BASRA, Iraq -- Shiite and Kurdish militias, often operating as part of Iraqi government security forces, have carried out a wave of abductions, assassinations and other acts of intimidation, consolidating their control over territory across northern and southern Iraq and deepening the country's divide along ethnic and sectarian lines, according to political leaders, families of the victims, human rights activists and Iraqi officials.
While Iraqi representatives wrangle over the drafting of a constitution in Baghdad, forces represented by the militias and the Shiite and Kurdish parties that control them are creating their own institutions of authority, unaccountable to elected governments, the activists and officials said. In Basra in the south, dominated by the Shiites, and Mosul in the north, ruled by the Kurds, as well as cities and villages around them, many residents say they are powerless before the growing sway of the militias, which instill a climate of fear that many see as redolent of the era of former president Saddam Hussein.
The parties and their armed wings are sometimes operating independently, and other times as part of Iraqi army and police units trained and equipped by the United States and Britain and controlled by the central government. Their growing authority has enabled them to seize territory, confront their perceived enemies and provide patronage to their followers. Their rise has come because of a power vacuum in Baghdad and their own success in the January elections.
Since the formation of a government this spring, Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, has witnessed dozens of assassinations, claiming members of the former ruling Baath Party, Sunni political leaders and officials of competing Shiite parties. Many have been carried out by uniformed men in police vehicles, according to political leaders and families of the victims, with some of the bullet-riddled bodies dumped at night in a trash-strewn parcel known as The Lot. The province's governor said in an interview that Shiite militias have penetrated the police force; an Iraqi official estimated that as many as 90 percent of officers were loyal to religious parties.
Across northern Iraq, Kurdish parties have employed a previously undisclosed network of at least five detention facilities to incarcerate hundreds of Sunni Arabs, Turkmens and other minorities abducted and secretly transferred from Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, and from territories stretching to the Iranian border, according to political leaders and detainees' families. Nominally under the authority of the U.S.-backed Iraqi army, the militias have beaten up and threatened government officials and political leaders deemed to be working against Kurdish interests; one bloodied official was paraded through a town in a pickup truck, witnesses said.
"I don't see any difference between Saddam and the way the Kurds are running things here," said Nahrain Toma, who heads a human rights organization, Betnahrain, with offices in northern Iraq and has faced several death threats.
Toma said the tactics were eroding what remained of U.S. credibility as the militias operate under what many Iraqis view as the blessing of American and British forces. "Nobody wants anything to do with the Americans anymore," she said. "Why? Because they gave the power to the Kurds and to the Shiites. No one else has any rights."
"Here's the problem," said Majid Sari, an adviser in the Iraqi Defense Ministry in Basra, who travels with a security detail of 25 handpicked Iraqi soldiers. "They're taking money from the state, they're taking clothes from the state, they're taking vehicles from the state, but their loyalty is to the parties." Whoever disagrees, he said, "the next day you'll find them dead in the street."
British officials, whose authority runs through Basra and parts of southern Iraq, have called the killings "totally unacceptable."
"We are aware of allegations that men in police uniforms, whether they are genuine policemen or not, are carrying out serious crimes in Basra," said Karen McLuskie, a British spokeswoman. "We are raising our concerns with the Iraqi authorities at the highest level.
"The Badr Organization, one of the most powerful militias in southern Iraq and blamed for many of the assassinations, denied any role in the killings. The head of the group in Basra, Ghanim Mayahi, said his organization was only providing "support and assistance" to the police through lightly armed militiamen. "There is no law, there is no order, and the police are scared of the tribes. Badr is not afraid, and it can face those threats."
In the north, Kurdish officials acknowledged that terrorism suspects from across the region have been taken to several Kurdish-run detention facilities, but they said the practice was initiated by the Iraqi government with the blessing of the U.S. military. "It's a question of space; they have no place to put them and here it is safe," said Karim Sinjari, the minister of interior for the Kurdistan Regional Government and a senior official in the Kurdistan Democratic Party.
In June, however, U.S. officials denied any role and called for an end to the "extra-judicial detentions." A State Department memo at the time warned that abductions in the contested northern city of Kirkuk had "greatly exacerbated tensions along purely ethnic lines" and threatened U.S. standing.
