Iraq Death Squads Get Better at Hiding Handiwork

Jabber Sowadi's job says something about the depths to which Iraq has sunk. He's a mutahid al juthath—a "body contractor." A 38-year-old Shiite who sports a thin beard and a checkered black-and-white kaffiyeh, Sowadi charges clients $300 to $500 to track down missing relatives, or more often their corpses. For the past two years he's been nurturing contacts in prisons, hospitals, morgues and cemeteries. He doles out bribes for tidbits of information or favors. He even volunteers to bury unidentified bodies at the morgue, carefully noting what they look like and where they were found—details that may help him with cases later. He says business is slower now that security has tentatively begun to return to Baghdad. But the job has also gotten tougher: death squads, he says, have taken to hiding their victims' corpses rather than dumping them openly in the street. "The kidnapping and killing of people … is in a more secret way than before," he says.

There's no question that violence across Iraq has declined: in December 2006, approximately 3,000 Iraqi civilians were killed across the country; this November about 600 were. But the problem—and the reason no one from U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus on down is declaring victory yet—is that those statistics do not tell the whole story. Body hunters like Sowadi, Baghdad residents and local gunmen all say that militias are making more of an effort to disguise their grisly handiwork—burying bodies in shallow graves, dumping them in city sewers. Robert Lamburne, director of forensic services at the British Embassy, has spoken to dozens of Iraqi policemen and examined bodies—relatively fresh—from one of several graves uncovered recently. His judgment: "There's less killing, but there's more concealment."

In the past two months, more than half a dozen mass graves have been found in Iraq, at least half of them in Baghdad. At one site discovered in late November, in a yard in Baghdad's Saydiya neighborhood, bodies and their severed heads were buried in two separate holes, according to a source at the Ministry of Interior who isn't authorized to speak on the record. An additional 16 bodies were found buried in a ditch north of Baghdad last Thursday. Dumping bodies is nothing new in Iraq: Saddam Hussein filled mass graves with tens of thousands of Iraqis. But in the heat of the civil war, militias boldly advertised their slaughter. Bodies—headless, burned, slashed open and perforated with drill holes—were left in plain sight as a message to others. Now, with most Baghdad neighborhoods dominated by one sect or the other, the death squads can afford to be more subtle in their killing. "Many militia groups just make people disappear," says Hicham Hassan, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The strategy also reflects some positive developments in Baghdad. With many more U.S. and Iraqi troops out on the streets, killers cannot be as brazen as before. Saber Dulaimi, a stocky 27-year-old—who declined to give his real name for security reasons—belongs to one of the local Sunni militias that have signed up to work with the Americans in west Baghdad. One month ago, a handful of his comrades roared up to his checkpoint in a green Daewoo sedan and white Toyota pickup. In the back of the sedan two men—from a Shiite militia—were tied up. In the back of the pickup were two bodies. "We were expecting an American patrol at any time," says Dulaimi. His commander ordered the men to hide the bodies, fast. They threw the corpses in a narrow, dry ditch on the outskirts of their neighborhood, and covered them lightly with dirt and leaves. A month has passed and none of the militiamen has heard about the bodies again.

Most of the recent graves have been found in places where security has improved. In provinces like Anbar and Diyala, U.S. troops have discovered graves as they've pushed into territory once controlled by Al Qaeda in Iraq. In Baghdad, locals returning to their old neighborhoods have pinpointed sites by the smell of rotting bodies. "Militias may change their tactics and put in plans to counter our plans," says Muhammad Askari, spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, when asked about fighters' hiding bodies. "But they can't match our capabilities." Certainly, there's no way to quantify exactly how widespread a trend this may be.

But that's the problem with Baghdad's new calm, too—no one is sure how real it is. No Iraqi ministry keeps overall track of missing people. Aid workers say that Iraqi civilians often turn to their neighbors or local organizations, or body hunters like Sowadi, before asking the police for help. Sowadi, for one, says he must now range farther afield, to Karbala and Najaf, to find good info. One recent tip-off led him to two shallow graves in Shola, a Baghdad neighborhood controlled by the Mahdi Army. A policeman friend helped him dig up the bodies, but they weren't the two young men he was looking for. "Now it's become very hard to collect information," says Sowadi. "Some of my friends have abandoned this job." If only they had quit because they were no longer needed.