Sadr's militia tightens grip on healthcare
After being sworn in last week, Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki outlined two big priorities: reasserting a government monopoly on lethal force by disbanding militias and ending rampant political corruption.Skip to next paragraph
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But a day spent at Iraq's Health Ministry shows how big a task Mr. Maliki has set for himself.
On one recent morning, six men were loading a simple wooden coffin bearing their relative onto a beat-up Toyota pickup as a female relative in a billowing black abaya choked back tears. Nearby guards barely cast a second glance at the all too common scene.
The ministry is run by the militant Shiite movement led by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, one of Maliki's key backers. Under the political spoils system that has emerged since the US invaded Iraq, the ministry has provided a jobs program for his militiamen and revenue generating opportunities for loyalists.
But with Shiite gunmen lingering at its gates, the ministry itself has also become a source of fear and frustration, especially for Sunni Arabs. Security at the ministry and at the attached morgue is controlled by the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to Mr. Sadr who have been accused by Sunni Arabs of running sectarian death squads.
Similarly, Iraq's Interior Ministry that runs the police and domestic intelligence services has been controlled for over a year by a leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and accused of operating death squads. Its forces are filled with members of the Badr Brigade, that party's militia, who have been widely implicated in torture and murder.
"The problem is primarily rooted in the way in which the militias have been incorporated into the police, but that's not the only problem," says John Pace, who was the head of the United Nation's human rights mission in Baghdad until his departure in February. "Iraq has a Ministry of Human Rights, but that's more or less just for decoration."
Since a Sadr loyalist was named health minister last year, longtime ministry employees say members of his movement have been packed into the Health Ministry's Facility Protection Service (FPS). Doctors and nurses in Baghdad hospitals complain - always asking that their names not be used - that administrative posts have gone to unqualified members of his movement.
These problems were evident, and widely reported on, before the new cabinet was announced last weekend. But Sadr kept control of the ministry.
That makes sense in the parliamentary calculus that required Maliki to build as large a coalition as possible, but would appear to make meeting his objectives of disarming militias and ending corruption that much harder. The Sadr movement also won the agriculture, transport, and education ministries. The outgoing SCIRI interior minister was given the coveted Ministry of Finance.
Those who control the Health Ministry don't try to hide where their ultimate loyalties lie. One of the first things visitors now see at the main ministry building is a 12-foot-high billboard of Sadr and his father, Ayatollah Mohammed Sadek al-Sadr, a cleric killed by Saddam Hussein's regime. There are dozens of smaller posters of the duo around the compound - most bearing the elder Sadr's famous anti-American slogans.
To be sure, the doctors and career bureaucrats at Baghdad's Health Ministry have shown dedication to preserving and improving life, working with limited resources and under threat of assassination. But the ministry itself, located as it is with the city's main morgue for murder victims, is now the site of daily rituals of grief and intimidation.
Sunni Arab political groups complain that Sunnis seeking to recover the bodies of family members from the morgue - it receives an average of 37 murder victims a day - have themselves been abducted and killed by militias working at the site. Baghdad residents interviewed claim that a bribe of $100 is required to claim a body for burial.
"My cousin was kidnapped, we couldn't meet their ransom demands, so they said pick him up at the morgue,'' says a Baghdad resident. "When we got there [the guards] demanded $1,000 and made excuse after excuse - that he was a terrorist killed by the Americans - so we had to pay more. Eventually, we negotiated down to $100."