Rule of the death squads

Iraq one year on - The shooting isn't just between occupying forces and guerrillas. The Iraqi Govern

On the morning of his death, 19 January 2004, Professor Abdullatif Ali al-Mayah left his house as he always did at 8am. Placing his Samsonite briefcase on the back seat, he took the wheel of his metallic-blue 4x4, a Hyundai Galloper II. Another professor, Sarhan Abbas, who lived in the same compound of university-owned bungalows, took the passenger seat.

Al-Mayah drove down the main road, past shops and an empty plot of rubbish-strewn land. Just before a side road leading to a motorway, the road swings to the left and he slowed down. As people do in Baghdad, he continued driving against the oncoming traffic. Staff at El Banouk (The Bank), an outdoor shish kebab restaurant, were just getting ready to open.

About a hundred metres farther on, al-Mayah was forced by a large pothole to slow again, and his attackers sprung their trap. Mohamed, who works in the restaurant, told me later: "I heard all the shots and looked out on to the road. I thought it was looters who wanted to steal his car."

Al-Mayah, 54, was a prominent human rights campaigner and an opponent of the American and British occupation of Iraq. Just 12 hours earlier, on al-Jazeera TV, he had denounced the corruption of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) and demanded universal elections as soon as possible. "I can endure any Iraqi government," he said, "but the feeling of being under occupation is terrible for me."

His friend Abbas recalled how he died. "Suddenly, a group of seven or eight men with their faces concealed appeared from a side road. Thinking they were carjackers, he was ready to hand them the keys. Then the attackers shot al-Mayah more than 20 times." Like other university staff, al-Mayah had been issued with a revolver for his protection, but he had little idea what to do with it. As a senior director, he was also given a bodyguard, who was in the car that morning. But Mohamed Sahib, 25, said he was waiting for an American licence to carry a gun and could do little to protect his boss.

Sahib remembered how the attackers, all in red keffiyehs (headscarves), with only their dark eyes visible through slits, approached from two sides. "They shouted for the car to stop . . . I remember one person fired directly at al-Mayah inside the car and I think another group also fired from the other side. He was shot three times in his head just as he was opening the car door to get out. He fell dead on to the ground."

There are many such deaths in Baghdad every day: al-Mayah, director of the Baghdad Centre for Human Rights, was the fourth Mustansiriya University professor to be slain. His murder has never been properly investigated by detectives; it was left to amateurs such as myself to interview witnesses and sift through the dirt to find the shell casings of his assassins' bullets.

Al-Mayah was not a victim of the struggle between "occupying forces" and the "resistance". He was crushed as a liberal force that stood between those positions. Not everyone gets this point. A New York Times article about the same murder implied that anti-US forces were responsible. It quoted the coalition's military spokesman, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, saying: "By silencing urban professionals, the guerrillas are waging war on Iraq's fledgling institutions and on progress itself. This works against everything we're trying to do here." But typically, even for a "liberal" American paper, the Times underplayed al-Mayah's determined opposition to US occupation. It seems unlikely he was a target for the "resistance", even though he supported calls for the elections that many Sunni guerrillas fear.

So who was responsible for his murder? A senior commander at the headquarters of the new American-installed Iraqi police told me: "Dr Abdullatif was becoming more and more popular because he spoke for people on the street here. He made some politicians quite jealous." But, he said, al-Mayah's killing was just like the seven other political assassinations carried out in the previous four weeks in the same small district. All remained unsolved. Then the leather-clad commander, tightly gripping his new Motorola police radio, looked at me sternly and demanded that his name never be printed.

He had a strong suspicion about who was behind most of these killings, he said. "You can look no further than the Governing Council. There are political parties in this city who are systematically killing people. They are politicians that are backed by the Americans and who arrived to Iraq from exile with a list of their enemies. I've seen these lists. They are killing people one by one."

Born in Basra, al-Mayah had spent most of his life as a poorly paid academic, teaching the politics of the Arab region. He became director of the university's Arab Homeland Studies Centre. "He had no money at all," said one of his brothers. "He had no house that he owned. In his martyrdom, he leaves behind just a pen and his writing." Al-Mayah had once been a member of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party, though at a very junior level. According to Dr Talal Nathan al-Zuhary, director of the university library, al-Mayah quit the party in 1991 after seeing the reality of Saddam's regime. He was jailed in 1996 when he called for elections. He managed to escape the secret police because one of his former students was an interrogator.

"He believed in the original Ba'ath ideal of Arab unity," said al-Zuhary, "but he saw how hypocritical the regimes were, and so he wanted no connection to the party any more. After the recent American invasion, he was against both occupation and against dictatorship. He used to tell me that one day he would be bumped off by the Mossad or the CIA, although I never took that very seriously. More recently, he was more worried about the looters who came after the regime fell and stole so much. He was always telling me to watch out for my safety."

Others in Baghdad confirmed the police commander's story. In what might be called "death by Google", the names of some quite moderate figures, only tenuously connected with the old regime, appear on internet lists as Saddam supporters. Preventing the purges of such people is not a priority for US and British forces. As one British officer told me: "There is a kind of de-Ba'athification going on, a violent one, but it will come to its own natural conclusion."

Al-Mayah's brother said the professor had received many e-mails advising him to be less outspoken in his criticism of the IGC. At least one came from an IGC member. "He never told me the name of this man, only that he was a dual national, someone who had come back from exile after the Americans invaded. He told me the man never actually threatened him. It was a sort of warning that it would be safer if he left the country. He was determined not to be swayed."

The list of murder suspects is long. Some of the exiles who have returned from London, Washington or Tehran are armed to the teeth. Among the abandoned villas of former Mukhabarat (intelligence service) generals, which are now occupied by the "new" politicians, I've met some who clear heaps of revolvers from their breakfast tables as though they were used coffee mugs.

Many are quite shameless in their threats. Last December, in a sermon in the southern city of Najaf, Sadr al-Din al-Kobanchi, a senior Shia cleric and member of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which holds power on the IGC, was categoric: "The Ba'ath Party is against God and the Prophet." He told former regime loyalists: "Leave your jobs at the ministries and institutions and companies - or all the workers will kill you by their own hands."

The militias that kill so professionally in Baghdad also flourish in southern Iraq in areas, mainly Shia, which US and British troops regard as safer. Under the noses of the occupying forces, the militias enforce their own kind of law and order. In Basra, they helped to re-establish order when the Ba'athists fled. Now, with a strong influence over the new, British-trained police forces, they continue to eliminate not only political opponents but also those, such as alcohol sellers, who violate what they regard as Islamic law.

Wahed, whose 25-year-old brother, Mohamed, a junior Ba'athist, has disappeared into the hands of the political militias, said the new world of Iraq is a confusing and unjust one. "In the old days, you knew who was running this country. I would have gone to the Ba'ath Party to argue for the release of my brother. Now there are so many different forces, parties and police forces at work; they are all armed and powerful, and how should I know which of them has kidnapped my brother?"