New Factor in Iraq: Irregular Brigades Fill Security Void

R.A. Hettinga rah at
Wed Feb 16 04:50:11 PST 2005


The Wall Street Journal

      February 16, 2005


Bands of Brothers
 New Factor in Iraq:
 Irregular Brigades
 Fill Security Void
Jailed by Hussein, Gen. Thavit
 Is Leading Thousands Now;
 Questions About Loyalty
'Toughest Force We've Got'

February 16, 2005; Page A1

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- In the battle against insurgents here, two kinds of Iraqi
military forces are emerging: the planned units and the pop-ups.

The planned units of the Iraq Army, about 57,000 soldiers strong, are the
result of careful preparation this summer between the U.S. and Iraqi
commanders. The pop-ups started to emerge last fall out of nowhere,
catching the American military by surprise. These dozen disconnected units
totaling as many as 15,000 soldiers are fast becoming one of the most
significant developments in the new Iraq security situation.

The unplanned units -- commanded by friends and relatives of cabinet
officers and tribal sheiks -- go by names like the Defenders of Baghdad,
the Special Police Commandos, the Defenders of Khadamiya and the Amarah
Brigade. The new units generally have the backing of the Iraqi government
and receive government funding.

While regular units of the Iraq Army have taken up residence on
rehabilitated army bases, the others camp out in places like looted
Ministry of Defense buildings, a former women's college, an old Iraqi war
monument and an abandoned aircraft hangar. Frequently, U.S. officials don't
find out about them until they stumble across them. Some Americans consider
them a welcome addition to the fight against the insurgency -- though
others worry about the risks.

"We don't call them militias. Militias are...illegal," says Maj. Chris
Wales, who spent most of January tracking down and finding these new
forces. "I've begun calling them 'Irregular Iraqi ministry-directed
brigades.' " The "pop up" label comes from other U.S. military officials in

Troops who might have otherwise joined the regular Iraqi Army are drawn to
these units because they are often led by a particularly inspirational
commander or made up of people with similar tribal and religious
backgrounds. This makes the units more cohesive and potentially effective
against the insurgency. "Just show us where to go and we will eat the
insurgents alive," an Iraqi in one of these units told Maj. Wales earlier
this month when he tracked them down at a long-shuttered Baghdad airport.

Dangerous Uncertainty

The bad news is that these new units can inject dangerous uncertainty and
confusion into an already complex battlefield. On Election Day, the Special
Police Commandos were rushing one of their wounded soldiers to the hospital
when they accidentally ran into an Iraqi Army checkpoint. The Iraqi Army
officers opened fire on the Commandos' black SUV, killing the three people
in the car.
See complete coverage2 of The Fight for Iraq.

Some U.S. officials worry about the new units' allegiances, which often
seem split between their religious and tribal sponsors and the central
government, creating the risk that the units could be used as militias if
Iraq falls into civil war. U.S. military commanders in Baghdad are
especially concerned about the Defenders of Khadamiya, which is forming to
guard a major Shiite shrine on the city's northern edge at the behest of
Shiite cleric Hussein al Sadr. U.S. military officials worry that the
group, which now numbers about 120 men but plans to grow to more than 800,
could be used to settle internal Shiite scores or deployed in a
Sunni-Shiite conflict.

As these irregular units proliferate, U.S. officials face a thorny dilemma:
whether to encourage these forces, whose training and experience varies
wildly, or to try to rein them in. "There is a tension between on the one
hand encouraging and fostering initiative and on the other executing the
plan for the Iraqi Security Forces that everyone agreed on," says Lt. Gen.
David Petraeus, who is overseeing the massive U.S. effort to help train and
equip Iraqi military units. "To be candid, I would err on the side of
fostering initiative. I want to get the hell out of here."

