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Officer's tale: Iraq's web of assassination

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

By Philip SmuckerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 24, 2003


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.

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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.

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.