SALMAN PAK, Iraq — When Shiite forces took over this Sunni town, they spread out and clamped down. Checkpoints sprung up. People suspected of being insurgents were driven out. A Shiite took over as mayor.
They restored stability, but at a cost: in the fall, an American soldier entered a room and found two Sunni prisoners hanging upside down during questioning. Another prisoner was shot dead during an interrogation. His Iraqi captors claimed that he had been trying to escape.
"There were welts on their bodies, bruises and abrasions on the bottoms of their feet," said Lt. Col. Richard Kucksdorf, the commander of a team of Americans advising the Iraqi forces here. "There were bruises you don't get by resisting arrest."
The worst of the abuses stopped only after the small team of American advisers, the only American presence in the town, intervened. The Shiite general in charge was eventually removed.
The drama in Salman Pak, a largely Sunni town with Shiite suburbs that is 12 miles southeast of Baghdad, provides an early glimpse into the dilemma faced by American authorities across Iraq as they prepare to scale back their military commitment.
The American military has begun withdrawing from ever-larger portions of the Iraqi heartland as part of a strategy to let Iraqis police Iraq. Iraqi forces now control swaths of territory in at least 13 cities, including the heavily Sunni cities of Baquba and Falluja. But the overwhelming majority of Iraq's soldiers and special police forces are Shiites, partly because Americans disbanded Iraq's Sunni-led army and the Shiite-led government built up its own paramilitary forces.
Now the very Shiites who have often been targets of the Sunni-backed insurgency are being deployed to wipe it out. They are using tough tactics and restoring some order. But they are also provoking enduring bitterness among Iraq's Sunnis, which risks fueling the insurgency.
"Our town is safer for certain people," said Abu Ali, a Sunni who owns a cosmetics shop in Salman Pak. "Only the Sunnis are afraid. I swear by God they are afraid."
American planners say they have recognized the danger of the heavy-handed tactics and are considering placing more Americans with Iraqi police and commando units, in part to curtail abuse.
Yet the methods seem to have made some areas safer. In Baghdad, where largely Shiite Iraqi army and police forces have exclusive control over about 60 percent of the city, suicide bombings with many fatalities have declined markedly in recent months. The once-dangerous road to the airport is now quiet.
In 2004, when an uprising against Americans exploded throughout the Sunni Triangle, Sunni guerrillas routinely set up checkpoints and executed Shiite civilians traveling south, near Salman Pak. But now, Shiite forces control the main roads, and American soldiers can walk freely into the central market.
Iraqi special police forces first occupied Salman Pak last April. Violence had paralyzed the town. Before the elections in January 2005, conditions were so bad that officials did not erect any polling stations. A group of Shiite women were found shot to death with notes warning Shiites not to have children.
"People were afraid to walk to work," Saad Hamid, a 29-year old barber, who left the city and his small shop during the worst of the violence last winter.
Then, last spring reports began to circulate of more than 50 corpses, believed to be those of kidnapped Shiites, piled in the Tigris River just outside town. Shiite political parties fumed. They were just weeks away from formally assuming power in a new government.
One of Iraq's most powerful Shiite leaders, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, became enraged when several of his supporters turned up dead in an early, unsuccessful attempt to take control of Salman Pak, said Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser. The experience seemed to have stiffened Shiite resolve to control the town.
"I have never seen him angry like this in my life," Mr. Rubaie said.
The Karrar Brigade, one of the paramilitary commando units designed to combat insurgents in urban areas, moved into town, setting 17 checkpoints, closing roads, and occupying buildings, including four schools. They swept the Sunni areas for guns and people suspected of being insurgents, finding caches of weapons and taking young men away.
"They attacked heavily," said Qasim Dawood, the minister of national security at the time. "They cleaned the city. They established a base."
Shiites of Salman Pak soon noticed the difference. For the first time in months, they said, the town felt safe. Mr. Hamid returned to his shop.
