In at least one city. And that's far from the only echo of the old Iraq in the new one.
The New York Times, one of the few American newspapers left with full-time staff in Iraq, reported last week that 15 members of neighborhood governments in Baqouba, a city north of Baghdad, recently resigned because of fears they'd be murdered by Sunni jihadis.
The paper quoted the head of the Baqouba city council as saying the officials resigned “to save their family members’ lives because of living under threats from Al Qaeda and militants.”
They had good cause for concern. The official, Abdullah al-Hiali, told the paper that eight neighborhood representatives, known as mukhtars, have been murdered in Baqouba this year, and that half of the 100 or so mukhtars in Baqouba have resigned under growing militant pressure.
The Islamic State in Iraq, a Sunni militant group that describes itself as affiliated with Al Qaeda, has been seeking to reassert its presence in the cities it plagued during the height of Iraq's civil war. Local officials have long been targeted by insurgents in Iraq, and it's a problem that really never went away. How many have been murdered over the years? The number is almost certainly in the thousands, though it doesn't appear there's ever been a systematic effort to track assassinations of politicians and local government officials.
Shortly after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the US gave a contract worth up to $460 million to the Research Triangle Institute of North Carolina to set up neighborhood councils in a project that US officials said would build Iraqi democracy from the ground up. The results were different. Across Baghdad, the councils were devastated by murders and threats, and by early 2005, they had dissolved.
In 2004 I closely tracked two of the councils in Baghdad in what the Monitor hoped would be a series documenting progress building a new order in Iraq. At least five of the members of the councils I followed, who were generous with their time over the months, ended up dead, and many more went into hiding as Iraq's civil war raged.
Though no longer making the headlines, many of Iraq's problems remain unsolved. And it's not just coming from militants. Amnesty International complains today, in highlighting the sentencing of an elderly man for terrorism offenses, that torture remains a popular practice under the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and that Iraqi "justice" often appears to be of the same standard as under Saddam Hussein.
Amnesty International has condemned the trial in Iraq of a 70-year-old British man who has been sentenced to 15 years in prison after a hearing that lasted only 15 minutes.
Ramze Shihab Ahmed, a dual Iraqi-UK national who has lived in the UK since 2002, was sentenced by a court in Baghdad on 20 June after being found guilty of “funding terrorist groups."
Amnesty International has obtained and examined court documents and said it believes the trial proceedings were “grossly unfair.”
At his trial, the ninth in a series of trials (he had been acquitted in each of the earlier ones), Mr. Ahmed’s lawyer was not given the opportunity to challenge the prosecution’s case, or to cross-examine prosecution witnesses or call his own witnesses.
The court also failed to exclude from the proceedings Ahmed's “confession”, despite longstanding allegations that this was extracted under torture.
Amnesty says Ahmed was convicted based on secret evidence. He had returned home in November 2009 to seek the release of his son and was arrested in Mosul on Dec. 7 of that year.
"For nearly four months he was held in a secret prison near Baghdad, during which time his whereabouts were completely unknown to his family. During this period Ahmed alleges he was tortured – including with electric shocks to his genitals and suffocation by plastic bags – into making a false “confession" to terrorist offenses," the group writes.
That, like the assassinations in Baqouba, sounds familiar. Here's a piece of mine from November 2005:
The discovery of malnourished detainees, many bearing signs of torture, in an underground bunker at the Iraqi Interior Ministry came after a US Army 3rd Infantry Division soldier investigated an Iraqi family's complaints that one of its sons was being secretly held. When US troops raided the facility Sunday night, they expected to find at most 40 detainees, not 173 sickly men and boys, all Sunni Arabs. Iraqi officials have since confirmed that torture implements were also found there...
The most arresting interview was with a man who wanted only to identified as Abu Adhar. He was carried to the interview by four relatives. Injuries covered his face, back, and legs. He was abducted and thrown into the back of a car while investigating charges of abuse by the Interior Ministry for a Sunni mosque where he leads prayers. After driving through at least five Iraqi police checkpoints, they arrived at a house. He said he was tortured for two days with electric shocks and whips. "Then their commander said they were done, and to take me out and kill me."
The more things change...