BAGHDAD — 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.
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."
This man says a separate group of friends - Sunni Arabs - were all rounded up at the morgue when they went to collect a relative, hooded and taken to an interrogation center where they were tortured and questioned for a day. Fortunately for them, he says, another family member had a good contact close to Sadr, who arranged for their release.
The creation of the FPS in late 2003 by the US, as it sought to protect Iraqi infrastructure and government facilities from insurgent attacks, appears to have provided a back-door for militia infiltration into even those ministries - such as Health - without any obvious security duties.
In early May, outgoing Interior Minister Bayan Jabr Solagh said commandoes under his control had been unfairly accused of running death squads, and said most of the blame lies with the FPS. His party, SCIRI, and the Sadr movement are heated rivals.
Mr. Solagh's ministry pointed to a joint US-Iraqi raid that freed seven of 10 men abducted from Khan Bani Saad, a Sunni town north of Baghdad, and found that some of the abductors were Shiites with Ministry of Health FPS badges.
A senior Sadr official, Sheikh Abbas al-Zubaydi, confirms the incident, but says its meaning was distorted. "There was a fight in that town between the terrorists and the innocent residents. Our people went to help, and captured some of the criminals,'' he says. "They were there doing their duty - I wish I could have been there myself."
Today at the Health Ministry, the protection of its security services seems to extend far beyond checking visitors for weapons or suicide vests.
What until late 2005 used to be a routine reporting visit to the morgue - the best way to figure out the level of violent death in Baghdad - has now become a minefield of frustration and implied threat.
After a person picks up a permission letter from the bureaucrat at the ministry public affairs office, he presents it to the morgue director's secretary. But now, she immediately directs the person to go to the compound's security office. "The director is in, but you have to talk to Major Kassem first." Why? "You just have to."
Going back outside, Major Kassem is tracked down inside a small air-conditioned trailer. He has a broad smile, and no uniform or badge.
Asked what his role is he explains: "I work for the Interior Ministry, but I've been assigned here to help coordinate the FPS."
He then explains that there's no need to speak to ministry officials, that he will provide all available information. He gives the monthly murder totals from the beginning of the year, though UN officials and Sunni Arab politicians say the ministry has taken to under-reporting the numbers, under pressure from Shiite militias.
Asked if a visit to the morgue proper is possible, Kassem says he would advised against it. "Who knows, if you go there someone might shoot you in the back."
The whole compound can be a dangerous place, he says. He asked if his visitors had seen the middle-aged Iraqi sitting on a chair when they had arrived. "Well, he's a dangerous terrorist and we just arrested him."
The man was neither cuffed nor had weapons trained on him. Kassem explains that he had come to claim the body of a relative killed in Dora, a violent Sunni neighborhood, and that was how he was caught.
"His brother was killed attacking the police yesterday in Dora, and when he came looking for the body, we caught him," he says.
Asked how he knows the man is guilty, he answers: "Oh, we know these things."
Omar al-Jiburi, the head of the human rights office at the Iraqi Islamic Party, a major Sunni Arab political group, alleges violence by Shiite militias at the morgue and Baghdad hospitals has become commonplace. He claims that 275 Sunni Arabs have been killed or kidnapped at health facilities since the beginning of the year.
"You might say it's Mahdi Army. But the ministries themselves have militias embedded inside them now. They have badges and official salaries. So I'm not sure what you should call them."