They’re not Ponch and John’s highway patrol.
A 1,500-member Iraqi police force with close ties to Shiite militia groups has emerged as a focus of investigations into suspected death squads working within the country’s Interior Ministry.
Iraq’s national highway patrol was established largely to stave off insurgent attacks on roadways. But U.S. military officials, interviewed over the last several days, say they suspect the patrol of being deeply involved in illegal detentions, torture and extrajudicial killings.
The officials said that in recent months the U.S. has withdrawn financial and advisory support from the patrol in an effort to distance the American training effort from what they perceived to be a renegade force.
Last month, Iraqi army soldiers stopped a 22-member squad of uniformed highway patrol officers at a nighttime checkpoint in northern Baghdad and discovered a man in their custody who told them the police planned to kill him. His contention was supported by confessions of officers in the squad, U.S. advisors said.
[Interior Minister Bayan Jabr], a Shiite with close ties to the Badr Brigade, a paramilitary group, has been at the center of allegations of abuse at the hands of Iraqi security forces. The minister’s notoriety rose last year as the bodies of hundreds of men — mostly Sunni Arabs — started appearing in sewage treatment plants, garbage dumps and desert ravines. Most of the bodies showed signs of torture and execution-style killings. Many families of the deceased said their kin had last been seen in the back of a police vehicle.
Over the last two years, Shiite militias within Iraq’s security forces have been accused of staging reprisals for the Sunni attacks. Leading Sunni figures have blamed the reprisals on Jabr. Sunni political parties have made his removal from office a key issue in negotiations over whether they will take part in Iraq’s Shiite-led government.
In a recent interview, Army Maj. Gen. Joseph Peterson, who is leading the multibillion-dollar effort to train and equip Iraq’s police forces, vigorously defended the minister and said he was heartened by Jabr’s pledge to investigate the abuse fully.
“Death squads — they’re a real issue,” said Peterson. “I can tell you, we caught our first death squad,” he said, referring to the unit that was apprehended last month. “The minister of Interior is elated that we caught them,” he added.
U.S. personnel who have been training Iraqi police officers said they long had suspected the highway patrol of conducting illegal raids and killings but had little oversight of the force.
U.S. police advisors said the highway patrol was almost entirely Shiite and included a core of 400 to 800 Badr militia members who make up the patrol’s 4th Company, which was created last year.
“The 4th Company is filled by people with unconventional militia ties,” said the U.S. military officer who advises the Interior Ministry. “Minister Jabr is very supportive of them. The general in charge [of the highway patrol] is very supportive of them.”
After the suspected death squad was stopped last month, U.S. police advisors said, four members of the squad confessed to several sectarian killings.
The highway patrol officers were asked, ” ‘Who are you doing this for?’ ” said a third U.S. military officer who is involved in training Iraqi troops and has knowledge of the interrogations of the suspected death squad. “And they’re telling us, ‘Jabr.’ ” The rest of the squad, said the advisor, has been released.
In November, a U.S. Army unit discovered a secret detention and torture facility run by police officers affiliated with the Badr militia. In all, 169 people had been detained at the secret prison, and photos showed that some inmates had been severely beaten and malnourished.
Jabr pledged to investigate the origin of the detention facility and the possible existence of other secret prisons, even as he downplayed the abuse that had taken place there.
“OK, there were signs of torture … but there were no killings and no beheadings, as some have said,” Jabr told reporters in November.
But inmates at the bunker compiled a list of 18 detainees who they said had been tortured to death.