US Collusion with Iraqi Death Squads: Part 1

June 28th, 2006 - by admin

Max Fuller / – 2006-06-28 09:17:15

US Collusion with Iraqi Death Squads
Diyala — A Laboratory of Civil War?

A Recent Case Study in the Dynamics of Occupation and Sectarianism — Part 1:
Operation Knockout in Diyala Demonstrates US Collusion with Death Squads

(June 26, 2006) — In November last year Sunni members of the Diyala provincial council began to boycott meetings in protest at a 13 November raid on the provincial capital Baquba and surrounding towns, according to a report by UPI’s Pentagon correspondent, Pamela Hess.

According to a US military official, the boycotting council members sent a letter to the chairman of the council in which they alleged that that raid had been orchestrated by the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) as part of a plan to disenfranchise Sunnis during the upcoming elections.

Such accusations chime with almost every commentator it seems both inside and outside Iraq, who have lavished criticism on SCIRI and the paramilitary militia known as the Badr Brigade associated with it. Whilst anti-occupation sources tend to regard SCIRI and Badr as US allies, the Western media have chosen to focus on their relationship with Iran, where they were primarily based since their foundation in 1982. In either case, commentators charge that SCIRI’s militiamen have infiltrated or been amalgamated into Iraq’s nascent security forces.

Many reports make little or no distinction between the Badr Brigade and the security forces. In the Western media lens, this depiction tends to function as apologia for human rights abuses attributed to the security forces (for examples of this in action, see Soloman Moore writing in the Los Angeles Times or Jonathan Steele writing in the London Guardian).

Hess agrees with the media consensus, stating that “anecdotal evidence of targeted and unsanctioned violence against Sunnis from cities across Iraq suggests Badr or other rogue elements have a presence throughout the ministry.” In the case of the Baquba raid, which had prompted the walkout by Sunni councilors, Hess informs us that in this instance it was the Wolf Brigade, an “Iraqi special police unit of some 2,000,” that “swept into Baqubah, the capital of Diyala province, and arrested some 300 people.”

As if to clarify matters, she then tells us, citing a US military source, that “The operation came in the wake of the appointment by the Shiite governor of Diyala of a new police chief for the province … The new police chief has no law enforcement experience … but he is associated with the SCIRI, the political arm of the Badr brigade.”

But in fact what initially appears to be an open and shut case is not so straightforward. While, according to the same military spokesperson, the governor may have requested the raid “to show that he’s got muscle to flex,” “US police assistance teams worked with the Wolf Brigade to plan the operation and American assets ” including a surveillance drone, medical team and a quick reaction force ” were assigned to support it.”

Nonetheless, the spokesperson goes on to imply that support was reluctant, adding, “We put forces with each of their units so that we could watch them work.”

In the case of the 13 November raid, outside observers are fortunate that, unlike Pamela Hess, they do not have to rely solely on one military spokesperson feeding a line to the press. The raid in question was called Operation Knockout and was the first time that the Iraqi Special Police Forces of the Ministry of the Interior had planned, prepared and executed a division-size raid “designed to destroy or disrupt all of their [ie insurgents] cells in a large locality in a single night.”

For a far more in-depth depiction of the action, we can be grateful to US Army Col. James K Greer, who was so impressed by the whole operation that he wrote an account of it for the November-December issue of Military Review.

The following passages are taken from Greer’s account.

In late October, the minister of the interior [Bayan Jabr] told the Operations Directorate to study options for a large-scale, simultaneous strike in Diyala against a large number of suspected insurgents and their support and information networks …

[On 5 November] the Operations Directorate provided a list of insurgent and terrorist targets to the Public Order Division commander with a warning to be prepared to move to Ba’qubah and conduct operations to detain those targets.

The Public Order Division immediately began planning, focusing on developing target folders for the hundreds of discrete targets forces would have to secure. Simultaneously, Multi-National Force-Iraq (MNF-I) was notified through its cell in the MOI National Command Center. Planning and coordination continued with an MOI/Multinational Command-Iraq (MNC-I) meeting on 9 November …

Throughout the planning and coordination stage of Operation Knockout, Special Police Transition Teams (SPTTs) under Colonel Gordon B. “Skip” Davis and Colonel Jeffrey Buchanan advised the Iraqis and planned and coordinated their own support to the operation. These teams of 10 to 12 soldiers lived, trained, and fought alongside the Iraqi Special Police 24 hours a day and contributed significantly to the Iraqi’s development …