In both northern and southern Iraq, the parties and their militias defend their tactics as a way of ensuring security in an increasingly lawless atmosphere. In part, they say, their power reflects their success in January's national and local elections, in which the Kurdistan Democratic Party and its counterpart, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and the Shiite-led Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and other Islamic parties won overwhelmingly in their respective regions.
But critics charge that they are wresting control over security forces to claim de facto territory and authority, effectively partitioning Iraq even as representatives in Baghdad struggle to negotiate a permanent constitution. "We have a feeling that our Islamic brothers want power, regardless of the law and regardless of the state," said Rahi Muhajir, who leads the Communist Party in Nasiriyah, 130 miles north of Basra. "They want authority and they want to stay permanently."
"Their Own Justice'
In the streets of Basra, a dreary, dun-hued port of 1.5 million people on the banks of the Shatt al Arab, the local police force of 13,600 has become as much an instrument of fear as security. Mohammed Musabah, the governor of Basra, acknowledged that the police were infiltrated by religious parties, the most powerful of which is the Supreme Council. His police chief, Hassan Sawadi, went further. He told a British newspaper, the Guardian, that he had lost control over three-quarters of his police force and that militiamen inside its ranks were using their posts to assassinate opponents. Soon after, Musabah said, the Interior Ministry ordered Sawadi not to speak again publicly
Since May, political leaders estimate that as many as 65 assassinations have occurred in Basra. Among them were a lieutenant colonel in the Defense Ministry, a Baath Party-era police officer, a merchant with ties to Hussein's government, two university professors and a municipal official who had tried to combat corruption. An American journalist was also recently killed, but the circumstances are unclear.
Musabah, whose own Islamic party, Fadhila, is believed to have growing influence inside the police force, said he has imposed new orders to try to track police vehicles involved in killings: Vehicles must bear numbers in large digits on the side, and tinted glass was banned. He tried to disband the two most notorious groups -- police intelligence and internal affairs -- although lower-ranking officers said they still operate as shadow forces at the direction of the Badr Organization, the Supreme Council's military arm.
Many residents of Basra say power remains in the hands of those with guns. They say the political parties -- the Supreme Council and the Fadhila party in particular -- realize that exerting power over the police is the surest way to secure influence and battle their rivals.
"The parties exercise their power through the security forces to impose their political views," said Jamal Khazaal, the leader of the Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party in Basra, who carries a pistol and travels with an armed escort. "The police chief can no longer control his own force. It's no longer a secret."
Ammar Muther, a 30-year-old member of Iraq's Border Police, had brought his father 110 miles south from the city of Amarah to Basra in December. A senior Baathist and a missile engineer in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, his father, Muther Abadi, had already escaped what he believed was an assassination attempt by Basra police who traveled to Amarah in two pickup trucks. Muther thought his father would be more secure with him in his home in Basra.
On a cold day that month, Muther recalled, he was downtown when his cell phone rang. It was his brother-in-law, his words urgent and clipped. "Come immediately to the house," Muther recalled him saying.
When Muther arrived, his father was gone. Six uniformed policemen in black masks had entered his house, his family told him. They put a gun to his wife's head and locked her, his mother and the children in the bedroom. The father tried to run, but police caught him. He clawed at the door as they dragged him away.
"The neighbors just watched," Muther said. "What could they do? It was the police.
"Muther searched for five hours for his abducted father in Basra's streets. As the sun began to set, he gave up and returned home. Minutes later, a friend rushed into his house, crying. He had heard that Muther's father had been killed.
That evening, the father's corpse was found in The Lot, amid rusted cans and water bottles. He had been shot five times -- twice in the chest, twice in the face and once in the temple.
"They carried out their own justice," Muther said, his eyes welling up.
A Maze of Prisons
Widespread abductions have instilled fear across northern Iraq and led families on a desperate search for relatives who disappear into a maze of prisons in Kurdistan, the semiautonomous region controlled by the two Kurdish parties. Reports of the missing stretch across an arc that spans the Syrian, Turkish and Iranian borders.
