Iraq: Does al-Maliki Have Room for Human Rights?

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The 17 bodies were found beneath a construction site in the eastern Baghdad neighborhood of Ur, just at the edge of Sadr City. The victims were blindfolded with tape across their mouths and may have been buried alive, according to Iraqi authorities who uncovered the grave in November. The corpses had lain there since at least 2007.

The grisly find was one of six recently uncovered mass graves cited in the newest U.N. human-rights report on Iraq. The five others were found in areas controlled by Sunni insurgents during the peak periods of violence in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, meaning the killers likely had no connection to the Iraqi government. But the grave in Ur was almost certainly the work of killers associated with the Shi'ite Mahdi Army militia, which was supported by elements of the Iraqi security forces. (See a multimedia presentation of emergency-room work amid the 2007 fighting.)

In early 2008, of course, the Mahdi Army would break dramatically with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, engaging government forces in open warfare. Loyalists to Mahdi Army leader Muqtada al-Sadr (who once participated in al-Maliki's government) openly despise the Prime Minister, whose soldiers came out on top in the confrontation. (See pictures of Iraq amid the 2006-07 crisis by photographer Yuri Kozyrev.)

Those very government forces are now about to be entrusted with the security of the streets of Iraq — and their role in the fate of the bodies found in Ur raises questions about how in the future they will deal with not just crime, but also political opposition and international standards of justice. Al-Maliki's record does not comfort human-rights activists.

To start, al-Maliki's original alliance with al-Sadr raises questions about the Prime Minister's scruples. Al-Maliki and the Iraqi policymakers close to him did not necessarily see a problem working with a murderous militia that held considerable sway in the Iraqi army and national police. In fact, al-Maliki, who is Shi'ite, appeared more inclined to accept Shi'ite militia support than U.S. military help.

Since then, Iraq has done little to encourage accountability for alleged human-rights abuses by Iraqi security forces working with Shi'ite militias at the height of the sectarian killings. General David Petraeus, the former top U.S. commander in Iraq, and former Baghdad Ambassador Ryan Crocker repeatedly quarreled with al-Maliki on the matter throughout 2008, pressing the Prime Minister to clear the way for the trial of at least one senior Ministry of Interior official accused of orchestrating prison abuses and murders. Al-Maliki resisted the U.S. pressure and largely seemed unconcerned about investigating a myriad of cases in which Iraqi security forces, chiefly the national police, remain accused of rape, torture and murder in conjunction with sectarian death squads.

This week, al-Maliki's administration reiterated its call for U.S. forces to adhere to a withdrawal schedule that would take U.S. troops off the streets of Iraq entirely by June, despite the suggestion from some U.S. commanders that they may be needed in restive areas such as Mosul and Diyala province. After July, U.S. forces will presumably remain in significant numbers at bases outside urban areas and continue to offer support to the Iraqi army and police for the foreseeable future. That arrangement risks leaving U.S. troops providing military support to Iraqi security forces who may or may not adhere to human-rights norms when facing a probable rise in violence in the wake of the U.S. drawdown.

Brigadier General James Milano, the most senior U.S. commander dedicated wholly to working with the Ministry of Interior, said human-rights issues remained a concern regarding the practices of Iraq's police and soldiers going forward. Milano stressed that Iraqi security forces had made improvements in the human-rights realm in recent years. Still, Milano said, U.S. and nongovernmental agencies remain watchful, particularly in Iraqi jails, where reports of human-rights abuses continue to surface, according to U.N. reports. "We participate with them in inspections of detention centers," said Milano, who acknowledged that Iraqi jails face a serious overcrowding problem. "We're looking, of course, for any kind of signs of abuse or mistreatment."