BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraq's minister of interior, whose forces are accused of complicity in sectarian death squad killings, strenuously defended his agency in an interview with U.S. reporters yesterday and said he had backing of the prime minister and the parliament to remove corrupt and incompetent commanders from the streets.
But Jawad Bolani, a political independent who took over as interior minister in June after weeks of infighting over the post, also played down the problems at the ministry, seen by many as a source of sectarian tension and violence throughout the country.
He said that more than two-thirds of the victims of sectarian killings show up in areas of Baghdad under the control of the Ministry of Defense, which oversees the Iraqi army, suggesting that the intense U.S. and Iraqi focus on the alleged abuses of his forces is exaggerated.
"Baghdad is not only the Ministry of Interior," Bolani said in his Baghdad offices. "It is divided in responsibility."
Iraq's Shiite-dominated Ministry of Interior has been accused by Sunni Arab politicians of harboring or tolerating Shiite militias that have been linked to a torrent of targeted murders of Sunni Arab civilians. Dozens of corpses bearing signs of torture show up daily in the Tigris River or dumped in abandoned lots. At least 18 such bodies were discovered yesterday in Baghdad.
North of the capital, near the Tigris river town of Dhululiya, police discovered the beheaded bodies of 14 Shiite laborers who were among 17 abducted Thursday by unknown gunmen believed to be Sunni Arab insurgents. The victims were found handcuffed, and their corpses bore signs of torture.
South of the capital, insurgents killed an Iraqi SWAT team commander while he was at work yesterday, smuggling a bomb deep inside a fortified Ministry of Interior compound in an attack that also killed a deputy and injured two others, officials said.
One U.S. soldier was reported having been killed in combat near Tikrit on Thursday when a homemade bomb struck his vehicle. A U.S. press release said that two Western security contractors guarding a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers convoy were killed by a roadside bomb Wednesday.
Bolani sidestepped questions about whether he saw any militia influence in his government ministry. But he drew a distinction between militias that existed before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and others such as radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army that emerged afterward.
Under Iraqi law, those that existed before the invasion and fought former President Saddam Hussein have a right to be incorporated into security forces, while the others are outside of the law, he said.
Few sectarian gang members who have been arrested were employees of the ministry, Bolani said. Often they worked for a separate Iraqi security force that guards government buildings, or are security guards at other ministries or for politicians. Some arrested have been linked to the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, he said.
Still, the minister said, he has removed 3,000 police officers from their posts since taking office, referring 10 percent to 20 percent of the cases to court. An aide said Bolani has also issued 1,228 "administrative punishments" to ministry employees.
But Bolani also acknowledged he was powerless over security in large sections of the capital, especially mostly Sunni western Baghdad.
He pointed out that Gen. Amer Hashemi, the brother of a Sunni Arab politician who was killed by uniformed men this week in his Baghdad home, lived in a neighborhood under the control of the Ministry of Defense. Increasingly shaken by the violence, many Iraqis have demanded accountability for such bloodshed
"It is not reasonable that cars in the daylight come to the house of a well-known commander and kill him, and the government says, 'We don't know,'" Sheik Hareth Ubeidi told worshipers gathered for Friday prayers at the Shawaf Mosque in central Baghdad.
Commander Salam Trad, leader of the Scorpion police squadron, and his assistant were killed yesterday in his office in the mostly Shiite city of Hilla, U.S. and Iraqi officials said. Investigators were trying to determine the exact cause of the blast, but a Ministry of Interior official said a bomb might have been placed beneath his desk.
The attack on the southern city came as thousands of pilgrims prepare to descend on the Shiite holy city of Najaf to commemorate a religious holiday.
Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times.