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While Iraqi representatives wrangle over the drafting of a constitution in Baghdad, the militias, and the Shiite and Kurdish parties that control them, are creating their own institutions of authority, unaccountable to elected governments, the activists and officials said. In Basra in the south, dominated by the Shiites, and Mosul in the north, ruled by the Kurds, as well as cities and villages around them, many residents have said they are powerless before the growing sway of the militias, which instill a climate of fear that many see as redolent of the era of former president Saddam Hussein.
The parties and their armed wings sometimes operate independently, and other times as part of Iraqi army and police units trained and equipped by the United States and Britain and controlled by the central government. Their growing authority has enabled them to control territory, confront their perceived enemies and provide patronage to their followers. Their ascendance has come about because of a power vacuum in Baghdad and their own success in the January parliamentary elections.
"I don't see any difference between Saddam and the way the Kurds are running things here," said Nahrain Toma, who heads a human rights organization, Bethnahrain, which has offices in northern Iraq and has faced several death threats.
"Here's the problem," said Majid Sari, an adviser in the Iraqi Defense Ministry in Basra, who travels with a security detail of 25 handpicked Iraqi soldiers. Referring to the militias, he said, "They're taking money from the state, they're taking clothes from the state, they're taking vehicles from the state, but their loyalty is to the parties." Whoever disagrees, he said, "the next day you'll find them dead in the street."
British officials, whose authority runs through Basra and parts of southern Iraq, have called the killings "totally unacceptable."
One of the most powerful militias in southern Iraq, the Badr Organization, which is blamed for many of the assassinations, denied any role in the killings. The head of the group in Basra, Ghanim Mayahi, said his organization was only providing "support and assistance" to the police through lightly armed militiamen. "There is no law, there is no order, and the police are scared of the tribes. Badr is not afraid, and it can face those threats," he said.
"There is an absence of law," said a 40-year-old Transportation Ministry official who was detained for five days in Dahuk last month. The official said a Kurdish officer had accused him of "writing against the Kurds on the Internet."
"'Freedom' and 'liberty' are only words in ink on a piece of paper," he said. "The law now, it's the big fish eats the small fish."