At execution, Public Order Division elements, reinforced by a brigade of Iraqi Special Police commandos, moved along three separate routes to their objectives in and around Ba’qubah, conducting clean-up operations in small towns along the way …

Operation Knockout
Operation Knockout demonstrated the necessity for and effectiveness of intelligence-based COIN [counterinsurgency] operations. The MOI Intelligence Office of the Operations Directorate spent several weeks developing the targets that would eventually be raided. Local informants confirmed potential targets, and the Intelligence Office produced one- to three-page papers detailing why each individual was targeted … Special Police units developed a target folder for each individual. Surreptitious eyes-on provided last-minute updates to target sets.

In the rare case of Operation Knockout, we even have a third, official military account of proceedings given at a press briefing. This description adds one further important detail, which is that 70 per cent of the 377 detainees were Sunni, 30 percent were Shia and 10 were Kurds. While these proportions may not accurately reflect the ethno-confessional makeup of Diyala province (exact figures are hard to come by), they do indicate that the raid was far from exclusively directed against Sunni targets, despite popular impression.

Implications of the Reports
This illustration of an intelligence-based counterinsurgency operation undertaken by US-trained proxy forces, which could have been written just as well about Vietnam, the Philippines, El Salvador or present-day Colombia, reveals a number of important points about the conflict in Iraq.

(i) SCIRI had no part in orchestrating Operation Knockout
One of the most important conclusions to be drawn is that we can be certain SCIRI had absolutely nothing to do with the 13 November raid on Baquba and its environs. This simple fact discredits 99% of what has been written in the mainstream media about the role of SCIRI and Badr within the new Interior Ministry.

(ii) Even within Iraq it is very difficult to accurately assess security operations
It is striking in this case that, if we are to believe Hess’s sources, even public representatives on the ground in Iraq are unable to distinguish between what they perceive to be sectarian paramilitaries and the forces operating directly on behalf of the Occupation. This is in no way intended to represent a criticism of those on the ground, but only highlights the duplicity of the US Imperial war machine, whose goal is to cover its own tracks and spread discord amongst its enemies.

(iii) The Wolf Brigade continues to be used by the media as a fob-off
It is extremely revealing of the mainstream media position that even in Hess’s relatively detailed and informative report, the responsibility for a joint MOI/MNF-I operation was subtly shifted towards SCIRI and that it was the Wolf Brigade which was reported to have carried out the raid. While Hess does not underline the point in this piece, the reference is unlikely to be missed altogether.

The significance of the attribution is that in many media analyses of human rights abuses related to the Ministry of the Interior, the Wolf Brigade has been singled out for blame. Rather than seeking to analyze its structure, most commentators have been content to describe it as a police commando unit attached to the Interior Ministry with a specifically Shiite leaning (for instance, see the Knight Ridder report by Hannah Allam, now very hard to find on the Internet). In this UPI report, the US military spokesperson describes the Wolf Brigade as a “public order Brigade” rather than as police commandos.

In fact, the MOI special police forces are made up of both police commandos and public order brigades, all of them trained and supported by embedded advisors from MNF-I.

According to Greer’s account, the 13 November raid was planned by a Public Order Division and was conducted by Public Order Division elements, reinforced by a brigade of Special Police Commandos, probably the Wolf Brigade. The effect of the UPI report is once again to divert attention from structure and organization and frame discourse within narrow sectarian lines that exclude US responsibility.

(iv) Counterinsurgency operations are not in the remit of backroom militias
In view of the persistent reports that the majority of extrajudicial killings can be attributed to members of the security forces following the detention of the victims (eg UN Human Rights Mission, Iraqi Organization for Follow-up and Monitoring), it is beholden on all interested parties to take any insight into the workings of those forces and the processes by which “targets” are selected for arrest with the utmost seriousness.

Yet no journalist has so much as mentioned the existence of an Operations Directorate, still less MNF-I’s cell within the MOI National Command Center, while the one journalist that seems to have written about Operation Knockout has fallen back into the familiar groove of “allegiance to Shiite groups” etc. The reason that I have quoted from Greer’s account at such length is to demonstrate the enormous behind-the-scenes effort required to conduct counterinsurgency warfare.

