Jasim is a killer. in the past six months he claims to have helped assassinate 10 former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, most of them officials in the disbanded Mukhabarat, Iraq’s ruthless intelligence service. A construction worker who declines to give his full name for fear of retribution, Jasim, 31, has scores to settle. In 1999, after he participated in the murder of three Baathist officials, the mukhabarat threw him into prison, where he says he was whipped and beaten and tortured with electric shocks to his penis.
Released in a general amnesty Saddam granted just before the war, Jasim believes that his uncle sold him out to the authorities and intends to kill him too. “If my finger were a Baathist,” he says, “I would cut it off.”
Jasim says he belongs to a cell with five other Shi’ite Iraqis dedicated to executing in cold blood all former officials who tortured or murdered for the regime. He and the cell’s intelligence chief, Aws, 25, an Arabic teacher who also does not wish to be fully identified, agreed to meet TIME in a Baghdad restaurant to explain how they select their victims. They claim that each of their targets was a murderer for the old regime and that they require witnesses and documents as proof of guilt before they deliver the reckoning.
“These men are killers,” says Aws. “And since there is no government, we will judge them.” The U.S. plan to reduce its forces in Iraq and turn over sovereignty to a new Iraqi government next July, they say, has made their brand of vigilantism all the more urgent. Says Aws: “If America pulls out, we’re going to make sure the killers are not around to continue their old ways.”
Until recently, U.S. authorities pointed to the absence of widespread civil conflict in Iraq—in particular, the general reluctance of Iraqi Shi’ites to retaliate against security officials who tormented them under Saddam’s mostly Sunni government—as a harbinger of long-term stability. But seven months after the fall of Baghdad, a wave of revenge killings is sweeping Iraq.
An investigation by TIME found that at least a dozen former intelligence officials have been killed in shootings in Baghdad since Oct. 1; several others have been wounded. In Basra, some 25 to 30 Baath Party members have been shot at point-blank range since mid-October. A U.S. intelligence official in Iraq says many of his colleagues are wary of revealing the true scale of the violence, in part because they have little ability to stop it and in part because they don’t want to be put in the position of protecting unsavory characters. “The body count on these killings,” the official says, “is a lot higher than anyone wants to admit.”
With U.S. troops tied up fighting insurgents, the task of containing the killings has fallen to Iraqi police, who complain that they are undermanned and outgunned. Some Iraqis warn that the cycle may escalate as U.S. forces pull back from Iraqi cities. “The Americans cannot leave suddenly,” says a former official in the mukhabarat. “It will be everyone against everyone.”
Why is vengeance being exacted only now? “After the regime fell, people concentrated on surviving,” says Naji Chachan, an attendant at a Baghdad morgue. “They needed time to hunt these people down.” Aws notes that when the U.S. conquered Iraq, many Baathists fled the cities for rural areas or foreign countries. Now many are returning to Baghdad, he says, in some cases having run out of money. In the city, it is easier to find them.
Aws says he stakes out prospective targets for a week before ordering a hit. “Most rarely leave their house,” says Aws. “But after a few days, they may come to the gate to talk to friends or neighbors.” Jasim says former regime officials tend to gather in groups, either to try to reorganize or simply because few have anything else to do. “You find a lot of Baathists in the same place at the same time,” he says. “It’s getting easier to kill them.”
Jasim says his group has compiled a hit list of “hundreds” of individuals from documents looted from mukhabarat buildings after the regime fell and from former security officials who have fingered their colleagues. The vigilante cell was born of the teachings of Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, a popular Shi’ite cleric who, before he was executed by the regime in 1999, according to Aws and Jasim, issued a fatwa ordering that Saddam’s murderous henchmen be killed. Al-Sadr’s son Muqtada, an outspoken young Shi’ite cleric, has incited violence against U.S. forces in Iraq. Former regime officials believe some of the revenge killings are being committed by members of the Badr Brigade, an armed militia loyal to Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, another Shi’ite cleric, who died in the August bombing of the sacred shrine of Ali in Najaf.
Kasim al-Falahi, a former Iraqi ambassador to Lebanon who headed the mukhabarat in southern Iraq from 1996 to ’98, was a typical victim. Last month, on a morning when the power was out, he was sitting with his cousin Shahab Ahmed Hamid, catching a cool breeze on the front porch of the office of their Baghdad transportation company. Three men appeared in an old government truck. According to Hamid, the men initially said they wanted to discuss a business deal in Basra. But they soon pulled out pistols, hustled al-Falahi into a waiting black BMW and drove off. Two days later, police recovered the body of al-Falahi, with a single bullet through his forehead, from a roadside gutter in northern Baghdad.
