Iyad Allawi, the new Prime Minister of Iraq, pulled a pistol and executed as many as six suspected insurgents at a Baghdad police station, just days before Washington handed control of the country to his interim government, according to two people who allege they witnessed the killings.
They say the prisoners - handcuffed and blindfolded - were lined up against a wall in a courtyard adjacent to the maximum-security cell block in which they were held at the Al-Amariyah security centre, in the city's south-western suburbs.
They say Dr Allawi told onlookers the victims had each killed as many as 50 Iraqis and they "deserved worse than death".
The Prime Minister's office has denied the entirety of the witness accounts in a written statement to the Herald, saying Dr Allawi had never visited the centre and he did not carry a gun.
But the informants told the Herald that Dr Allawi shot each young man in the head as about a dozen Iraqi policemen and four Americans from the Prime Minister's personal security team watched in stunned silence.
Iraq's Interior Minister, Falah al-Naqib, is said to have looked on and congratulated him when the job was done. Mr al-Naqib's office has issued a verbal denial.
The names of three of the alleged victims have been obtained by the Herald.
One of the witnesses claimed that before killing the prisoners Dr Allawi had told those around him that he wanted to send a clear message to the police on how to deal with insurgents.
"The prisoners were against the wall and we were standing in the courtyard when the Interior Minister said that he would like to kill them all on the spot. Allawi said that they deserved worse than death - but then he pulled the pistol from his belt and started shooting them."
Re-enacting the killings, one witness stood three to four metres in front of a wall and swung his outstretched arm in an even arc, left to right, jerking his wrist to mimic the recoil as each bullet was fired. Then he raised a hand to his brow, saying: "He was very close. Each was shot in the head."
The witnesses said seven prisoners had been brought out to the courtyard, but the last man in the line was only wounded - in the neck, said one witness; in the chest, said the other.
Given Dr Allawi's role as the leader of the US experiment in planting a model democracy in the Middle East, allegations of a return to the cold-blooded tactics of his predecessor are likely to stir a simmering debate on how well Washington knows its man in Baghdad, and precisely what he envisages for the new Iraq.
There is much debate and rumour in Baghdad about the Prime Minister's capacity for brutality, but this is the first time eyewitness accounts have been obtained.
A former CIA officer, Vincent Cannisatraro, recently told The New Yorker: "If you're asking me if Allawi has blood on his hands from his days in London, the answer is yes, he does. He was a paid Mukhabarat [intelligence] agent for the Iraqis, and he was involved in dirty stuff."
In Baghdad, varying accounts of the shootings are interpreted by observers as useful to a little-known politician who, after 33 years in exile, needs to prove his leadership credentials as a "strongman" in a war-ravaged country that has no experience of democracy.[...]
The Herald has established that as many as 30 people, including the victims, may have been in the courtyard. One of the witnesses said there were five or six civilian-clad American security men in a convoy of five or six late model four-wheel-drive vehicles that was shepherding Dr Allawi's entourage on the day. The US military and Dr Allawi's office refused to respond to questions about the composition of his security team. It is understood that the core of his protection unit is drawn from the US Special Forces units.
The security establishment where the killings are said to have happened is on open ground on the border of the Al-Amariyah and Al-Kudra neighbourhoods in Baghdad.
About 90 policemen are stationed at the complex, which processes insurgents and more hardened offenders among those captured in the struggle against a wave of murder, robbery and kidnapping in post-invasion Iraq.
The Interior Ministry denied permission for the Herald to enter the heavily fortified police complex.
The two witnesses were independently and separately found by the Herald. Neither approached the newspaper. They were interviewed on different days in a private home in Baghdad, without being told the other had spoken. A condition of the co-operation of each man was that no personal information would be published.
Both interviews lasted more than 90 minutes and were conducted through an interpreter, with another journalist present for one of the meetings. The witnesses were not paid for the interviews.
Dr Allawi's office has dismissed the allegations as rumours instigated by enemies of his interim government.[...]
Mr Khadum added: "Do you think a man who is Prime Minister is going to disqualify himself for life like this? This is not a government of gangsters."
Asked if Dr Allawi had visited the Al-Amariyah complex - one of the most important counter-insurgency centres in Baghdad - Mr Khadum said he could not reveal the Prime Minister's movements. But he added: "Dr Allawi has made many visits to police stations ... he is heading the offensive."
US officials in Iraq have not made an outright denial of the allegations. An emailed response to questions from the Herald to the US ambassador, John Negroponte, said: "If we attempted to refute each [rumour], we would have no time for other business. As far as this embassy's press office is concerned, this case is closed."
Junior has only been able to execute people by proxy. Allawi gets to do it personally. He's definitely a Bush/Nuge dream come true.