Hussein Saad Hussein, 60, said he began looking for his son Amar in December after the 33-year-old Mosul hotel worker was picked up in a joint U.S.-Iraqi raid, along with three other men, including Hussein's nephew and son-in-law. Hussein said he heard nothing for weeks until some released detainees told him that Amar had been spotted at a prison in the Kurdish-held city of Dahuk. He sent his daughter, Sukaina, to the prison, but "they denied he was there," Hussein said.
In March, the International Committee of the Red Cross, which monitors the prisons, forwarded letters from Hussein's nephew and son-in-law. The letters were dated March 15 and arrived from a detention facility not in Dahuk but in Irbil, a city dominated by the Kurdistan Democratic Party. "God knows and you know," wrote Hussein's nephew. Censors had deleted his next words.
"Note: I wrote this letter in the presence of Amar," the nephew wrote. "He is with me in the same room.
"Hussein sent Sukaina to Irbil to look for Amar. "She showed them the letters," Hussein said. "They said, 'No, we don't have those people here.'
"Weeks later, Hussein heard from released detainees that Amar and the others had been transferred to yet another prison in the resort city of Shaklawa, 20 miles northeast of Irbil. Sukeina found her brother there. "The conditions in Shaklawa are better than Irbil," Hussein said matter-of-factly. "He can extend his legs when he sleeps.
"The Kurds are holding detainees at prisons in Irbil, Sulaymaniyah, Dahuk, Akrah and Shaklawa, according to human rights activists, political leaders and released detainees.
The total number of detainees is unknown. In June, the U.S. military said it had logged 180 cases in Kirkuk alone; political leaders estimated there were more than 500. Wisam al Saadi, deputy director of the Islamic Organization for Human Rights, said 120 families from Mosul have lodged complaints seeking missing relatives in the last month. Nawazad Qadir, director of the Irbil branch of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society, said hundreds are being held in that city while still hundreds more are in the other prisons.
One former detainee, Abdul Raheem Faraj, 41, a Mosul human rights activist, said he was taken into custody Nov. 21 in a joint U.S.-Iraqi raid in downtown Mosul. Within hours, he said, the Americans told him he was innocent and planned to release him. An hour after that, he said, Kurdish militiamen blindfolded him, put him in the trunk of an Opel sedan and drove him to Dahuk. He said he spent six months, four days in custody, most of it with 15 other detainees in a windowless basement room at a facility operated by the Kurdish secret service, the Asayesh.
"My rights were violated. From whom am I supposed to get them back?" he said last week. "The Americans? The Americans are the ones who gave the Kurds the opportunity to do this."'
'They Have the Guns'
Across southern Iraq, the Supreme Council and other Islamic parties have consolidated their control in cities along the southern valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers through a mix of patronage and coercion, residents and political leaders say.
In Nasiriyah, the city council, dominated by Islamic parties brought to power in the January elections, decided to set up a new, 287-member police battalion. Each council member was allotted seven police jobs to appoint, said Muhajir, the communist leader, giving the most powerful Islamic parties the overwhelming share. "The formation of the force is to serve the parties," he said.
In southern cities, several political leaders said, other appointments to the security forces, civil defense, bureaucracy or state-owned companies require a recommendation from the party that can cost $100 to $1,000.
"The parties have become businessmen," said Khazaal, the Basra party leader.
The coercive side of the parties' power is the militias. In cities like Nasiriyah, the Supreme Council and forces loyal to the young cleric Moqtada Sadr still maintain armed forces that operate both within the police force and independently.
Sadr's Mahdi Army, seen as the most powerful force in the streets, sent what it calls a battalion of 240 men this month to search for car bombs in Suq al-Shuyukh, southeast of Nasiriyah. It manned the city's entrances, exits and intersections for 48 hours, said Ali Zaidi, the militia commander in Nasiriyah. "In every place, the Mahdi Army is there," he said.
The Supreme Council has moved aggressively to seize control of police forces in towns like Nasiriyah, Amarah and Diwaniyah, aided by the party's control of the Interior Ministry in Baghdad.
