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Rights group says Gov't protecting death squad members

Source: IRIN

10/30/06 "
Reuters" -- -- The Iraqi government must move quickly to prosecute all Ministry of Interior personnel responsible for "death squad" killings in Baghdad and elsewhere, the New-York based NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Saturday.

"Evidence suggests that Iraqi security forces are involved in these horrific crimes, and thus far the government has not held them accountable," said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of HRW's Middle East division. "The Iraqi government must stop giving protection to security forces responsible for abduction, torture and murder."

Sectarian violence between the majority Shi'ite Muslims and Sunni Muslims in Iraq has been steadily escalating since a revered Shi'ite shrine was bombed in the northern city of Samarra in February.

Since then, local and international sources say thousands of ordinary Iraqis have been killed and the UN's refugee agency (UNHCR) says some 365,000 people have been forced to flee their homes.

Brig. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, the Iraqi interior ministry's spokesman, said that the ministry and the Supreme Judicial Council have begun investigating all officers and employees suspected of collaborating in the ongoing sectarian violence.

"Those who committed crimes will be punished 100 percent and the ministry will not hesitate to punish anyone for any wrongdoing he did," Khalaf told IRIN.

Khalaf said that as part of the interior ministry's restructuring plan, which started in October, 3,000 policemen were fired on corruption or rights abuses charges. A total of 600 of the 3,000 personnel fired will face prosecution, according to Khalaf.

Khalaf added that the Shi'ite-dominated ministry also sacked two officers in charge of commando units that have been accused by Sunnis of running death squads that kill Sunnis.

On 15 October, Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite Muslim, pledged in a nationally televised address to crack down on militias. "The state and the militias cannot coexist. Arms can only be in the hands of the government and no one has the right to be above the law," al-Maliki said.

However, analysts say that government rhetoric is not being matched by action. "He [al-Maliki] has issued repeated statements against illegal armed groups, but he is not able to take any concerted action against these militias because of their political weight in his government," said Emad al-Janabi, a Baghdad-based political sciences professor at the University of Mosul.

"This increase in violence has put him at odds with the United States over his seeming unwillingness to crack down against the armed wings of his major political supporters," al-Janabi added.

Shi'ite militias - such as the al-Mahdi army and the Badr Brigade, the two most prominent - have links with religious members of the government, analysts say. As such, these militias are thought to have infiltrated the country's police force and are running death squads which roam Baghdad and nearby cities and towns snatching, torturing and killing Sunnis by the thousands.

In return, Sunni insurgent fighters have fought back viciously, as violence in the centre of Iraq has begun to resemble civil war.

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