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-Qaida 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-Qaida. Why don’t we do the same to them? This is self-defense.”
Almost three months after Prime Minister Nouri 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 Fallujah. 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.
Ramadi and Fallujah first erupted in protest in December 2012. Iraq’s Sunni minority has long accused the security forces of torture and other abuses; Sunnis were also frustrated about joblessness and the jailing of thousands of Sunni men and women on terrorism charges. The movement spread across the Sunni region to the west, north and east of Baghdad.
The insurgent group ISILlaunched a blistering campaign of suicide and car bombings that made last year Iraq’s deadliest since 2008. By late December last year, the government had begun fighting back, targeting Ramadi and Fallujah, which quickly became war zones.
But rank-and-file Iraqi soldiers struggle to defend ground that the elite counterterrorism forces have seized. One day the Golden Division, the most prominent of Iraq’s Special Forces, takes land and hands it to the army. The next, Sunni rebels push them back. Fallujah, meantime, is surrounded by Iraqi troops but held by Sunni groups.
In the absence of territorial gains, the conflict is becoming more vicious by the day.
A special forces soldier on a break in Baghdad this month showed images on Facebook that are popular with the Iraqi military. The photos showed what he said were dead ISIL fighters in Ramadi. One was splattered in blood. Slogans boasted that the Iraqi forces had “trampled on ISIL’s sniper rats.”
Just back from the front, the soldier used his smartphone to pull up another Facebook picture of a soldier standing over a corpse. The dead man’s body was splayed out in black jeans, his arms stretched above his head in the dirt. A slogan read: “The Golden Division keep trampling them.”
“Whoever we capture now as a terrorist we kill him on the spot except for someone we want to investigate,” the soldier said matter-of-factly. “I’ve watched dozens executed.”
The soldier flicked to a picture of a friend shot dead in Ramadi, dressed in his green Iraqi uniform, and fell silent. He said he saw 62 dead soldiers carried back to Baghdad one week; 40 the next.
He pulled up another picture on Facebook. This one showed an ISIL fighter’s face mutilated by a bullet hole.
The slang term the soldiers use for executions is “Article Five terrorism,” the soldier said and the Facebook pages show. It’s a play on Article Four Terrorism, a clause in the actual legal code that allows the security forces to arrest people on a blanket terrorism charge. “Article Four is to arrest and Article Five is killing,” said the soldier, grinning at the apparent logic.
Iraqi Army soldiers know about ISIL’s videos of executions and of dead Iraqi soldiers, he said. He described his peers as tired and wanting to fight back. “Whoever ISIL captures, they execute him, so we are doing the same,” he said
Commanders do not want to know, he added. Nobody asks questions.
“We believe it is correct because they (the militants) are ‘kuffars’ (infidels),” he said, explaining the views of his brothers-in-arms. “It is the right thing to do. All of the military is doing it.”
The soldier said he does not care if this causes scandal. “Let people be angry,” he said. “We are defending Iraq.”
The militants are just as brutal. In one video posted online by ISIL followers and then circulated by enraged soldiers and progovernment activists, a militant cocks his pistol over a line of soldiers kneeling on the floor. The soldiers are then executed. The screen goes black.
Now some Iraqi troops have adopted the same tactics.
An officer in an Iraqi Army unit assigned to Ramadi since February said he first suspected the killings were happening within weeks of his arrival. He had been sitting at a lunch with officers from the army and the Golden Division, who have borne the brunt of casualties. “They were saying, ‘We are suffering huge losses. We want to terrorize the terrorists. We want to smash and break their morale.’ “
Soon after, the officer said, he witnessed his first execution: Two young men, blindfolded and hands tied, were brutally kicked and then shot by rank-and-file Golden Division members.
“I asked the soldier, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ The soldier said, ‘Sir, if they catch us they will cut us to pieces and throw our flesh to the dogs. At least we are not doing the same thing. We are only giving them bullets.’ “