BAGHDAD — More than a decade ago, Ismail Saleh says, a neighbor wanted to marry one of Saleh's cousins. Following the custom of their clan in northern Iraq, she was meant to wed Saleh, so the family refused. And thus, he says, a feud was born.
Saleh now sits on death row in Baghdad, sentenced to hang after being accused of fighting for the Islamic State group, a charge he steadfastly denies. The chief evidence against him: the word of that neighbor.
"Sometimes I wake up and for a moment I feel that this death sentence and me being here is just a bad dream," the 29-year-old told The Associated Press in an interview in a Baghdad prison.
Death sentences are being issued at a dizzying rate in Iraq's rush to prosecute and punish suspected members of the Islamic State group, with more than 3,000 handed out over just the past few years.
Any allegation of having taken up arms for the militant group can bring the ultimate penalty, even while the evidence is thin and cursory.
The heavy reliance on informants is particularly glaring, given the potential that some are motivated by personal grudges. Informants never appear in court; their claims are passed to the judges in dry, written reports from intelligence officials with no hint of their possible motivation.
Thousands of defendants are rushed through the courts, with trials as short as 10 or 15 minutes and a third of the cases ending in the death penalty. Witnesses are rarely called and no forensic evidence presented, raising the likelihood of innocent people going to the gallows.
The cases are so flimsy that President Fuad Masum has refrained from ratifying many executions, which is required by law before they can be carried out, a senior official in the president's office told the AP.
"We didn't find solid proof in some of the cases we've studied," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue. "We attended some hearings and found the cases are ruled on quickly in one hearing."
Still, the pressure is rising for executions to be carried out even more rapidly, including from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Last month, 13 people accused of IS ties were hanged within three hours of the president ratifying the death documents — an unusually quick turnaround.
The AP spoke to Ismail Saleh and two other Iraqis accused of Islamic State ties who were sentenced to death.
Like nearly all other defendants, all three denied any ties. Not all the details of their accounts could be independently confirmed, but their stories — which raise reasonable doubts over their guilt — were not closely examined in court before they were condemned to die.
That judicial haste was readily apparent when the AP attended three days of court sessions in Baghdad in late May.
The court heard an average of a dozen cases a day, most involving accused IS members. During those three days, the presiding judge, Suhail Abdullah Sahar, imposed at least 10 death sentences.
"We do everything we can to get to the truth and we don't want to be unfair to anyone," Sahar told the AP. "These defendants are here on the strength of testimony given by a secret informer, neighbors or their own families."
Saleh told the AP that the feud with the family of his neighbor festered for years after the dispute over his cousin.
In May 2017, shortly after his neighborhood was freed from IS, Saleh said he was sent to a local prison, tortured and beaten for four days after the neighbor labeled him an informer.
During his brief trial in December, the judge asked if he had informed on the neighbor.
"I said no," Saleh recounted. "Then he asked me to leave during consultations. When I came back, I was sentenced to death."
The ruling obtained by the AP said the verdict was based on the neighbor's testimony and a confession by Saleh — which Saleh says was obtained under torture.
Quteiba Younis was 16 in 2014 when IS overran his home village of Areij. Shortly after the takeover, his father lost his job at a government fuel depot, so the teen — the eldest of 10 siblings — had a duty to support the family. He found work as a guard at a cement factory taken over by IS, a job that required carrying a rifle.
That appears to have sealed his fate: an informant told security agencies that Younis was an armed fighter with IS.
"My life has been lost," Younis, now 20, told the AP.
Younis was arrested in February and said he was beaten, given electric shocks and hung upside down, finally confessing to crimes he hadn't committed to end his torment.
Based on the confession and informant testimony, a judge convicted him and sentenced him to death May 10.
The third condemned man interviewed by the AP, Ahmed Nijm, unabashedly said the Islamic State group had the right idea. They came to Mosul, he said, "in an earnest, sincere search for justice."
But despite his admiration for IS' strict beliefs, he insisted he was never a member.
A witness identified Nijm as an IS fighter, according to an investigator who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk.
Nijm said he was beaten and threatened during interrogation and eventually offered a false confession. He was sentenced to death April 19.
"I hope death comes to me when I am on my prayer rug," he said. "If I have been oppressed, then God will bring me justice."