BAGHDAD: The video shows a male corpse lying in the dirt, one end of a rope tied around his legs, the other fastened to the back of an armored Humvee.
Men in Iraqi military uniforms mingle by the vehicle. Someone warns there might be a bomb on the body. One hands another his Smartphone. Then he stands over the body, smiles, and offers a thumbs-up as his comrade takes a photo. The Humvee starts to move, dragging the dead man behind it into the desert.
The short video was shown to Reuters last week by an Iraqi national police officer. It captures what appear to be Iraqi soldiers desecrating the corpse of a fighter from the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), a group reconstituted from an earlier incarnation of al Qaeda in Iraq.
“This is very normal,” said the Baghdad-based police officer, who has many friends now fighting around the Sunni city of Ramadi. “Our guys get killed at the hands of al Qaeda. Why don’t we do the same to them? This is self-defense.”
Almost three months after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki declared war on Sunni militants in Iraq’s western Anbar province, the fighting seems to have descended into a series of brutal atrocities, often caught on video and in photographs by both militants and Iraqi soldiers.
Iraqi soldiers say they are bogged down in a slow, vicious fight with ISIL and other Sunni factions in the city of Ramadi and around Falluja. They describe a hellish world in which Iraqi forces are running low on tank shells, lack aerial cover, are short of armored vehicles, and have been hit by high casualties and desertion rates. More than 380,000 people have fled their homes to escape the fighting, according to the United Nations.
Sunni militants regularly post videos and photos of executions and torture of government troops. Now, according to the police officer, an army officer, a general and an Iraqi Special Forces member, some Iraqi troops have begun replying in kind, carrying out extra-judicial executions, torture and humiliations of their enemy and posting images of the results online.
The images and disturbing accounts from Anbar are testament to the sectarian fervor sweeping Iraq. The security forces, who are mostly Shiite, and the Sunni militants often see themselves as players in a larger regional and sectarian battle. The brutalities are in turn deepening those divisions and risk turning Iraq’s Sunni region into a permanent battlefield. Already the fighting is bleeding into the civil war in neighboring Syria.
A senior general in Baghdad acknowledged that soldiers working for Iraqi counter-terrorism units, or Special Forces, had carried out extra-judicial killings but called them isolated cases. He blamed the killings on a lack of training for new soldiers rushed out to replace wounded and slain colleagues.
“It is a field reaction, no more, no less,” said the general. Like most of the Iraqi officials who spoke to Reuters for this story, he declined to be identified. “Usually, this happens when there is a military confrontation. The soldiers are finishing off the wounded militants, shooting them many times to express their anger.”
He said the last case he knew of occurred just over two weeks ago in Khalidiya, a town near Ramadi, where Special Forces killed several ISIL members.
A spokesman for the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service strongly denied the accounts of executions.
“Allegations of executing unarmed terrorists are baseless and false. I think the victory our forces achieved has annoyed those who are issuing such accusations and forging videos in a way that smears our forces’ reputation,” said spokesman Sabah al-Noumani. “We are holding our soldiers accountable if they violated the simplest rules of engagement. We will not accept any violations.”
The interior ministry, which has police stationed in Ramadi, told Reuters it took the allegations seriously. “If some mistakes happened, or human rights standards were violated during one of the battles, keep in mind it is not systemic,” said spokesman Sa’ad Ma’an. “If it happened, whoever committed it will be investigated, held accountable and sent to a military court.”
The U.S. government has rushed nearly 100 Hellfire missiles, M4 rifles, ammunition and surveillance drones to the Iraqi military since the start of fighting in January. The Obama administration has also started training Iraqi Special Forces in Jordan. Before the U.S. military withdrawal in late 2011, the military trained, equipped and conducted operations with Iraqi Special Forces.
Told about the alleged executions, a U.S. embassy official said: “Such allegations should be investigated by the (government). If confirmed, those responsible should be held accountable.”
Reuters could not independently verify the images posted on the Internet, some of which were made available by Iraqi security personnel; others are to be found on public social media websites popular with the army, Special Forces and police.