The victims, it turns out, are not always the worst of Saddam’s brutes. According to former intelligence officers, some of those who have been slain by vigilantes were low-level bureaucrats. Most of the two dozen or so Baathists killed recently in Basra were teachers. Some teachers had senior positions in the old regime, but many others had joined the Baath Party just to further their careers. An abandoned lot near the Education Ministry’s building in Basra has become a dumping ground for bodies that sometimes show up with letters identifying them as Baath Party members.
At age 61, Assam al-Douri might reasonably have expected to live out his days in placid anonymity in al-Amiriya, in southwest Baghdad. He left his job as an accountant in the mukhabarat 15 years ago. He even canceled his membership in the Baath Party. Late last month al-Douri visited the house of Qassem al-Hantawi, a former mukhabarat brigadier, to sip tea and watch the traffic with his friend and three other former mukhabarat colleagues. Shortly before 8 p.m., two vehicles pulled up in front of the house. Six men brandishing 9-mm pistols outfitted with silencers jumped out of the cars and opened fire, riddling al-Douri and the others with bullets before speeding off. Only al-Hantawi survived, in critical condition. “They were just old guys sitting around,” says al-Douri’s son Omar, 21. “If my father could be a target, then no one in Iraq is safe.”
Another former mukhabarat official in Baghdad, who calls himself Said, says he lives in constant fear. The portly, balding father of four says he avoids the Shi’ite slum in Baghdad known as Sadr City and the working-class neighborhood of Batawin. He fingered dissidents for arrest in those neighborhoods in the 1990s, sending at least five to their executions. “They were people who wrote graffiti against the government or who disfigured the paintings of Saddam,” he says. “Those were the laws in Iraq: they must be killed.” Now, he says, “when I walk on the street I try to watch carefully. People might recognize me. I’m afraid they might kill me.”
Some potential victims plan to strike back. According to a man who was a senior intelligence officer in the former regime, some mukhabarat officials are forming their own armed cells to try to terminate their pursuers before the pursuers can find them. “There will be a reaction—that is our nature,” says the officer, who claims to have received a recent death threat. “There are thousands of people who were involved in the former regime. If these groups plan to assassinate all of them, then we are headed for a civil war.” Iraqi police profess helplessness in the face of the revenge spree.
“There are so many groups that could be doing it,” says Mohammed Hassan Farhan, a police officer in Basra. “We simply don’t know where to start.” Police officials say that even if they could identify the killers, they lack the resources to apprehend and punish them. Meanwhile, the police are under attack, presumably from Baathist insurgents. Last Saturday car bombs at police stations in two towns northeast of Baghdad killed at least 16 people. Increasingly, Iraqis on all sides complain that no reliable authority exists to protect them. “People say, ‘There’s no government.’ And so they take revenge into their own hands,” says Emad Hatem Aliasary, chief of al-Ghazalia police station in southern Baghdad.
U.S. officials say they are working to establish a court system that can prosecute the worst offenders from Saddam’s regime. According to the plan, the tribunals will first try the 45 key Baathist leaders in custody, then move on to rank-and-file regime loyalists accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. But it could take years for such courts to bring former Baathist officials to justice. At a recent conference, Iraqi human-rights groups lashed out at a director of the reconciliation effort in Cambodia, where the process of trying members of Pol Pot’s regime has taken decades and still hasn’t begun in earnest. “How can we be expected to wait 23 years like you?” demanded Ibrahim Idrissi, president of Iraq’s Freed Prisoners Association. “We want to get some justice here, and we wish this process would start tomorrow.”
For many Iraqis, the law will never provide the brand of swift justice they crave. And each revenge murder plants the seeds for another. Sitting in the family living room in al-Amiriya, Omar and Mohammed al-Douri show visitors photographs of their late father, recalling how, after retiring from the mukhabarat, he painted the rooms of the house and always ensured that the refrigerator was fully stocked. “He was the tent for our family,” says Omar.
Asked whether they hope to find his killers, the sons nod purposefully. “The blood of our father is on our necks,” says Mohammed, 19. “We will avenge him with our own hands.” The hard truth is that in Iraq today, almost nothing can stop them from trying.