In February, 70 men belonging to its militia attacked the headquarters of the Nasiriyah police chief, Gen. Mohammed Hajami, in an effort to expel him. Dozens of machine-gun rounds and grenades carved holes in the building's facade. Although Hajami estimated that 70 percent of his men were loyal to Islamic parties and not him, he and a handful of loyalists fought them off.
Two months later, Hajami traveled to Italy for a training course. His security detail went on leave. While he was away, the Supreme Council's militia showed up again at his headquarters with four pickups and a police car, his aides recalled. The militiamen broke into Hajami's vacant office. This time, without firing a shot, the Supreme Council installed a new police chief.
"If they control the police, then they control the city. It's the only power at present," said Hajami's brother, Kadhim, a police officer. "Even if the government falls, they are going to stay because they have the guns.
"The Supreme Council's militia, formerly known as the Badr Brigades, has renamed itself the Badr Organization. Its leaders said they have turned themselves into a civilian organization, although they retain light arms. They maintain a clandestine style, incubated during two decades of exile in Iran. The militia's Basra headquarters are unmarked; its leaders refuse to give out phone numbers.
A Move to Dominate
The detentions in the Mosul area surged after the city's 7,000- man police force collapsed during an insurgent offensive in November, according to political leaders, human rights activists and families of the detainees.
Desperate to restore order, the U.S. military brought in the battle-hardened Kurdish militia, the pesh merga, under the auspices of the new Iraqi army. In addition to providing security, the militiamen have helped the Kurds take control of much of the Nineveh Plain, an arid flatland of dozens of towns and villages that includes Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, Turkmens and a little-known sect of Shiite Muslims called the Shabak.
On the sleeves of their Iraqi army uniforms, many Kurdish soldiers wear patches featuring the red, white and green national flag of Kurdistan, with its golden sun emblem. Along the highway toward Mosul, Iraqi army checkpoints openly fly the Kurdish flag.
Qaraqosh, a town of 25,000 people about 20 miles southeast of Mosul, demonstrates how the Kurds apply their expanding power in the north. Kurds, by all accounts, make up no more than 1 percent of the population. But Kurd political leaders have not concealed their intention to dominate: "Under the parliament and government of the Kurdistan region, the Assyrians, Chaldeans and Turkmens will enjoy their rights," reads a banner outside the Kurdistan Democratic Party headquarters.
Luqman Mohammed Rashid Wardak, a senior member of the party's local committee who has the Kurdish sun emblem tattooed on the back of his right hand, said he hoped Qaraqosh would be ceded to the Kurds after the area "becomes normalized." In the meantime, he said, "we are presenting our political ideas to the people." Wardak said the Kurdish Regional Government has already distributed $6,000 to poor families. "Because this area does not officially belong to the Kurdistan region," he said, the money "goes to the party and the party pays them." The party has set up a 700-man "protection force," paying the guards' $150 monthly salary.
But when largess doesn't work, the party uses force. On Dec. 5, local party officials ordered the director of a regional land office, Bahnam Habeeb, to disobey a central government order to distribute parcels of land to former Iraqi army officers and soldiers.
Habeeb, who refused to be interviewed, told the party that he could halt the distribution only if he received an order from "a higher authority" -- either the provincial government in Mosul or the central government in Baghdad.
Fifteen minutes later, five pick-up trucks filled with militiamen pulled up, according to witnesses. The fighters dragged the paunchy, 53-year-old Habeeb from his chair and beat him with their fists and rifle butts, the witnesses said. The soldiers placed him facedown in the bed of a pickup, pushed their boots into his back and legs and drove him around "to show everybody what they had done," said a witness who asked not to be identified out of fear of retribution.
"There is an absence of law," said a 40-year-old Transportation Ministry official who was detained for five days in Dahuk last month. The official said a Kurdish officer had accused him of "writing against the Kurds on the Internet."
" 'Freedom' and 'liberty' are only words in ink on a piece of paper," he said. "The law now, it's the big fish eats the small fish."
Anthony Shadid and Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Foreign Service
Fainaru reported from Qaraqosh.