- January 22, 2007
AS convoys of American military equipment were crossing the desert into Iraq last week and more US soldiers headed towards Baghdad to crack down on sectarian violence, a video on the internet showed one of their prime targets, the leader of a Shia death squad, bottle-feeding a baby camel with Pepsi-Cola.It is one of the few images of Abu Deraa, an elusive Shi'ite whose orgy of sectarian killings in the past two years has helped to propel Iraq towards civil war.
The benign video belies Deraa's savagery.
His squad is thought to be responsible for the murder of thousands of civilians, mostly Sunnis, and he is said to take personal delight in killing -- sometimes with a bullet to the head, sometimes by driving a drill into the skulls of his victims.
On other occasions, Iraqis say, he gives them a choice of being shot or battered to death with concrete building blocks.
Each day the police find more bodies dumped in shallow graves on wasteland known by Iraqis as the "Happiness Hotel".
They have been kidnapped, tortured and murdered after being accused of attacking Shia shrines or of involvement in the daily bombings tearing Baghdad apart.
The video shows Deraa, a short, well built and bearded man in his 40s, pouring the cola down the camel's throat.
"All of it. Drink to the bottom," he tells the gulping animal, asking his guards whether they paid for the bottle or took it.
Behind the video is a sinister story. Deraa has vowed to sacrifice the camel in celebration if he succeeds in killing Tariq al-Hashimi, the Iraqi vice-president.
Hashimi is Iraq's most important Sunni politician and Shia extremists such as Deraa regard him as a bitter enemy who must be eliminated. Hashimi was in London last week for talks with Tony Blair and for the time being is safe from assassination. But Deraa or another Shia death squad killed his sister and two brothers last year.
The hitmen will keep trying to fix him in their sights.
Another of Deraa's high-profile victims is Khamis al-Obeidi, Saddam Hussein's lawyer.
A grim video recorded on a mobile phone shows his hands being tied behind his back by a man believed to be Deraa.
He pleads for his life but is put into the back of a truck and paraded through Baghdad's Sadr city, where the crowds taunt him with Shia slogans and stone him. The vehicle stops. Obeidi is forced out and Deraa puts three bullets in his head.
In another operation, Deraa reportedly acquired a fleet of ambulances and drove them into a Sunni neighbourhood of Baghdad.
He tricked groups of young men to come forward and give blood to help Sunni brothers who, he said, were being "slaughtered by the Shi'ites".
Once the young men approached, he trapped and killed them.
By such deeds Deraa has won a reputation as perhaps the most brutal mass murderer in Iraq. He is seen as a Shia version of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the brutal Jordanian leader of al-Qa'ida in Iraq who was killed by the Americans last year.