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Death Squads Target the Iraqi Next Door

A father, a grocer, a house painter, Sunni as well as Shiite, are among the victims.

September 18, 2006|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — On that scorching afternoon last month, Ahmed Kamel was playing soccer with his two children outside his home here when three men drove up in a Chevy Caprice, pulled out their guns and dragged him away.

"You will see your father tomorrow behind the levee," one advised Kamel's 13-year-old, Mustafa, as the boy clung desperately to the escaping car.

Four hours later, the family later learned, police found Kamel's body where the kidnappers said he would be: a notorious dumping ground for the dead in northeast Baghdad. His crime? He had served in the Iraqi army for more than a decade and lived in a neighborhood where Shiite Muslim militias are pushing out Sunnis like him.

Evidence enough in the cold calculation of life and death in this capital of fear. A wrong turn, a detour, an untoward stare, a pointed finger, an anonymous denunciation, a nod of the head -- these can, and do, lead regularly to death.

Sectarian death squads snatch victims off the street or from their cars, from their homes or their offices, from mosques or hospitals. The killers come at night or day. They come in uniforms or civilian garb.

"They say this is God's will, but this is not God's will," said Nisreen Yaseri, mourning the killing last week of her cousin Mohammed Jabbar, 26. "This is people's will. It's not about God."

Jabbar's mistake? He was a Shiite house painter who was riding in a taxi through a mostly Sunni west Baghdad neighborhood when gunmen at an improvised checkpoint stopped the cab last Monday. He and four co-workers, all Shiite, were taken away.

Their bullet-ridden corpses, trussed and showing signs of torture, were found Tuesday on the streets of the same Adil district where their taxi had been stopped.

Their loved ones next saw them in the morgue of Kadhimiya Hospital.

"Hamoodi," as Jabbar was known, had taken precautions: He had recently obtained a new identification card, omitting his tribal name -- and thus blurring his sect, at least theoretically. "If they want me to be a Sunni, I'll be a Duleimi if they like!" Jabbar had told friends, referring to a major Sunni clan, his cousin recalled. "I'll be a Shia. Anything."

Others seek to erase their name altogether; newspapers here daily contain legal ads from men seeking to change their given name from Omar, a trademark Sunni name.

"But if they stop you, they ask you questions -- what tribe do you come from? Who is your uncle? It is impossible to escape," lamented Omar Hirmizi, a shopkeeper in the largely Sunni Adhamiya district who had contemplated the ruse and decided it was no solution.

Some feel a false sense of security. Such apparently was the case with Muatiz Qaisi, a Sunni who was a longtime grocery shop owner in the largely Shiite enclave of Sadr City. He had many Shiite friends and acquaintances and was well liked. Gunmen came for him one day last spring after the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, the event that sparked the current wave of violence.

He was thrown into the trunk of a sedan, but the kidnappers forgot to take his cellphone.

"I was taken by armed men, and I'm inside the trunk of their car," he told his relatives in a telephone call, according to a nephew.

Later that evening, the kidnappers used the cellphone to call the nephew, saying they were from the "central crime bureau," although the nephew had never heard of the agency, and doubted its existence.

"We have information that your uncle used to kill Shia during the time" of Saddam Hussein, the kidnappers told the nephew, according to the nephew's account.

"When did my uncle have time to kill those people?" the nephew responded. "My uncle had a shop for 15 years that used to be open from 7 in the morning until 8:30 at night."

The uncle's body turned up the next morning, along with four others. Bullets had disfigured all five faces in a similar pattern of mutilation.

In the anxious hours after a disappearance, frantic relatives of the missing embark on a now-ritualized hunt: to police stations, government ministries, to shady contacts who may know something.

When men in fatigues arrested Feraz Abbas Kubais, a Sunni electrician, at his home, his cousin placed a telephone call. The cousin knew someone close to the Badr Brigade, a Shiite, Iranian-trained militia that has ties to the Interior Ministry.

"I'll see what I can do," the cousin was told, a friend recalled. Two hours later, the Badr man called back. "I'm sorry, it's too late," the cousin was told. "You'll find him in the morgue."

Some bodies are never found, perhaps tossed in a clandestine grave, or decomposed beyond recognition, or dumped in the Tigris River or an irrigation canal from which they never emerge.

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