Thursday, January 22, 2015

Dead Bodies Dumped In Iraq’s Capital Did Not Turn Out As Feared

When the insurgency took off in Iraq in 2014 there were fears that militias would respond like they did during the previous civil war from 2005-2008 with extra judicial killings. During last year there was a huge jump in the number of bodies found in Baghdad in the summer. That trailed off afterward however, but at a slightly higher level than the first half of the year. Some feared that these incidents would mark a new level of rising violence in the country, but they have not played out that way.

In order to analyze this phenomenon something first has to be said about the numbers. Reports of dead bodies being found in Baghdad occur almost every day. There is no way to tell whether these are common crimes or acts of insurgents or militias. When articles say that they found a body handcuffed and shot however that’s likely the work of some armed group. Next, the press only covers a small percentage of these occurrences. Many more bodies are dumped off in the Baghdad morgue for instance, which rarely get into the news. The media then only provides a small sampling then of the total number of bodies dumped in the capital, but it is the only consistent recording of these events. Finally the location of where the dead are found can be an indicator of the perpetrators. For example many bodies are discovered in Sadr City and the neighboring areas, which is a militia stronghold. At the same time, where bodies are dumped are often not where the crimes take place, and could be messages to a certain community. Needless to say some guess work is involved in who the perpetrators are.
Bodies Dumped In Baghdad 2014

During the first half of 2014 there was a steady rate of bodies turning up in Baghdad. Starting in January there were 31, followed by 35 in February, 26 in March, 27 in April, and 38 in May. That averaged out to 31.4 per month. In January, corpses were found in 15 neighborhoods the overwhelming majority of which were Shiite such as Sadr City, Kadhimiya, and New Baghdad pointing to militias. In one case on January 29 three bodies of Sahwa were found in Arab Jabour in the Dora district, which was likely the work of insurgents. February, March and May were much the same. April was the exception as roughly half the areas bodies were dumped in were Sunni, like Abu Ghraib and Arab Jabour, and the other half were Shiite such as Shula. Militants have been active in Abu Ghraib for quite some time so they could have behind that attack. Many of the murders point to militias as they were found in Shiite areas and the bodies were often handcuffed. For instance, on March 3 a man was found handcuffed and shot in the head in Ghazaliya in western Baghdad. May 5, three bodies were discovered buried, handcuffed, blindfolded and shot several times in the head in Shula to the northwest. The first five months of 2014 pointed to militia activity. It was nowhere near the numbers seen during the height of the civil war in Baghdad, but it definitely looked like Shiite armed groups were killing people in retaliation for the insurgency.

From June to August there was a huge increase in these types of incidents. In June 52 bodies showed up in 22 neighborhoods. More than half of those were Shiite neighborhoods especially in east Baghdad like Zafaraniya, Shaab, and New Baghdad. Then the next month things exploded. 104 bodies turned up that month, usually with multiple cases in one day. July 16, 12 bodies were found, and the next day there were another 16. July 26 17 were discovered, followed by 9 July 27, and 13 July 28. So many bodies were dumped the press couldn’t report on all of their locations. By August things calmed down a bit with 53 bodies, but that was still above levels seen at the start of the year. These three months correlated with the insurgent’s summer offensive. June was when Mosul and Tikrit fell, and many believed that Baghdad would be next. By August things had stabilized, and the Iraqi Security Forces and militias were rallying. The fears from June however probably account for the big jump in extrajudicial killings in the capital.

For the remaining four months of 2014 there were fewer bodies dumped, but at a higher level than the start of the year. In September there were 34 bodies, 43 in October, 46 in November, and 42 in December. That averaged out to 41.2 versus 31.4 from January to May. Again, in all those months the majority of these occurrences were in Shiite neighborhoods.

Besides the locations of where these bodies were found there was other evidence that militias were active in Baghdad. At the end of 2013 Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki began using militias such as Asaib Ahl Al-Haq (AAH) as an ad hoc defense force. In September for example, an AAH official was quoted as saying that it was working with the ISF and had access to government badges and weapons. By October there were reports that AAH was carrying out retaliatory attacks in the capital after terrorist bombings. In March 2014, Maliki put together AAH, Badr Organization, and Kataib Hezbollah into a new security forces for Baghdad because he was unhappy with the performance of the ISF. Militias also have a history of extra judicial killings dating back to the previous civil war as they cleansed most of Baghdad of Sunnis after the 2006 bombing of the Askari shrine in Samarra, Salahaddin. All together that is plenty to suggest that Shiite armed groups were responsible for most of these acts.

Baghdad has an unfortunate history of people being killed and their bodies dumped for years. Some argued that these acts would take off as a result of the return of the insurgency. That didn’t appear to happen to the extent feared however. In 2014 there was a decided jump in these incidents, but it was not a steady increase. Instead, the number of bodies discovered peaked during the summer and went back down afterward. While there were a few cases that appeared to be the act of insurgents due to the victims and where they happened, the vast majority looked like the work of militias. The belief that Baghdad would break out in open fighting after the fall of Mosul in June set off a blaze of killings in the capital, but as the fighting across the rest of the country settled into a rough stalemate the militant threat receded and so did the murders. These attacks are still raising sectarian tensions in the country, but they are nowhere as bad as predicted.


Alsumaria, "Found 12 unidentified bodies in different parts of Baghdad," 7/16/14
- "Found 17 unidentified bodies in different parts of Baghdad," 7/26/14

Associated Press, "Iraq: Grim Discoveries in Baghdad," 7/28/14

Buratha News, "Found four unidentified bodies in different parts of Baghdad," 7/17/14

Iraq Times, "Police found 28 unidentified bodies in different parts of Baghdad," 7/28/14
- "With the return of militias in Baghdad..Police found 16 unidentified bodies," 7/17/14

Al Mada, "Finding the bodies of three elements of the awakening dumped and shot south of Baghdad," 1/29/14
- "Found five bodies of unidentified men killed by firing squad in Baghdad," 7/28/14

Al Masalah, "Found 9 unidentified bodies in different parts of Baghdad," 7/27/14

NINA, "Police find three unidentified bodies west of Baghdad," 5/4/14
- "Three bodies found in Baghdad," 3/2/14

Reuters, "15 found dead in Baghdad first day of Eid," 7/28/14

Al-Salhy, Suadad and Westall, Sylvia, “Insight: Iraqis hesitate on the edge of chaos,” Reuters, 9/19/13


AndrewSshi said...

Could Badr et al. have learned from their mistakes of 2006-7?

Joel Wing said...

Iraqi history is seemingly repeating itself and today seems much like the 2004-2005 period. 2005 was when Badr took over the Interior Ministry and started kidnapping people, torturing them, running secret prisons, etc. It appears to be doing much the same now while carrying out selected sectarian cleansing in certain areas that it has cleared such as in Salahaddin and Diyala. Rather than learning it appears to be using the same tactics from before that it think worked.

AndrewSshi said...

So what's the reason for fewer bodies? More ethno-sectarian homogeneity in Baghdad and environs means lots of the work has already been done? Or is this something that'll get worse once Badr and company start to ramp up?

Joel Wing said...

Seems like as the threat to Baghdad receded and pro-government forces rallied and went on the offensive the number of bodies dumped in capital went down.