International. It says that 270 people are under sentence of death and more than 100 have been executed, almost all of them since the start of 2006. The report says many of them only confessed under torture.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.