Ministers of Death

They call him the "Shiite Zarqawi," in testament to his brutality and growing political reach. And when Iraqi gunmen captured a U.S. Army translator, Ahmed Qusai al-Taie, as he left the fortified Green Zone two weeks ago, U.S. officials immediately suspected the notorious death-squad leader named Abu Deraa. American ground troops and warplanes hit the Shiite slums of Sadr City in a bid to retrieve the translator and nab his alleged captor. Two of the warlord's sons were reputedly killed in the raids, but he himself escaped. By late last week, he was back on his neighborhood streets, surrounded by armed guards and contemptuously handing out sheets of white paper, challenging residents to write down any complaints against him.

So ended another inconclusive chapter in America's effort to gain control of Baghdad's bloody streets. U.S. commanders are determined to track down men like Abu Deraa and capture or kill them. But the hurdles seem to grow ever larger. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki also says he wants to see Deraa and others brought to justice. Yet within hours of last week's operation, he roundly and unexpectedly condemned the raids and, a few days later, effectively nixed further efforts by ordering U.S. troops to dismantle checkpoints surrounding Sadr City, Abu Deraa's stronghold. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad explains that the Iraqi government does not oppose its efforts to track down al-Taie's kidnappers. But the prime minister wants the search to be focused. "If you have information of where Abu Deraa is," he says Maliki told him, "go ahead. You don't need to come back to me for approval."

Clearly, however, there's growing discord between the prime minister and his U.S. backers. For starters, the two sides disagree about how best to dismantle the death squads. Maliki relies on the thousands of supporters of the largest Shia militia groups--Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, and the Badr Brigades associated with SCIRI, the biggest Shia party in Parliament--for his political survival. He thus hopes to rein in the worst killers either by co-opting them or by engaging in what amounts to a proxy war by pitting the larger militias against their offshoots. (The Mahdi Army was once Abu Deraa's patron.)

Agree or disagree, U.S. officials have little choice but to go along, for Maliki is clearly eager to demonstrate that he is not under their thumb. "We have a dwindling influence," says a senior U.S. official, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic. "That prevents us from doing things that we might want to do, like going after Abu Deraa more aggressively."

The question is whether the death squads, numbering in the several dozens in Baghdad alone, can be tamed, let alone crushed. Abu Deraa epitomizes the problem. Deraa, meaning "shield," is a nom de guerre; the warlord's first name is Ismael and his last the subject of some dispute. What's known is that he started out as a foot soldier in the Mahdi Army and is the son of a fishmonger from one of the poorest slums of Sadr City. After last February's bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra, an important site for Shiite worshipers, he reportedly split from Sadr and embarked on a killing spree of his own. His gang is known to torture their victims with electric drills and dump their bodies in the craters left from the Sunni suicide bombers who plague Shiite neighborhoods. When al-Sadr joined the government last January, Abu Deraa reportedly called him a "coward" and cut ties.

Since then, he has become one of the most brutal Shia terrorists in Iraq. U.S authorities suspect his death squad of hundreds, if not thousands, of civilian killings, bombings and "disappearances" in Baghdad and surrounding towns. (His other sobriquet is the "Butcher of Rusafa," a reference to the largely Shiite section of Baghdad east of the Tigris River.) Bodies bearing drill holes and other scars routinely crop up in places like Sadaa, a levee on the eastern edge of the city where locals believe Deraa dumps his victims. Under pressure from Maliki and the Americans, al-Sadr recently provided the prime minister with a list of 20 or so fighters he had "banned" because of their violent excesses. Deraa's name was on it.

Sadistic as he may be, though, Deraa has no shortage of supporters. "What Abu Deraa does is just a reaction" to similarly gruesome killings by Sunni gangs, says Abu Ali, 46, a Shiite policeman who has met the death-squad leader. Ali also alleges that certain Iraqi "police intelligence" units in Baghdad occasionally hand detainees over to Deraa for "torture and killing." Another resident of Sadr City, Abu Hussam, a grocery-store owner with eight children, no longer believes the government can protect his family. To his mind, Deraa is a "brave" defender of Iraqi Shiites. "If Sunnis are killing us every day, what do you expect us to do?" he asks. "Wait for U.S protection? We must protect ourselves by ourselves."

Ultimately, Deraa is only one part of a much bigger issue. The Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigades number in the tens of thousands, and are armed wings of powerful political blocs that dominate Iraq's Parliament. A host of lesser-known groups are associated with smaller political parties and factions. In southern Iraq, especially, these militias too are fighting one another for control of land and oil resources. Lately, Sunni militias have begun appearing as well, often in response to attacks by Shiites. Deraa and others like him are only the most violent subset of this problem--roving bands of killers who operate outside even the loose rules of the militias.

Maliki's dilemma is that he is caught between the Americans, who want a reduction in the violence, and militias he can't control. He lacks the strength to go after big groups like the Mahdi Army or Badr without endangering himself. Instead, he hopes to convince them that they, too, have a vested interest in greater stability, and that the likes of Abu Deraa must be put down. "Maliki believes this is the best way to do it. If it works, it would be quite good," says Khalilzad. But it's a huge gamble.

The strategy is further complicated by the fact that al-Sadr himself may be playing a double game, fomenting partisan chaos and bloodshed (possibly in cahoots with death-squad leaders like Deraa) even as he professes a nonsectarian agenda. Sadr's political ambitions have given him 30 seats in Parliament. He controls four ministries, along with the thousands of armed and angry men at his disposal. The Americans are watching closely to see how committed he is to reining in Iraq's killers. "This guy has been a violent militia leader for more than three years now," says the U.S official. "It's going to take more than statements to convince me that he's not still got one foot in the violence." Privately, Western officials in Baghdad fear that al-Sadr's larger aim may be to sit tight until the Americans leave before unseating Maliki in a bloody coup and placing himself at the top. Amid such chaos, the antics of Abu Deraa, how-ever bloody, are something of a side-show. Meanwhile, the American translator remains a captive.