The raid was at a building in central Baghdad. Men armed with automatic rifles burst in and made their way to a set of underground cells where they found 175 people huddled together. They had been captured by paramilitaries and tortured. The terrified, mainly Sunni, captives had been held in an office of the Iraqi interior ministry, and the rescue party were Iraqi police and American soldiers.
Yesterday, 24 hours later, the Prime Minister, Ibrahim Jaafari, promised an investigation after the shocking demonstration of how paramilitary units working for the government, and death squads allegedly linked to it, are waging a savage war in the shadows.
People are arrested and disappear for months. Bodies appear every week of men, and sometimes women, executed with their hands tied behind their backs. Some have been grotesquely mutilated with knives and electric drills before their deaths.
The paramilitaries are not held responsible for all the deaths – some are the work of insurgents murdering supposed informers or government officials, or killing for purely sectarian motives.
You very seldom see American soldiers on the streets of Baghdad now. The Iraqi police are in evidence outside, but so are increasing numbers of militias running their own checkpoints – men in balaclavas or wrap-around sunglasses and headbands, with leather mittens and an array of weapons. An American official acknowledged: “It is getting more and more like Mogadishu every day.”
Travelling through the Iraqi capital you meet Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi army; fellow Shias from the Badr Brigade; the Kurdish peshmerga; as well as Western and Iraqi security guards. Then there are Iraqi soldiers and policemen, government paramilitaries, special police commandos and a group which prides itself on being the most feared, the Wolf Brigade of the interior ministry.
Many of the allegations from Sunni leaders of abuse are against the 2,000-strong Wolf Brigade, which was formed in October 2004 after training with US forces and first saw action during the widespread disturbances in Mosul last year.
The raid on the interior ministry bunker took place after Iraqi police called in US help when their search for a missing 15-year-old boy took them to the ministry dungeons at Jadriyah, one of many unofficial prisons throughout the country.
Brigadier General Karl Horst of the US 3rd Infantry Division, who was involved in the operation, said the prisoners were “in need of medical care”.
The Iraqi police were more forthcoming. “These men were in a very bad way. They have obviously been tortured, some had been there a long time and they were very frightened,” said an officer calling himself Yasin. He would not give any other name: “I don’t want to end up in one of these rooms myself.”
Although the US forces had ridden to the rescue on this occasion, many of these units have been created, trained and armed by the Americans. According to reports, $3bn (£1.7bn) out of an $87bn Iraq appropriation that Congress approved last year was earmarked for the creation of paramilitary units to fight the insurgency. Vincent Cannistraro, the CIA’s former head of counter-terrorism, said: “They set up little teams of [Navy] Seals and special forces with teams of Iraqis, working with people who were in senior intelligence under the Saddam regime.”
Iraqi politicians in the new regime have repeatedly accused the CIA of refusing to hand over control of the recreated Iraqi intelligence service to the Iraqi government, and the paramilitaries are run by Adnan Thabit, allegedly a former CIA “asset”.