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Living in fear of Baghdad's dirty squad

Shadowy anti-terrorism force is state answer to rising sectarian violence. But many fear its extra-judicial tactics.
Last modified: 11 Nov 2013 20:30
Iraqis hang out in the square in Adhamiya [Imran Khan]

Night draws in over Adhamiya neighbourhood in the northeast of Baghdad, and the central square comes alive. Groups of young men gather in the cafes and smoke "nargeela" water pipes and play dominoes. Others kick around tiny footballs and wear the replica shirts of their favourite teams.

Just across from the square is the Abu Hanifa mosque. Its imposing, illuminated facade casts a warm glow over those relaxing outside.

Adhamiya has been spared the worst of the violence that has plagued the city, and many people here feel safe enough enough to take advantage of the cool night air to hang out with friends.

But not everyone can do so. Inside the mosque is a man who is afraid to be seen in public. I meet him in a back room to hear his story of the night of October 3.

Firas tells me he was asleep at home.

"Suddenly I heard a huge crash and men shouting. It was 2am. I was with my wife and children in our room. Suddenly soldiers appeared from nowhere. They punched and kicked me and my wife. My children sat in the corner screaming in panic. They hit me with sticks.

"I was pulled out from the house in my underwear, thrown into a pickup truck and driven to a prison in Baghdad airport. With me was a cripple, a 70-year-old man. None us knew why we had been taken."

Three days of hell

Firas says he was tortured at the prison. He says his captors beat him regularly and denied him food and water.

"After three days of hell they took me to a different place, blindfolded me and accused me of belonging to a terrorist organisation. They accused me of being al-Qaeda".

Firas says he was picked up because he is a Sunni, living in a majority Shia Iraq where Sunni groups such as al-Qeada wreak havoc in its streets.

He was first detained by American forces in 2006 during the worst of the sectarian violence and imprisoned for two years without charge. After his release he was picked up again and held for eight  months by Sunni Iraqi militia forces raised to combat Al Qeada. Again he says he was released without charge.

"I'm a young Sunni man. That, it seems, is enough to arrest me."

After the  Americans withdrew, they handed all records to the Iraqi government. Firas says the government uses those records to harass and detain at will.

He adds that there is a special government unit that arrests people and uses interrogation methods beyond those of the army and police. He, like many in Baghdad, calls this shadowy force the "dirty squad".

He says he was held by the "dirty squad" for a month after his detention on October 3, and then released without charge. I ask him if he has any paperwork documenting his time in detention. He answers with one word: "No."

The "dirty squad" does have an official name, the Counterterrorism Special Force, which answers directly to the prime minister's office.

Official response

Al Jazeera contacted the unit about Firas' imprisonment, and speaking off the record, a source at  the Counterterrorism Special Force told Al Jazeera that they act in accordance with the law and will not comment on individual cases.

He denied that they used any methods which contravened any sections of Iraqi law. Detainees are held only for four days before they are handed to the Ministry of Justice, he said.

There is no paperwork to verify Firas' story but I spoke to others at the mosque who confirmed his ordeal.

Erin Evers, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, says that there are others who have had similar experiences.

"The counterterrorist force has a reputation of operating outside of the law and many times we heard of cases where there's no paperwork, where people are held and let go without there ever being a paper trail," Evers said.

Sectarian violence is on the rise once again in Baghdad, and dealing with it is a top priority for the government.

But at what cost to civil liberty?

Firas says he is finished with Iraq.

"I cannot live like this. I am leaving this country. I wonder: when I go to sleep will I stay the night in my own bed, or will I be dragged once again into the night?"

* Firas' name has been changed to protect his identity.

* Follow Imran Khan on Twitter @ajimran