Old brutality among new Iraqi forces
Allegations of rights abuses have risen over several months.
BAGHDAD — Iraqi special forces soldiers Ali Jabbar and Mohammed Ali insist they mete out justice fairly. They beat only the prisoners they know did something wrong, not the innocent ones.
In March, when a rocket attack on one of their bases missed the target but angered the soldiers, they searched the area and found two suspects.
"You want to know the truth? My arms are still tired from hitting those guys," laughs Mr. Jabbar in an interview along with Mr. Ali in Baghdad.
Throughout the war in Iraq, the brutality of the battlefield has occasionally spilled into interrogation rooms and prisons. The central figure in the Abu Ghraib prison-abuse scandal, Pfc. Lynndie England, pleaded guilty Monday to seven counts of mistreating prisoners.
But with Iraqis taking a greater role in battling the insurgency and patrolling their own streets as the new government begins work, accusations of human rights abuses are shifting away from the Americans and onto Iraqi police officers and soldiers.
The accusations of abuse range from reports of prisoner torture and death of detainees to the arbitrary arrest and abuse at the hands of inexperienced and untrained police officers.
Jabbar told the Monitor that during a raid he was on in January at a suspected insurgent hideout, three detainees died after being severely beaten by Iraqi security patrols.
The Iraqi Association to Defend Journalists is investigating several cases in which security forces allegedly beat or intimidated Iraqi journalists. And in a report issued in January, Human Rights Watch said that torture and abuse by Iraqi authorities had become "routine and commonplace."
The report detailed methods of interrogation in which prisoners were beaten with cables and pipes, shocked, or suspended from their wrists for prolonged periods of time - tactics that are more associated with Saddam Hussein's dictatorship than the democracy that is beginning to take root in that country.
While the US military has been training Iraqi police and soldiers for almost two years, critics say it has offered recruits abbreviated courses that are ill-suited for Iraq's security situation. The classes may have covered the basics, but have left many Iraqi police unprepared for the harsh conditions of their jobs.
This, combined with a nascent justice system that has an erratic record of prosecuting insurgents, has spawned a return of Hussein-era tactics among many of the country's security forces, say rights groups and analysts.
In fact, many of the old members of Saddam Hussein's security forces are filling the ranks of the new police units and security forces. And many of these hardened soldiers practiced in the brutality of his regime initially received no Western-style training, says Robert Perito, an expert on post conflict security at the US Institute of Peace.
"In the long run, with the assistance of the US military unfortunately ... [we are creating] a security force which is very much like the old Saddam security forces," says Perito. "That's not what we set out to do."
Perito says 40,000 Iraqi police officers from Mr. Hussein's regime went through a rapid, 21-day program after the war that was little more than an introduction to policing using Western standards of human rights and law-enforcement practices.
He says another 20,000 trained in Jordan took a two-month course modeled on police training program in Kosovo. In Kosovo, however, the training lasted for five months in addition to four months of field work.
"They are getting the bare bones of that effort. They are getting what amounts to an introduction to community policing," Perito says, and the program assumes the officer is going to graduate into a benign environment. "Instead, the US military has put them on the fight against the insurgents."
US officials admit to shortcomings in the training. In response, police officers are now taught survival skills tailored to Iraq's dangerous environment and the use of heavier weapons needed to combat well-armed insurgents. They have also been spending more time on lessons in human rights, and forces raised by the Iraqi government are receiving Western training, says Col. Richard Hatch, staff judge advocate for the military's Security Transition Command in Iraq.
"We recognize it and take it very seriously," says Colonel Hatch, of security forces abusing Iraqis. "What the Iraqi security forces can't do is lose the support of the Iraqi people."
He says there have been several investigations into allegations of abuse by Iraqi police and soldiers.
"What we emphasize is the need to break from the past practices of the former regime," says Hatch. "Another thing is to convince them that these tactics and procedures are less effective. By treating detainees humanely, we have seen information is more accurate than from coerced sources."
That has not been lost on one Iraqi police officer who first became an officer four years ago under Hussein's police force, which was notorious for corruption and abuse. Now, he says, he takes pride in his respect for human rights and proper handling of prisoners.
"We don't hit them because they are not animals and we are not animals," says the officer, who refused to give his name. He says he didn't have permission from the Ministry of Interior to speak to the media.
But Jabbar and Ali say instinct often takes over when they arrest someone whom they are sure is an insurgent. They also say they're concerned that if they don't exact some justice, no one will.
"It's soldiers' democracy," says Jabbar. "The reason we want to kill them is because of rumors that the Americans will release them."
Perito says such vigilante justice among security forces is common in countries with a weak justice system and prisons that allow the guilty to go free.
Police in Haiti in 1996 and 1997 shot prisoners that had been arrested and then released by corrupt prisons or judges on several occasions for fear they would seek retribution against the officers.
"It's not to be condoned but it's not unexpected," Perito says. "You need to develop police, courts, and prisons simultaneously."
But Jabbar and Ali's motivations don't stem from corruption or blood thirst. To them, beating people that they feel are guilty is avenging the deaths of fellow soldiers or ridding their country of the people trying to destroy it.
They abuse prisoners only when, Ali says, they "find evidence they are real terrorists. If there is no evidence, we respect them." He says that his superior officers don't condone the abuse. "If they kill [a prisoner] and he is unarmed, they will punish us," he says.
But Jabbar shows little remorse for the January raid on a house in Baghdad's Hurriyah neighborhood, in which, he says, three detainees were beaten so badly that they died.
When he and fellow soldiers broke down the door, they found six men inside. They had cellphones that contained pictures taken surreptitiously of soldiers, which Jabbar and the others took as signs they were marking targets.
"These guys kill our colleagues and friends and we beat them, but they didn't feel anything because they had been drinking. We didn't hit them in the head. Only on the body, and using the donkey stick but three guys died from that," says Jabbar, using the nickname they have given a long stick they often hit detainees with.
"The police investigated and [found that] they were terrorists and they were dangerous guys. They attacked police and police stations," he says.
They also point out that the rampant violence and instability of the country means many Iraqis are willing to tolerate harsh practices of their security forces if it means bringing some order.
"Medfee!" says Ali, an Arabic phrase that means "it's not worth it," of using more humane approaches with people they arrest.
"Diplomacy does not work with those guys," he says.