At about 7:30 PM on July 12, a group of well-dressed young men carrying silenced pistols arrived at an apartment complex in Baghdad's Eastern Zayouna neighborhood. They went straight to a nearby generator building — found every few blocks in the Iraqi capital to compensate for the unreliable electric grid — where workers waiting to break their Ramadan fast had watched them arrive on a flickery black-and-white monitor linked to a CCTV feed.
The gunmen told the small group inside that they had a warrant for the arrest of two terrorists living nearby, and politely advised them to stay inside for their own safety. The generator operators did as they were told, assuming that the new arrivals were from the Iraqi National Intelligence Service (INIS).
But they weren't INIS. And instead of hunting terrorists, the smart young men went to a brothel housed in a sun-faded building nearby then murdered the 29 women — all suspected prostitutes — and between three and five men they found inside. The slaughter took just 10 minutes. When they'd finished, they went back to the generator building, asked for the security camera footage, and calmly apologized for any inconvenience they had caused.
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The massacre was widely reported, but details have been scant. Even now, more than two weeks later, there are police checkpoints on the way to the area and members of the press have been turned away while attempting to reach the scene. VICE News was recently able to reach the complex and speak to residents and eyewitnesses. All of their names have been withheld to protect against reprisals.
'There are respectable families here, so we hoped to get rid of them, but not like this.'
Shortly after the gunmen left, a young man in a yellow Iranian-made Saipa taxi pulled up outside the generator building. He was an "agent" for the brothel of driving a car selected specifically to avoid attracting attention — Baghdad's roads are full of them. The agent had been called by a lookout in the neighborhood who had seen the men approaching; suspecting trouble, he'd also called the police.
Two officers arrived shortly afterward and made their way to the brothel accompanied by a neighbor. On the way, they found bits of blood-spattered paper and writing daubed on a wall saying This is the destiny of all prostitutes.
The three men knocked on the door, then shouted, asking if anyone was still alive. When they heard someone moving, they broke in. The scene was horrifying. A series of graphic pictures taken minutes later and distributed online show that a number of the women were killed as a group in a living room, and several more in a bathroom. The dead men had their hands cuffed behind their backs.
Two more men were found inside unharmed, both still shaking with fear. They told the police that they were blacksmiths and described how the gunmen had killed everyone in the brothel as they watched, but spared them because they didn't work there.
The resident who was with the police when they broke into the apartment said that he was familiar with all of the women and sometimes did odd jobs around the brothel for them. "I saw all the girls lying on the ground, and I knew them — I knew all of them," he told VICE News. "I'd heard most of their stories; some were from Baghdad, others from different provinces. Each one of them had a tragedy in her past."
It was him that took the pictures. He showed them, and others to VICE News, pointing out some of the women by name. Two who had been married to the pimp running the brothel and died holding onto each other amid a pile of bodies slumped in front of an armchair and television. Another who was shot through the eye. One who was alone on a bed, the bulge of a pregnant belly clearly visible.
The brothel, neighbors said, had been around for about three years and generally operated under the protection of local security forces; it even supplied women to government officials. "No one could talk to them [the prostitutes] or they would call the police," one neighbor said. "Every day, lots of men would come…. It became bigger and bigger, it was like a whole company."
Prostitution has been a growing problem in the area, residents say. The housing complex is made up of about 140 buildings, each containing an average of five apartments. In total, one man said, 38 apartments there are linked in some way with the sex trade. Those that are, tend to be covered in sheets of corrugated tin and have security cameras mounted outside their doors.
Locals had begun to resent this commerce. "They've been here a long time, and it's very annoying," one man said. "There are respectable families here, so we hoped to get rid of them. But not like this."
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The killings do not appear to be the work of vigilante neighbors. Instead, most suspect hardline Shiite militia. Some neighbors told VICE News that they believed the powerful Iran-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq group, which has a visible presence in the area, were responsible.
Government officials say they are looking into the murders. Saad Maan, spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry, said that a "series of investigatory measures" has been taken, and confirmed to VICE News that the case is still open. He added that the security forces assigned to protect the complex had been arrested.
Local residents did not seem to expect further arrests or a prosecution — and not just because dead prostitutes aren't a police priority. In Baghdad today, Shiite militias operate with relative impunity, with and without the government's blessing.
The militias have had an uneasy and inconsistent relationship with authorities in the past; fighting them at times and cooperating with them at others. The rapid advance by Islamic State-led hardline Sunni insurgents across northern Iraq in June and subsequent spectacular collapse of a significant part of the Iraqi armed forces spooked lawmakers and military chiefs, however. They turned to Shiite gunmen to help defend the capital and granted them more powers and influence. They are now often visible around the city accompanying police and military patrols.
This trend shows no sign of abating. The Islamic State's policy of sectarian attacks and attempts to create outright chaos have scared Iraq's leaders into allowing militias to boost their strength and numbers. In some cases this seems to have been accompanied by a return to the campaigns of kidnappings and killings last seen during the brutal sectarian violence that almost tore the country apart in 2006.
Authorities now appear to have neither the will, nor the ability to reign in the militias. And for the murdered women and men in that Zayouna brothel, justice does not seem likely.
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck