Officer's tale: Iraq's web of assassination

Human rights groups say Iraq's regime killed up to 300,000 Shiites.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

As a former police spy and witness to state-sanctioned murder, Safaa Abu Sakkar sympathizes deeply with his fellow officers who tried to avoid orders to carry out assassinations.

He knows that they refused only at risk to their own lives.

Mr. Abu Sakkar is a tall, handsome, 30-something Arab, who usually sports a three-day-old beard and agreed to be quoted using his secret police code name only. He says that Commander Hazal al-Nasire, the chief of the secret police's special "151" division, knew how to test the mettle of his officers. Mr. Nasire delegated Saddam Hussein's orders to kill political and religious opponents of the regime. He promoted successful assassins and ordered investigations into the motives of those who dared refuse him.

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As late as the second week in March, according to secret and signed documents uncovered by the Monitor in a two-story stucco home in Baghdad, Nasire was still giving his orders to kill Hussein's opponents. On the cover of one white folder is scribbled, "Names of officers who did not agree to execute people in the street." Many of the other documents in the same house had already been deliberately destroyed in a recent fire, but these pristine papers remained hidden out back in a garage.

Nasire writes inside the white folder, "We have tested many of the workers by giving them security duties. Some of them hesitated to complete the task and the others apologized for doing it."

A campaign against countrymen

Abu Sakkar breaks down in tears at night just thinking about the murder of his fellow Shiites, which he sometimes assisted and sometimes tried - in his own way - to prevent. Rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, estimate that 200,000 to 300,000 Shiites were assassinated in the past two decades by Mr. Hussein's government, which used a network of militias, secret police, and military security forces to create a pervasive police state in Iraq.

In order for the world to better understand the crimes committed by the regime that he was working for until two weeks ago, the young officer helped the Monitor uncover the assassinations file this week and offered to interpret some of the nuances of Hussein's killing machine.

In Saddam City's 921 Police Precinct, one Shiite officer, Abdul Razak Hamid Jusef Salman al-Daraji, according to a report in the file, was "ordered to assassinate some agents. He refused to do this. He said that he had not done anything like this before, and he said he had been affected by the killing of Ayatollah al-Sadr."

The report refers to Feb. 19, 1999, when Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr and his two sons were gunned down as they left a mosque in the Shiite city of Najaf after the evening prayers.

Mr. Sadr was, according to members of the Iraqi secret police interviewed this week, one of hundreds of Shiite leaders killed in recent years in a campaign of systematic terror carried out across the country. Sadr is now renowned by many Iraqi Shiites as a martyr.

American forces are actively hunting - with some success - for some 50 senior leaders of Hussein's regime, but the task of reining in and arresting former government assassins is a task that has been left to an Iraqi population that lacks even the skeleton of a functioning police force.

And while Pierre-Richard Prosper, the State Department's ambassador for war crimes, pointed out recently that "numerous abuses, both past and present," are being catalogued, it is widely expected that Iraq will attempt - on its own - to try these persons for murder and other crimes against humanity.

Continued civil unrest and the absence of a functional interim government make this a challenging task. A national postwar justice system to prosecute Iraqis charged with crimes against humanity has yet to be created, either by Iraqis or American forces.

Praise for foul deeds

Other officers described in the "top secret" files discovered in the stucco home give reasons of bad health or the excuse that they are compassionate fathers and don't want to dirty their hands in assassinations. But some, the ones who didn't refuse, received praise in the file for their courage and bravery.

Abu Sakkar, who began work in Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated security apparatus as a computer specialist eight years ago before becoming a secret police spy, helped a reporter interpret the coded language of the files.

In some cases, names were marked "93," a number Abu Sakkar says meant that a person had been killed after an interrogation.

As he talks of the killings now, Abu Sakkar's trembling finger runs down to the name of one of several notorious state assassins - Salim Mohammed Jabber al-Hamouri - who is praised by his superiors in the same file, found among hundreds.

For his willingness to comply with orders, the murderous Mr. Hamouri was given a presidential medal, the file notes.

Only weeks ago, before undergoing secret training himself as a potential assassin of US and British troops, Abu Sakkar was making his regular rounds in Saddam City, a poor Shiite stronghold in Baghdad, listening to the sermons of senior imams and ayatollahs to make sure they praised the "great leader," Saddam Hussein.

"This was my job for the last four years in 'Section 5,' " he says now. "If they did not praise Saddam, the religious leaders were treated as political opponents."

"When the imams defied Saddam, they would be kidnapped along with their families - often on Friday night after prayers," he says. "My direct boss was Saad al-Ethawi, a Sunni, who absolutely detested Shiites."

When Shiites, both leaders and young religious students, were taken into custody, they were often transported to jail houses like the one Abu Sakkar visited with The Monitor Tuesday to retrieve files.

Even as unarmed Iraqi police officers objected and tried to stop him he pushed ahead and dug for files then passed them to the reporter to tuck away and remove from the premises.

"The method of the investigations was usually to hang someone upside down and beat them, hammering hard on their bones," he says, pointing to a hook on the ceiling that he claims prisoners were hanged from. "Some people would be left here for days upside down and would just die of fatigue and thirst."

"I visited mosques in order to report back to my boss on what was being said. I took notes, but I would do my best to try not to tell the entire story about what was going on in these Shiite neighborhoods."

In 2000, Abu Sakkar was caught underreporting and sent for two months to "Tourist Island" on the Tigris river, south of Baghdad, in order to receive a crude brand of re-education.

"Three of my fellow Shiites were shot in front of me," he says, adding that he saw his treatment on the island as a way for the government to try to "toughen me up." When Abu Sakkar returned to his work with the police campaign to put down Shiite opponents and rebels, he bore witness to even more savagery.

The 'hand of Allah'

"One day I walked into the station and the room of the interrogation office was wide open," he says. "I saw Captain Abbas, one of our men, beating a man on the floor. I recognized him as a Shiite religious student. He beat the man on the head and I noticed and pointed out to the captain that the student was already dead. He just said that he wanted to punish him more and that he was wielding the 'hand of Allah.' "

Later, he was also present when secret police executed two other students from Mustafa High School in front of their families.

One of Abu Sakkar's Shiite co-workers was ordered to kill a top imam in Saddam City in the year 2000.

"He killed the imam, Abdul Zahra al-Kabi, and his rank in our department was raised. He was rewarded with three new cars. I think he did this because he was a weak man with very little self-respect. He just wanted a higher position."

Abu Sakkar, who managed for four years to avoid the call up for assassin duty, finally went through a training course late last year to kill British and American soldiers.

He was actually given a supervisory role in a training course for foreign Arab fighters who came to Baghdad to fight US and British forces.

"We were trained to ambush and kill American forces in Baghdad," he says. "The government wanted unmarried people like myself, and we were chosen by Abbas al-Dulami, the police chief. They told us not to talk about the course with anyone. When the war started, we were taken to the camps with these Arab fighters, but they had been told not to talk to us. Some of them were being trained for operations outside Iraq."

The young officer, curious as to whom he had been sent to work with, asked a more senior Iraqi intelligence officer present at the time, who the strangers were. He was told that they were members of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization, he says, though his report could not be confirmed.

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