Iraq’s New Death Squad
Posted by alanmirs on October 1, 2011
Research support provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute, the Center for Investigative Reporting and New America Media.
The light is fading from the dusty Baghdad sky as Hassan Mahsan re-enacts what happened to his family last summer. We’re standing in the courtyard of his concrete-block house, his children are watching us quietly and his wife is twirling large circles of dough and slapping them against the inside walls of a roaring oven. He walks over to his three-foot-tall daughter and grabs her head like a melon. As she stands there, he gestures wildly behind her, pretending to tie up her hands, then pretending to point a rifle at her head. “They took the blindfold off me, pointed the gun at her head and cocked it, saying, ‘Either you tell us where al-Zaydawi is, or we kill your daughter.'”
“They just marched into our house and took whatever they wanted,” Hassan’s mother says, peeking out the kitchen door. “I’ve never seen anyone act like this.”
As Hassan tells it, it was a quiet night on June 10, 2008, in Sadr City, Baghdad’s poor Shiite district of more than 2 million people, when the helicopter appeared over his house and the front door exploded, nearly burning his sleeping youngest son. Before Hassan knew it, he was on the ground, hands bound and a bag over his head, with eight men pointing rifles at him, locked and loaded.
At first he couldn’t tell whether the men were Iraqis or Americans. He says he identified himself as a police sergeant, offering his ID before they took his pistol and knocked him to the ground. The men didn’t move like any Iraqi forces he’d ever seen. They looked and spoke like his countrymen, but they were wearing American-style uniforms and carrying American weapons with night-vision scopes. They accused him of being a commander in the local militia, the Mahdi Army, before they dragged him off, telling his wife he was “finished.” But before they left, they identified themselves. “We are the Special Forces. The dirty brigade,” Hassan recalls them saying.
The Iraq Special Operations Forces (ISOF) is probably the largest special forces outfit ever built by the United States, and it is free of many of the controls that most governments employ to rein in such lethal forces. The project started in the deserts of Jordan just after the Americans took Baghdad in April 2003. There, the US Army’s Special Forces, or Green Berets, trained mostly 18-year-old Iraqis with no prior military experience. The resulting brigade was a Green Beret’s dream come true: a deadly, elite, covert unit, fully fitted with American equipment, that would operate for years under US command and be unaccountable to Iraqi ministries and the normal political process.
According to Congressional records, the ISOF has grown into nine battalions, which extend to four regional “commando bases” across Iraq. By December, each will be complete with its own “intelligence infusion cell,” which will operate independently of Iraq’s other intelligence networks. The ISOF is at least 4,564 operatives strong, making it approximately the size of the US Army’s own Special Forces in Iraq. Congressional records indicate that there are plans to double the ISOF over the next “several years.”
According to retired Lt. Col. Roger Carstens, US Special Forces are “building the most powerful force in the region.” In 2008 Carstens, then a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, was an adviser to the Iraqi National Counter-Terror Force, where he helped set up the Iraqi counterterrorism laws that govern the ISOF.
“All these guys want to do is go out and kill bad guys all day,” he says, laughing. “These guys are shit hot. They are just as good as we are. We trained ’em. They are just like us. They use the same weapons. They walk like Americans.”
When the US Special Forces began the slow transfer of the ISOF to Iraqi control in April 2007, they didn’t put it under the command of the Defense Ministry or the Interior Ministry, bodies that normally control similar special forces the world over. Instead, the Americans pressured the Iraqi government to create a new minister-level office called the Counter-Terrorism Bureau. Established by a directive from Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, the CTB answers directly to him and commands the ISOF independently of the police and army. According to Maliki’s directive, the Iraqi Parliament has no influence over the ISOF and knows little about its mission. US Special Forces operatives like Carstens have largely overseen the bureau. Carstens says this independent chain of command “might be the perfect structure” for counterterrorism worldwide.
Although the force is officially controlled by the Iraqi government, popular perception in Baghdad is that the ISOF–the dirty brigade–is a covert, all-Iraqi branch of the US military. That reading isn’t far from the truth. The US Special Forces are still closely involved with every level of the ISOF, from planning and carrying out missions to deciding tactics and creating policy. According to Brig. Gen. Simeon Trombitas, commander of the Iraq National Counter-Terror Force Transition Team, part of the multinational command responsible for turning control of the ISOF over to the Iraqi government, the US Special Forces continue to “have advisers at every level of the chain of command.”
