BAGHDAD — A 1,500-member Iraqi police force with close ties to Shiite militia groups has emerged as a focus of investigations into suspected death squads working within the country's Interior Ministry.
Iraq's national highway patrol was established largely to stave off insurgent attacks on roadways. But U.S. military officials, interviewed over the last several days, say they suspect the patrol of being deeply involved in illegal detentions, torture and extrajudicial killings.
The officials said that in recent months the U.S. has withdrawn financial and advisory support from the patrol in an effort to distance the American training effort from what they perceived to be a renegade force.
"We don't train them, we don't give them equipment, we don't conduct site visits over there. They are just bad, criminal people," said a high-ranking U.S. military officer who advises the Interior Ministry. The officer was one of three who each spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they wanted to maintain relationships with Iraqi police officials and avoid retaliation by U.S. military superiors.
Last month, Iraqi army soldiers stopped a 22-member squad of uniformed highway patrol officers at a nighttime checkpoint in northern Baghdad and discovered a man in their custody who told them the police planned to kill him. His contention was supported by confessions of officers in the squad, U.S. advisors said.
U.S. officials have called 2006 "the year of the police" and have placed a renewed emphasis on training officers. The Bush administration repeatedly has said the development of Iraq's security forces must occur before withdrawal of U.S. troops can begin.
The U.S. military works closely with Iraqi army units, conducting joint operations and sharing space on some military bases. By contrast, police forces have evolved far more independently in approximately 11,000 stations and outposts around the nation.
The result is a motley conglomeration of agencies under the Interior Ministry with overlapping jurisdictions and poorly defined functions.
"You've got the facilities protection service, the public order brigades, the commandos, the highway patrol, the regular police, the traffic police, patrol officers," said a second U.S. military official.
"Who knows who they all are? Nobody controls them but the minister," the officer said, referring to Interior Minister Bayan Jabr.
Jabr, a Shiite with close ties to the Badr Brigade, a paramilitary group, has been at the center of allegations of abuse at the hands of Iraqi security forces. The minister's notoriety rose last year as the bodies of hundreds of men -- mostly Sunni Arabs -- started appearing in sewage treatment plants, garbage dumps and desert ravines. Most of the bodies showed signs of torture and execution-style killings. Many families of the deceased said their kin had last been seen in the back of a police vehicle.
The Shiites, who constitute about 60% of the Iraqi population, were severely repressed under Saddam Hussein's regime, which favored the Sunni minority. The Shiites came to power in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion of March 2003. A Sunni-led insurgency has carried out a campaign of bombings and assassinations against the government.
Over the last two years, Shiite militias within Iraq's security forces have been accused of staging reprisals for the Sunni attacks. Leading Sunni figures have blamed the reprisals on Jabr. Sunni political parties have made his removal from office a key issue in negotiations over whether they will take part in Iraq's Shiite-led government.
In a recent interview, Army Maj. Gen. Joseph Peterson, who is leading the multibillion-dollar effort to train and equip Iraq's police forces, vigorously defended the minister and said he was heartened by Jabr's pledge to investigate the abuse fully.
"Death squads -- they're a real issue," said Peterson. "I can tell you, we caught our first death squad," he said, referring to the unit that was apprehended last month. "The minister of Interior is elated that we caught them," he added.
Peterson said U.S. and Interior Ministry officials were investigating the highway patrol squad to determine "where these guys came from and how they were organized and who was leading them and what was their purpose."
Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a U.S. military spokesman, said that the Interior Ministry was leading the investigation into the suspected death squad.
Ali Hussein Kamal, the Interior Ministry's intelligence chief, said in an interview Sunday that investigators were also trying to determine whether the Iraqi general in charge of the highway patrol was linked to the squad.
"If we find that these allegations that he is involved are true, we will be taking very firm measures against him," Kamal said. "But generally speaking, high-ranking officers are usually ignorant of what their lower-ranking officers are doing."