"It's much better now," said a Shiite who owns a photography shop here. "We could not walk outside before. Now we can walk around in the streets."
Detention and Death
But the town's Sunni majority tells a different story. In interviews, Sunni residents said the police force acted indiscriminately, detaining and arresting young men without evidence, often on the basis of their Sunni-sounding last names.
A member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, Iraq's largest Sunni political group, said it had determined that 2,775 Sunnis had been detained since the Karrar Brigade entered last April. Most have been freed, but about 400 are still being held, he said.
In a report released Feb. 1, the party counted 15 people killed by Ministry of Interior Forces in Salman Pak and its suburbs since May 2005. An Interior Ministry spokesman declined to comment.
"I'm Dulaimy so that means I am guilty at any checkpoint," said Hawazin Hamid al-Dulaimy, 19, who said 14 members of his extended family were in custody.
Local Sunnis said Shiites also began expelling many Sunni families from their homes, pushing them out of neighborhoods where Shiites predominated. In the Wihida district, just outside Salman Pak, 26 Sunni families were forced to leave their homes, said a Sunni man who contended he had left his house and fled the town in fear for his life.
The allegations, while difficult to verify, appeared to match expulsions of Sunnis from some Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad.
"We brought complaints to political parties and to the press," said the Islamic Party member, who identified himself by the nickname, Abu Hashem, out of fear for his safety. He said local Sunni leaders complained, but were arrested, too.
"We didn't have anyone to send after that," he said.
Shiites Assert Power
The Shiites, though a minority in Salman Pak, began to assert their political dominance. In the summer, Shiite leaders chose one of their own to run the city council in a vote that caught Sunni leaders unprepared. The man who had been running the council, a Sunni, fled to Syria, several Sunnis who knew him said.
In his first official act, the new Shiite mayor, Fadhil Breh, moved the government outside Salman Pak itself, prompting complaints from Sunnis that they no longer had a voice in their own government.
"We were very surprised that he suddenly became mayor," said Ibrahim al-Dali, one of the Sunni sheiks.
It was not the first time that a commando unit has been used to further Shiite political goals. Matthew Sherman, a former American adviser to the Iraqi Interior Ministry, said the Shiite-dominated government has used commandos to conduct raids against enemies of the Badr Organization, the armed militia of a powerful Shiite party, called Sciri. Such raids have taken place in Baghdad, Mosul, Samarra and Baquba, he said.
"The commandos have become much more politicized," said Mr. Sherman, who left his job in December. "Some of them are doing operations that are not necessarily counterinsurgency, but that are for the benefit of Sciri and other Islamic parties."
Concerns about the growing sectarian bent of the Interior Ministry began last year, when the Shiite-dominated government came to power. Since then, under the leadership of Bayan Jabr, thousands of Shiite gunmen from militias such as the Badr Organization have been given jobs in the commandos and the police, American and Iraqi officials said. The commandos, one of three branches of military police, nearly doubled, to more than 11,000, many of whom are suspected of being tied to Badr and other Shiite Islamic militias, from 6,000 under the previous government, Mr. Sherman said.
The 2,000 special police who moved into Salman Pak, the Third Public Order Brigade, were typical of the forces that began to emerge after the Shiites came to power.
They had received several weeks of training from the American military, and had relied on American firepower to back their invasion, but they were not directly controlled by the Americans, unlike the Iraqi Army, which the military has built from scratch.
"They can wander around and do what they want," Colonel Kucksdorf said of Ministry of Interior forces. "The American army doesn't have that kind of control over them."
In Salman Pak, American oversight was minimal. The town does not have an American base. American patrols once drove through town from Baghdad daily, but those patrols stopped in October.
