Iraq's New Death Squad
Trombitas gets to the issue of human rights before I do. He assures me that US Special Forces take allegations of human rights abuses very seriously--two Iraqi men were let go for prisoner abuse since he took over in August last year, he says--but he won't comment on specific cases. I raise the issue of accountability and bring up one well-documented mission that caused waves in the Iraqi Parliament: in August the ISOF raided Diyala's provincial government compound, reportedly with the support of US Apache helicopters. They arrested a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, Iraq's main Sunni Arab party. They also arrested the president of the university, also a Sunni, and killed a secretary and wounded four armed guards during the night.
I barely get the word "Diyala" out of my mouth before the American operatives standing around us start to grumble nervously and a translator jumps in. "For the reputation of the ISOF, please, let's cut that off," he says.
Abdul-Karim al-Samarrai, a member of the ruling United Iraqi Alliance and the parliamentary Security and Defense Committee, says that what happened in Diyala was one of many signs of the prime minister's bad intentions for the ISOF. "Politicians are afraid because this force can be used for political ends," he says. In response to outrage from members of Parliament over the arrest of politicians by the ISOF, Maliki, who is officially required to approve every ISOF target, denied any knowledge of the Diyala mission. His claim of innocence raises important questions. If the man who is supposed to be in charge of the ISOF has no knowledge of its missions, then who is ultimately responsible for the force? Was Maliki lying to cover up the fact that he is using the force for political purposes? Or was someone else--namely the Americans--calling the shots?
Diyala was only the first publicized case of possibly politically motivated arrests. In December the ISOF arrested as many as thirty-five officials in the Interior Ministry who were thought to be in opposition to Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party. This past March the ISOF arrested at least one leader of the Awakening Councils, semiofficial Sunni neighborhood militias that have been increasingly at odds with Maliki over his failure to keep a promise to incorporate the councils into the military or give them other employment.
The Maliki government has developed a "culture of direct control," says Michael Knights, a Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute and the head of its Iraq program. Knights visits Iraq regularly and has close contact with the country's security services. He says the people in charge of the ISOF at the regional levels are "personally chosen loyalists or relatives of Maliki. It reminds me of Saddam." Knights says that Maliki is only supposed to approve or reject missions that come to him, but occasionally he will "assert his prerogative as the commander in chief and tell the ISOF to do something or not to do something." Knights raises the possibility that the ISOF will become Maliki's personal death squad. "The prime minister is looking for re-election, and there are not that many restraints on his ability to target political opponents, as [his government] has been doing with the Sadrists for years now."
Samarrai, along with other members of Parliament, is calling for disbanding the Counter-Terrorism Bureau. He says there is no legal basis for an armed brigade to exist outside the control of the Interior or Defense ministry. "People are afraid of the existence of an organization with such dreadful capabilities that reports directly to the prime minister," he says.
Member of Parliament Hassan al-Rubaie is concerned about the close relationship between the ISOF and the Americans. "If the US leaves Iraq, this will be the last force they will leave behind," he insists. He is worried that such a powerful and secretive force that is closely tied to the Americans could turn Iraq into a "military base in the region" by allowing the United States to continue to conduct missions in Iraq with the cover of the ISOF. "They have become a replacement" for the Americans, he says.
President Obama has said he plans to increase reliance on the US Special Forces; Defense Secretary Robert Gates's recent appointment of Stanley McChrystal as commander of Afghanistan suggests that he is keeping his word. From 2003 to 2008, McChrystal was the head of the Joint Special Operations Command, which oversees the Army's most secretive forces and is responsible for the training of special forces abroad. McChrystal was also commander of US Special Operations Forces in Iraq for five years, during which time, according to the Wall Street Journal, he commanded "units that specialize in guerrilla warfare, including the training of indigenous armies."
"The eventual drawdown in Iraq is not the end of the mission for our elite forces," Gates said in May 2008. Gates hasn't spoken on the issue since Obama took office; but Obama says he will institutionalize irregular warfare capabilities, and the White House stresses the need to "create a more robust capacity to train, equip and advise foreign security forces, so that local allies are better prepared to confront mutual threats."
Bowden says those "local allies" are often used for covert operations. "The United States Special Operations Command cultivates relationships with special forces in other countries because it gives the United States the opportunity of intervening militarily in a covert way," he says. "The ideal covert op is one that is actually carried out by local forces."
As I stand on the tarmac with Trombitas in Area IV, waiting for our helicopter to return and fly us back to the Green Zone, I ask him how long the United States will be involved with the ISOF. "Special forces are special because we do maintain a relationship with foreign forces," he says. "Part of our theater-engagement strategy is to maintain a relationship with those units that are important to the security of the region and to the world." As our helicopter appears in the lightly clouded sky, he chooses his next words carefully: "We are going to have a working relationship for a while," he says.