In Iraq, It’s Hard to Trust Anyone in Uniform
By DAMIEN CAVE
Published: August 3, 2006
BAGHDAD, Iraq, Aug. 2 — The camouflaged Iraqi commandos who kidnapped 20
people from a pair of central Baghdad offices this week used Interior
Ministry vehicles and left little trace of their true identities.
Were they legitimate officers? Members of a Shiite or Sunni death squad? Or
criminals in counterfeit uniforms bought at the market?
Majid Hamid, 41, a Sunni human rights worker whose brother was kidnapped and
killed by men in uniform four months ago, said he doubted that the answer
would ever be known. Now, he said, the authorities normally trusted to
investigate may be responsible for the crime.
“Whenever I see uniforms now, I figure they must be militias,” Mr. Hamid
said in a recent interview. “I immediately try to avoid them. If I have my
gun, I know I need to be ready to use it.”
Such is the attitude of Iraqis in this capital shellshocked and made fearful
by violence that seems to be committed almost daily by men dressed as those
who are supposed to protect and serve. The audacious kidnapping on Monday
was just the latest case of men using the signals of law and safety — a
uniform, a vehicle with blue lights, a patch on the sleeve — to attack and
Everywhere Iraqis in uniform go, from ice cream shops to checkpoints, people
now flee. The mottled mix of green, blue and khaki camouflage, along with
the blue shirts of the local police, have all blurred into a flag for alarm.
“En eles,” Iraqis in Baghdad now say when a friend has been taken; in
traditional Arabic it means chewed up, but in the streets it has come to
mean taken by mysterious men without explanation.
American and Iraqi officials have been promising for weeks to address the
problem. This week, the interior minister, Jawad Bolani, acknowledged that
rogues were among his ranks. He told Parliament that new uniforms and
identification cards would soon be supplied to hobble those “who carry out
bad activities under the cover of this institution.”
The first 2,000 of 25,000 new uniforms are scheduled to be handed out later
this month, officials said. Made with imported camouflage cloth and
intricate patches and insignias, they are designed to be difficult to copy.
Their source, as well as other details about them, is being kept secret in
part to reduce the risk of counterfeiting. But only a small percentage of
the 145,000 Interior Ministry officers — from the national police, public
order brigades and other forces — will get them.
Even if they all had new uniforms, trust would be hard to resuscitate in
Baghdad, where dozens of people are killed or found dead every day. With
more forces being added to the streets as part of a security plan begun two
months ago, the permutations of officialdom have spiraled.
On a recent afternoon at the Interior Ministry’s headquarters in Baghdad,
three white pickup trucks with generic police lights drove by carrying men
in a half-dozen versions of official dress. A handful of Toyota sport
utility vehicles carrying men in various uniforms also passed.
“I bet even the Interior Ministry can’t tell who is in the trucks and who
belongs to which brigade,” said Mr. Hamid, who has been working with the
American military to find his brother’s killers.
Under Saddam Hussein, it was simpler. Into the early 1990’s, both the
national police and the Iraqi Army wore olive fatigues; a silver star on the
cap and shoulder denoted the police; a golden eagle meant the army.
According to several Baghdad tailors, two markets in the capital had
licenses to sell the uniforms and no one dared copy them. Later, though,
privately made uniforms began to appear when sanctions kept the government
from providing all forces with the official ones.
The American invasion in 2003 and the rush to fill Iraqi security forces
opened the door to a flood of private production, some of it legitimate,
some of it not. Ali Muhammad, 22, a tailor in the poor Shiite district of
Sadr City, said that six months after the invasion, requests for camouflage
uniforms began pouring in. At first, he refused. But the money was good —
nearly twice what he could earn sewing suits — and with sectarian violence
scaring away other customers, he said he needed it.
About a year ago, he began buying material at a wholesale market and making
uniforms for 50,000 Iraqi dinars, about $33. He emphasized that the 20 to 30
outfits he had sold went only to trusted customers. But he said he still
feared the consequences.
“If I discovered that someone used my uniform for all of this,” he said. He
waved his hand to refer to the violence. “If this happened, it would be like
Asked how long he thought it would take for tailors to copy the ministry’s
new uniforms, he said, “A day.”
Brig. Adnan Abdul-Rahman, chief spokesman for the Interior Ministry, has
higher hopes. He said the ministry expected to foil the counterfeiters for
six months. He declined to say what color the uniforms would be or where
they would be imported from.
He said there would also be an advertising campaign to inform people about
the new uniforms, new identification cards for officers and fresh
hard-to-copy paint jobs for some of the ministry’s white pickup trucks,
though he would not provide figures or a timeline for the proposals.
Mr. Bolani, the interior minister, also promised to root out officers
accused of corruption and torture and to deliver results this month.
Sunnis, in particular, now out of power, question whether the ministry is
serious. Omar al-Jabouri, who runs the human rights office for the Islamic
Party, said the Shiite-led government would never end corruption and
killings by officers or impersonators until it broke with Shiite militias.
Like many Sunnis, he contends that these militias now make up the backbone
of the Interior Ministry. The new uniforms, ID cards and other plans, he
said, “are a false certificate of reform — it’s a way to claim they are
For more than a year, he has been collecting stories of atrocities committed
by uniformed Iraqis. In a recent interview, he produced a book of case
studies with color photographs showing gruesome evidence of torture and
killings by men in uniform: a sheik with a power drill driven into his
temple; 14 laborers abducted from a checkpoint in Baghdad and killed; dozens
of men beaten, burned with acid and shot.
“Nowadays, there are a lot of neighborhoods that won’t allow commandos into
their neighborhoods without American escorts,” he said.
Sheik Akrim al-Dulaimi, a Sunni imam at the Holy Mecca mosque in Dawra, one
of Baghdad’s most violent areas, said many of his Sunni neighbors had been
taken from their homes in the middle of the night.
“They come after the curfew wearing camouflage uniforms with Interior
Ministry commando insignias,” he said. “But when we go the next day to the
government or to the headquarters of the brigade, they deny it.’’
The need to decide whether to trust or flee has become an ingrained element
of life for many Iraqis.
Bashar Hassan, 41, a Sunni merchant in Baghdad, said that after men in
police cars took him away last summer, he became aware that it was a
kidnapping only when they demanded $30,000 in ransom. His family paid.
“They came into my shop and told me I was supporting the insurgents, then
they took me away in police cars,” he said. He said he doubted that he would
ever trust Iraqis in uniform again. He said he hoped that the additional
American soldiers being sent to secure the capital “would help us honestly
this time, and not let us kill each other while they stand by and watch.”
In the meantime, he and other Iraqis said they moved through life with
constant dread. If the police enter a shop, customers quickly leave. Drivers
reroute around checkpoints. To report a crime, if they are brave enough to
do so, many Iraqis are turning to American commanders or neighborhood
militias that are sprouting up despite recent prohibitions from the Ministry
Even Brigadier Abdul-Rahman, the Interior Ministry spokesman, admits that
when he sees men in uniform in Baghdad, he makes sure to keep his distance.
“I just know,” he said, “that they are authorized to shoot.”