The Muslim group received praise by the Iraqi government despite suspicions.
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BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A militant Shiite Muslim group with close ties to Iran has gained enormous power since Iraq's January elections and now is accused of conducting a terror campaign against Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority that includes kidnappings, threats and murders.
But in spite of concern among Sunni Arabs that the Badr Brigade is behind a series of brutal attacks against Sunni clerics, including cases where victims appear to have been tortured with electric drills, the group was praised by top Iraqi government officials last week.
"Today, there is a sacred mission of sweeping away the remnants of the dictatorship and defeating the terrorism, and your role with your brothers in the [Kurdish militia] is required and necessary to fulfill this sacred mission," Iraq President Jalal Talabani, a Sunni Kurd, told a meeting of Badr members.
At the same gathering, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari praised Badr for its restraint, saying "force without integrity is evil and integrity without force is weakness."
The Badr Brigade was organized and trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guards in the early 1980s and served as the armed wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an organization of exiled Iraqi Shiites then based in Iran. During the 1980s it gained fame for its guerrilla raids against Iraqi military units during the Iran-Iraq war.
Now, with the Supreme Council leading the Shiite coalition that dominated Iraq's elections, Badr members have gained unprecedented authority. The interior minister, who controls the nation's police and commando forces, is a former Supreme Council official with close ties to Badr. At least six provincial governors, including Baghdad's, are Badr members, according to the organization.
Badr's commander, Hadi al-Ameri, is a driving force in the Iraqi national assembly's public integrity committee, which is investigating former Iraqi officials, many of them Sunnis, over allegations of corruption.
Al-Ameri says the Badr Organization, as the group is now called, has given up its weapons. "We are serving the country by participating through the political process," al-Ameri said.
But many in the Sunni community charge that Badr's claim of political transition is an attempt to hide the fact that it still controls thousands of militia troops that harass and kill Sunnis in back and forth bloodshed with Sunni insurgents.
Others say they were kidnapped or tortured by people who claimed to be from Badr. The organization is also accused of killing at least five Sunni clerics during the past month and kidnapping 30 Sunni worshippers from a Baghdad mosque.
U.S. officials in Iraq express concern about the allegations but say they don't know whom to believe.
"People are killed in Iraq for various reasons. It's not always clear why people were killed or who killed them," said a U.S. Embassy official in Baghdad who spoke on condition of anonymity because he's not authorized to speak on the matter. "Sometimes it's clear, sometimes it's not clear. But I don't want to go any further."
A high-ranking U.S. military officer in Baghdad said that while intelligence reports haven't shown who's killing Sunnis, he suspects that it may be the work of Al-Qaida-linked Sunni terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi or Sunni fighters loyal to former dictator Saddam Hussein, not to a Shiite group empowered by the recent election.
"I don't know who's doing the killings," said the officer, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. "I think that it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the Zarqawi network and [Saddam loyalists] are doing this to create sectarian violence."
Others also voice suspicions, however. Firas al-Nakib, a Sunni and a senior legal adviser in the interior ministry, said that since the new government was installed, more than 160 senior members of the ministry have been dismissed and many police commanders have been replaced by Shiites loyal to the Shiite bloc that won the elections.