BAGHDAD — Shiite Muslim militia members have infiltrated Iraq's police force and are carrying out sectarian killings under the color of law, according to documents and scores of interviews.
The abuses raise the specter of organized retaliation to attacks by Sunni-led insurgents that have killed thousands of Shiites, who endured decades of subjugation under Saddam Hussein.
And they undermine the U.S. effort to stabilize the nation, and train and equip Iraq's security forces -- the Bush administration's key prerequisites for the eventual withdrawal of American troops.
In recent months, hundreds of bodies have been discovered in rivers, garbage dumps, sewage treatment facilities and alongside roads and in desert ravines. Many of them are thought to be victims of Sunni insurgents, who are known to target Shiite civilians and Iraqi security forces, and even Sunni Arabs believed to be collaborating with U.S. forces or the Iraqi government. But increasingly, the Shiite militias operating within the national police force are also suspected of committing atrocities.
The Baghdad morgue reports that dozens of bodies arrive at the same time on a weekly basis, including scores of corpses with wrists bound by police handcuffs.
Over several months, the Muslim Scholars Assn., a Sunni organization, has compiled a library of grisly autopsy photos, lists of hundreds of missing and dead Sunnis and electronic recordings of testimonies by people who say they witnessed abuses by police officers affiliated with Shiite militias.
U.S. officials have long been concerned about extrajudicial killings in Iraq, but until recently they have refrained from calling violent elements within the police force "death squads" -- a loaded term that conjures up the U.S.-backed paramilitaries that killed thousands of civilians during the Latin American civil wars of the 1970s and 1980s.
But U.S. military advisors in Iraq say the term is apt, and the Interior Ministry's inspector general concurs that extrajudicial killings are being carried out by ministry forces.
"There are such groups operating -- yes, this is correct," said Interior Ministry Inspector General Nori Nori.
More than 40 people were interviewed for this report, including U.S. diplomats and generals in Iraq, Iraqi politicians, the Interior Ministry's intelligence chief and inspector general, the leader of the ministry's special commando unit, former and current police officers, morgue officials and human rights activists.
Although no one knows exactly how many militia members have been integrated into the national force, witnesses described undocumented arrests and torture by police. Two of the witnesses said they were present when detainees died. This month, U.S. forces raided a secret Interior Ministry detention facility in southern Baghdad operated by police intelligence officials linked to the Badr Brigade, a Shiite militia that has long-standing ties to Iran and to Iraq's leading Shiite political party. Inmates compiled a handwritten list of 18 detainees at the bunker who were allegedly tortured to death while in custody. The list was authenticated by a U.S. official and given to Justice Ministry authorities for investigation. It was later provided to The Times.
The U.S. military is investigating whether police officers who worked at the secret prison were trained by American interrogation experts.
An Aug. 18 police operations report addressed to Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, who has ties to the Badr militia, listed the names of 14 Sunni Arab men arrested during a predawn sweep in the Baghdad neighborhood of Iskaan.
Six weeks later, their bodies were discovered near the Iranian border, badly decomposed. All of the corpses showed signs of torture, and each still wore handcuffs and had been shot three times in the back of the head, Baghdad morgue officials said.
A Western diplomat in Baghdad who spoke on condition of anonymity said that "we hear repeated stories" of police raids on houses and indiscriminate arrests of Iraqi civilians -- many of them Sunni Arab Muslims.
"And they disappear, but the bodies show up maybe two or three governorates away," the diplomat said.
The arrest report was authenticated by the Interior Ministry's intelligence chief, Ali Hussein Kamal, who said that Jabr had received the memo. He said ministry officials did not know who killed the men. He acknowledged police abuses but said the ministry did not officially condone torture or extrajudicial slayings.
Nori, the inspector general, said he was trying to investigate police abuses and make officers more accountable. He pointed out a new ministry initiative to require police units to report all raids and arrests to the ministry. "The Ministry of Interior and other ministries are all made up of various components. This is the main reason the government is not that powerful so far," Nori said.