In January 2008 the US Special Forces started allowing ISOF commanders to join missions with them and the ISOF rank and file. Starting last summer–when Hassan’s family was attacked–ISOF battalions began launching missions on their own, without American advisers, in Sadr City, where political agreements forbid the Americans from entering. Accusations of human rights abuses, killings and politically motivated arrests have surfaced, including assaults on a university president and arrests of opposition politicians.
The US government has been focused on turning out “as many men in arms as possible, as quickly as possible,” says Peter Harling, senior Middle East analyst at the International Crisis Group. “There has been very little impetus to build checks and controls to prevent abuse. It’s been very much about building up capability without the oversight that could prevent some of the units [from] turning into proxies working for some politician.”
In Sadr City opposition to the Iraqi government and the US occupation is strong. There is no longer any visible militia presence, but pictures of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr still stick to the US-built concrete walls that enclose the city, and calls to prayer end with a demand for the hastened exit of “the enemy.” There, the ISOF uses a policy of collective punishment, aimed at intimidating civilians, charges Hassan al-Rubaie, Sadrist member of the parliamentary Security and Defense Committee. “They terrorize entire neighborhoods just to arrest one person they think is a terrorist,” he says. “This needs to stop.”
US Special Forces advisers have done little to respond to allegations of abuse. Civilian pleas, public protests, complaints by Iraqi Army commanders about the ISOF’s actions and calls for disbanding it by members of Parliament have not pushed the US government to take a hard look at the force they are creating. Instead, US advisers dismiss such claims as politically motivated. “The enemy is trying to discredit them,” says Carstens. “It’s not because they are doing anything dirty.”
On the same night Hassan Mahsan’s house was raided, 26-year-old Haidar al-Aibi was killed with a bullet to the forehead. His family says there was no warning. They tell me how it happened as we drink tea on the floor of their living room, furnished only with thick foam cushions and mournful depictions of the Shiite martyr Hussein. A woman weeps loudly in the corner, the sleeping child of her dead son almost obscured by the folds of her black garments.
Fathil al-Aibi says the family was awakened around midnight by a nearby explosion. His brother Haidar ran up to the roof to see what had happened and was immediately shot from a nearby rooftop. When Fathil, his brother Hussein and his father, Abbas, tried to bring Haidar downstairs, they were shot at, too. For about two hours he lay lifeless on the roof while his family panicked as red laser beams from rifle scopes danced on their windows. “We had tests the next day at the university,” Hussein says. “We didn’t think he would go like this.”
Down the road, around the same time that night, police commando Ahmed Shibli says he was also being fired on. He illuminates two bullet holes in his house with a kerosene lamp as we talk. The men who busted open his front door called themselves the dirty brigade, he says, and they were carrying American weapons, not the AK-47s or PKCs the National Police use. When they entered, they fired immediately. “It wasn’t a warning shot. They shot at me like they wanted to kill me as I was getting down on the ground. It was like we were first-degree terrorists.” They fired again, he says, fatally shooting his ailing 63-year-old father. As blood poured from the old man’s hip, Ahmed says the men held a gun to his little boy’s head and forced his wife to search the room for the police-issued weapon he had left at work.
Ahmed and his brother were hauled to the outskirts of the city, along with Hassan, where they were lined up with other men in the dark. Hassan insists on substantiating his story by showing me an official complaint issued by a local army commander named Mustafa Sabah Yunis, alleging that an “unknown armed squadron” entered the area and arrested him.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi Army was rushing in to respond to the gunfire, and according to Hussein al-Aibi, these soldiers were shot at as well. He tells me the army got Haidar off the roof and drove him to the hospital. On the way, Fathil says, the vehicle was stopped by a dirty brigade operative, who asked Iraqi Army Major Abu Rajdi where they were going. According to Fathil, Rajdi told the operative, “This is a college student who has nothing to do with anything, and you shot him recklessly.” The operative responded by hitting Rajdi and saying, “Turn around and go back, or we’ll shoot him and we’ll shoot you too.”
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