To reiterate the stages by which targets were selected:

• 1) Two months before the operation the intelligence section of the Operations Directorate began preparing a list of suspects based on intelligence gleaned from local informers;

• 2) The intelligence section produced dossiers on individual suspects;

• 3) One week before the operation the intelligence section passed the list of suspects to the Public Order Division commander;

• 4) The Public Order Division prepared folders on the individual suspects, making use of an airborne mapping capability;
5) Before commencement of the operation, last minute visual checks were made of individual suspects.

In the case of Operation Knockout, which seems to have half-served as PR exercise, Greer et al are falling over themselves to persuade their audience that the police behaved in exemplary fashion and that detainees were treated humanely. So how far is it possible to regard this operation as representative and how should we evaluate such operations in human rights terms?

Beyond Knockout
By far the most important aspect of this operation from an analytical perspective is that it was “Intelligence Based.” It is quite clear from Greer’s description that what that means in layman’s terms is that lists of targets were put together in some sort of centralized planning hub before being passed to individual police units responsible for seizing them in the middle of the night.

Whilst nothing like the level of detail offered in Greer’s report is available for most of the cases of arrest and extrajudicial killing by the security forces, in a few accounts we do have evidence that the victims have been selected based on lists of suspects (eg see Sydney Morning Herald, 11 March 2006, Reuters, 17 November 2005).

These details are the hallmarks of “intelligence based” counterinsurgency operations and strongly indicate that most or all of the campaigns of mass arrests taking place nightly across Iraq emanate from the intelligence offices of the Interior Ministry. This impression is further reinforced by another UPI account of an earlier raid that took place in Baghdad in June 2004.

Once again, we are told that the lists of suspects (in this case ordinary criminals) had been meticulously prepared in advance through the use of informers by the intelligence branch at the Ministry of the Interior, incidentally under the command of a Sunni Kurd.

Such operations simply cannot be conceived and carried out from some backroom at Badr or Mahdi HQ. If we were still to persist in advocating that SCIRI, or some such party, was behind these operations, against all of the available evidence, we would also be forced to conclude that the US had ceased to have influence inside the Interior Ministry, unless of course they were acting in tandem.

In fact, we know that Iraq’s entire new intelligence apparatus was built by the CIA (see Washington Post, 11 December 2003, Knight Ridder, 8 May 2005) and we can be certain that the intelligence offices at the Interior Ministry and elsewhere remain saturated with US intelligence agents/advisors (New York Times, 14 December 2005).

And despite reassurances from the US military that Knockout represents the new style of “humane” Interior Ministry operation, the empirical evidence keeps mounting up, day upon day, week upon week and month upon month, that death squads are continuing their genocidal campaign without stint. The latest figures from Baghdad suggest that an average of 70 new victims of extrajudicial execution appear in the Morgue every single day and these are now starting to be backed up in Basra, where we told that on average one person is killed per hour.

Let us pray that in this case the more than 300 detainees taken during Operation Knockout have indeed been treated humanely. In this case it is beholden not just on the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior but on Multi Nation Force-Iraq to demonstrate that every one of the people seized from the Baquba vicinity on 13 November has either been released or continues to be held in “humane conditions.”

If MNF-I really wants to prove that it is not responsible for the death squads, it must publicly release the names of all 377 supposed suspects so that the world can see who it is arresting and tell us where they are today. It needs to prove to its critics that the human rights of its detainees have been respected and that they have not been hung by their wrists until their arms are dislocated or beaten until it is impossible to tell the color of their skin, or burnt with cigarettes, or had their eyes gouged out or their fingernails removed.

MNF-I needs to prove that one of its proxy policemen hasn’t tortured a single one of them with an electric drill and thrown their body onto the street like the other thousand that appear every month in Baghdad. It needs to prove it, because otherwise we?ll know for sure that this time it ordered it!

(Continued, Part 2)

Max Fuller has worked for some years as a member of the Colombia Solidarity Campaign in the UK and has read extensively on US policy and Latin America. He is the author of several reports published in the Bulletin of the Colombia Solidarity Campaign. Max Fuller is the author of For Iraq, the Salvador Option Becomes Reality and Crying Wolf: Media Disinformation and Death Squads in Occupied Iraq’, both published by the Centre for Research on Globalisation. He is a member of the BRussells Tribunal Advisory Committee and he is an authority in the field of “Death Squads” and “the Salvador Option”. He can be contacted via the website:
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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Centre for Research on Globalization. The Centre for Research on Globalization.

© Copyright Max Fuller,, 2006

Continued: Part 2