Photo by Shane Bauer

The light is fading from the dusty Baghdad sky as Hassan Mahsan re-enacts what happened to his family last summer. We’re standing in the courtyard of his concrete-block house, his children are watching us quietly and his wife is twirling large circles of dough and slapping them against the inside walls of a roaring oven. He walks over to his three-foot-tall daughter and grabs her head like a melon. As she stands there, he gestures wildly behind her, pretending to tie up her hands, then pretending to point a rifle at her head. “They took the blindfold off me, pointed the gun at her head and cocked it, saying, ‘Either you tell us where al-Zaydawi is, or we kill your daughter.'”

“They just marched into our house and took whatever they wanted,” Hassan’s mother says, peeking out the kitchen door. “I’ve never seen anyone act like this.”

As Hassan tells it, it was a quiet night on June 10, 2008, in Sadr City, Baghdad’s poor Shiite district of more than 2 million people, when the helicopter appeared over his house and the front door exploded, nearly burning his sleeping youngest son. Before Hassan knew it, he was on the ground, hands bound and a bag over his head, with eight men pointing rifles at him, locked and loaded.

At first he couldn’t tell whether the men were Iraqis or Americans. He says he identified himself as a police sergeant, offering his ID before they took his pistol and knocked him to the ground. The men didn’t move like any Iraqi forces he’d ever seen. They looked and spoke like his countrymen, but they were wearing American-style uniforms and carrying American weapons with night-vision scopes. They accused him of being a commander in the local militia, the Mahdi Army, before they dragged him off, telling his wife he was “finished.” But before they left, they identified themselves. “We are the Special Forces. The dirty brigade,” Hassan recalls them saying.

The Iraq Special Operations Forces (ISOF) is probably the largest special forces outfit ever built by the United States, and it is free of many of the controls that most governments employ to rein in such lethal forces. The project started in the deserts of Jordan just after the Americans took Baghdad in April 2003. There, the US Army’s Special Forces, or Green Berets, trained mostly 18-year-old Iraqis with no prior military experience. The resulting brigade was a Green Beret’s dream come true: a deadly, elite, covert unit, fully fitted with American equipment, that would operate for years under US command and be unaccountable to Iraqi ministries and the normal political process.

+ Read the complete article on The Nation’s website.

The Center for Investigative Reporting provided partial support for this story through the Dick Goldensohn Fund for International Investigative Reporting.