Iraq's New Death Squad
COURTESY OF SHANE BAUER
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."