BAGHDAD - Amid the acrid smoke and dust, the cries of the injured being dragged out of the rubble, General Adnan Thabit arrived at the Hamra hotel bomb site in sunglasses, pressed fatigues and a crimson beret.
"Well, gentlemen," he said to me and another journalist who had just been blasted out of our rooms by suicide bombers, "this is what happens when terrorists carry out terrorism: a lot of dead, a lot hurt. Now you can see what we are up against."
The general was savouring his moment. His special forces have been accused by the media and others of carrying out the worst human rights abuses against "suspected insurgents" in what is becoming an ever more savage and dirty war.
His tough words came as five American soldiers were killed and another five wounded in a bomb attack in northern Iraq and as fresh violence gripped the country,
Yesterday a roadside bomb in Baiji, 110km north of Baghdad, killed five US Marines, while more than 50 people died in suicide attacks, one targeting the funeral of a Shiite Muslim sheikh.
Behind the daily reports is a far more shadowy struggle, one that involves tortured prisoners huddled in dungeons, death-squad victims with their hands tied behind their backs, often mutilated with knives and electric drills, and families searching for relations who have been "disappeared".
This hidden struggle surfaced last week when US forces and Iraqi police found 169 captives, who looked like Holocaust victims, inside an Interior Ministry building.
The "disappeared" prisoners were being held, it is claimed, by the Shiite Badr militia, which controls part of the ministry. Bayan Jabr, the Interior Minister, is a former Badr commander.
General Adnan's commandos come under the ministry's control. So does the Wolf Brigade, which vies with the commandos for the title of most feared.
Baghdad is a city in the shadow of gunmen. As I left the Hamra to replace what was lost in my bombed room, I had to negotiate checkpoints of the Badr militia, their Shiite enemies, the Mehdi Army of the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Kurdish peshmerga. The Iraqi police and the Government paramilitaries have their own roadblocks.
And there are others: the Shiite Defenders of Khadamiya - set up under Hussein al-Sadr, a cousin of Muqtada - and the Government-backed Tiger and Scorpion brigades. They are accused of arbitrary arrests, intimidation and extra-judicial killings.
The US and Britain, which trained many of the forces involved and still have ultimate responsibility for them, are implicated. American and British forces have played their own part, from the abuses of Abu Ghraib to deaths in British military custody, from the deployment of white phosphorus as a chemical weapon in the assault on Fallujah to the wild use of overwhelming American firepower, which some have called almost as indiscriminate as the killings caused by Sunni insurgents' car bombings.
Faced with an insurgency that shows no signs of abating, the US and Iraqi Government rely more and more on the paramilitaries.
Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, has said units such as General Adnan's commandos are among "forces that are going to have the greatest leverage on suppressing and eliminating the insurgency".
Those on the receiving end of some of this "leverage", however, describe terrifying experiences. Ahmed Sadoun was arrested in the middle of the night at his home in Mosul by Government paramilitaries accompanied by US soldiers. He was held for seven months before being released without charge and left Iraq as soon as he could.
Speaking from Amman, the 38-year-old engineer, said: "They kicked down our door and asked about a neighbour. When I said I did not know where the man was, they started kicking me and beating me.
"When they took me to their base I was blindfolded and beaten very, very badly with metal rods. They then hung me up on hooks by my wrists until I thought they would tear off. I think that stopped because one of the Americans said something. I could hear English spoken in an angry voice. But this happened again later."
At one roadblock I met the Wolf Brigade. A young man shook his head about what happened at the Hamra.
"That is bad, very bad," he said. "But you are alive, that is good - too many dead people in Baghdad." He was keen to make the point that "the people like us because we kill the people who try to kill them. Listen, mister, we are fighting bad people, you cannot treat them like normal persons."
But what about the innocent who get caught and end up being abused in detention centres?
"Mister, those are just lies. You must not believe them. These people are terrorists. We are here because the police cannot do the job by themselves."
The paramilitary influence on the police is particularly overt in the British-controlled south of Iraq, where the British invited the militias to join the security forces and then saw them take over. Nothing was done by the British authorities when police in plain clothes, along with their militia colleagues, killed Christians, claiming they sold alcohol, or Sunnis for being supposedly Baathists.
Action was only belatedly taken when a particularly menacing faction, a "force within a force" based at the Jamiat police station on the outskirts of Basra, captured two SAS soldiers who were gathering information on their mistreatment of prisoners.
British troops smashed into a police station to rescue the two soldiers and later arrested more than a dozen others. But now they more or less stay out of Basra, leaving Iraq's second city at the mercy of a police force that even its commanders say they barely control. There have been dozens of assassinations, including that of at least one foreign journalist.
Even families of fellow policemen are not exempt. Ammar Muthar, a member of the border police, knew his father, Muthar Abadi, was on the Shiite militia hit list because he had acted as a missile engineer in the war against Shiite Iran. Ammar brought his father from Al-Amarah to Basra for safety. But while he was out one day, six policemen, in uniform but wearing black masks, dragged Abadi away. His body was later found, shot five times, three in the face.
"The neighbours could do nothing because it was the police who took him away," said Ammar. "They wanted to kill him, and no one could stop them."
One British officer said: "You hear about the militias infiltrating the police. But they did not have to. We invited them to join."