It is impossible to tell whether a greater American presence in Salman Pak would have prevented the abuse the Americans started to see last fall. One of the Sunnis held in Salman Pak was named Sadiq, a young man who said that he was too afraid to give his last name. In an interview in his house here, Sadiq said he had been detained by a group of police commandos and tortured for 16 days. He said his captors chose from an array of techniques so commonly used that each of them had a name. In the "Abachi" pose, Sadiq said, he was hung from the ceiling by his wrists with his hands behind his back. In the "Kuzi," a prisoner's hands and feet were tied together, and then he was hung from the ceiling.
"They hung me by my hands, and they hit me on my knees," said Sadiq, sitting with his mother, who was crying. "I told him, please let me down, and I will say whatever you want. He kept hitting me. At that moment I thought, I will die now."
Sadiq's account was impossible to verify, but matched accounts of other detainees in Salman Pak during that period and photographs of detainees with blood on their shirts, welts and broken bones taken by American soldiers. The worst abuse, several people said, was inflicted by a man who went by the nickname Tiger, an assertion confirmed by Sgt. First Class Travis Fisher, who documented the detainees.
In contrast to many Sunni areas, where the anti-American insurgency is strongest, and despite abuses by Americans in Abu Ghraib, many Sunnis in Salman Pak said the Americans were their defenders against Shiite-backed repression.
When the Americans brought up the abuse with the brigade, they said that they were met by blank stares and evasiveness. The Iraqis would tell them that unknown members of the Interior Ministry from Baghdad had conducted interrogations.
"When we heard about abuse, they would deny everything," Sergeant Fisher said.
The Americans turned in the commander three times in five weeks, in written reports to the American command and the Ministry of Interior in Baghdad. The ministry acted slowly, but removed him several months later. Two other members of the brigade were also removed, including the feared interrogator.
The spokesman for the Interior Ministry denied that the commander had been removed because of abuse, but would not comment on whether abuse had been committed by forces here. Repeated phone calls and e-mail queries went unanswered.
Echoes of Troubled Past
Even today, the Americans say they do not know the scale of abuse that was inflicted in Salman Pak. After a secret Interior Ministry prison was found and raided by the Americans in November, American inspectors visited Salman Pak, but found nothing, Sergeant Fisher said.
A new Iraqi commander, Gen. Nabil Lamam al-Obudi, took charge Dec. 21. Under his command, the Americans said, detainees are treated better, held for less time, and released more often. No new reports of abuse have surfaced, they said.
The better conduct does not appear to have compromised the unit's effectiveness. In a raid last month, the forces in Salman Pak arrested an Egyptian suspected of a role in the insurgency. His cellphone contained the numbers of an Iraqi rebel leader, several Saudis, and a man on the Ministry of Interior most wanted list.
General Obudi, a Shiite whose father was killed by Saddam Hussein, is, in conversation, distrustful of Sunnis, but not necessarily ready to endorse treating them roughly.
"I represent the law in the city," General Obudi told local sheiks at a meeting last month. "Security is created by my hand." Later, in his brigade headquarters, he confided that he found many of the Sunni sheiks difficult. "They wish to have a relationship with me, but I know they will stab me in the back."
The small American adviser team said it saw itself as an honest broker, reporting abuse where it is found, but also helping the Iraqi forces get badly needed bullets, blankets and radios for their pickup trucks. The team usually visits the town in a group of about 10, too few to provide oversight in all of the unit's many locations.
The problem has perhaps as much to do with Iraq's troubled history as with its growing sectarian divide.
"Our soldiers are 20 and 30 years old and lived all their lives under Saddam," said Gen. Adnan Thabid, a Sunni who formed some of the first commando units in Iraq. "The evil is already planted inside them. We can't change this mentality in two or three days. This is our suffering."
Although bitterness among the Sunnis runs deep, some, like Abu Hashem, appear to be ready to give the Shiites a second chance. Sunnis in Salman Pak turned out in huge numbers on election day on Dec. 15, and appeared to have swamped the numbers of minority Shiites who voted.
"They eased their aggression, because they know that a partner is coming," said Abu Hashem, smiling. "We are coming."