The first of these military units, the Special Police Commandos, was formed
in September by Gen. Adnan Thavit, the uncle of Iraq's interim interior
minister. The unit started with about 1,000 soldiers. When Col. James
Coffman, a senior aide to Gen. Petraeus, found them they were occupying a
heavily damaged Republican Guard base a few miles from the U.S. embassy.
"It was basically 1,000 guys at the time living in a bombed-out building
with no electricity, no plumbing and no bathrooms," the colonel says.

Col. Coffman, however, was struck by the unit's arms room, which was
stocked with rocket-propelled-grenade launchers, mortar tubes and lots of
ammunition. "The weapons were clean and organized," he says. He immediately
went on a patrol with the unit and was impressed by both Gen. Thavit and
his troops. The soldiers seemed to have a discipline that many of the
U.S.-trained Iraqi Army units lacked.

The 63-year-old Gen. Thavit, an intelligence officer in the old Iraqi Air
Force, attended military academies in the former Soviet Union and former
Yugoslavia. In the mid-1990s he joined a small group of former officers
plotting to overthrow Saddam Hussein. In 1996 their plan unraveled and Gen.
Thavit was sentenced to life in Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison. Gen.
Thavit and his second-in-command, Maj. Gen. Rashid Flayeh Mohammed, were
both released by Mr. Hussein along with thousands of other political
prisoners and common criminals just before the American invasion. One of
Gen. Thavit's former jailers, who gave him food and cigarettes, is now a
battalion commander in his new force.

The Second Defenders of Baghdad Brigade

On Col. Coffman's recommendation, Gen. Petraeus visited the Commandos' base
and was impressed with the troops. "When I saw them and where they were
living I decided this was a horse to back," the U.S. general says today. He
agreed to give the fledgling unit money to fix up its base and buy
vehicles, ammunition, radios and more weapons.

Unlike many of the U.S.-trained Army units, the Commandos, whose ranks
today include several thousand soldiers, have had few deserters. In early
January, insurgents crashed a car bomb into the gate of the unit's base,
killing six Iraqi recruits who hoped to join the Commandos and injuring
dozens more. Some of the injured went to the hospital, got bandaged up and
then returned to the base that afternoon still eager to join.

Forty-three Special Police Commandos have been killed in battles with
insurgents since September and about 300 have been wounded, U.S. officials

Part of the reason that the unit inspires such allegiance is that all of
their recruits are hand-selected by Gen. Thavit and Gen. Mohammed. By
contrast, most Iraqis who join the regular Iraqi Army are recruited at a
half-dozen joint U.S.-Iraqi-run recruiting stations and lack the cohesive
bond and pride that grows out of being handpicked.

"The reason the Commandos are special is that a couple of great leaders at
the top have just flat out put their imprint on that organization," says
Gen. Petraeus.

Some U.S. military officials, however, worry that the Commandos' allegiance
is as much to their leader as it is to the Iraqi government. "If you tried
to replace Gen. [Thavit] he'd take his...brigades with him. He is a very
powerful figure. You wouldn't get that from other units," says Col. Dean
Franklin, a senior officer in Gen. Petraeus's command. "Pound for pound,
though, they are the toughest force we've got."

Gen. Thavit says that his only goal is to defend the democratically elected
Iraqi government against insurgents and criminals. "I could see that the
police were not able to withstand the terrorists. As a professional soldier
I believed it was my duty to help build a force that could work against the
terrorists," he says. "I am an old man right now. I should be retired."

In late November with the Iraqi elections approaching, homegrown units
similar to the Commandos began popping up all over Baghdad. First came the
Muthana Brigade, a unit formed by the order of Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad
Allawi. It set down roots at a long-abandoned airport in downtown Baghdad.
Like the Commandos, the unit appeared to be well-trained and was pressed
quickly into service. "They went from not even existing to being as viable
as any Iraqi Army unit out there in six weeks," says Col. Franklin.

The Defenders of Baghdad, a far less disciplined unit made up of Baghdad
Shiites, emerged in early January. The unit took up residence around
Baghdad's Martyr's Monument, which commemorates Iraqis who died in the war
with Iran.

A few days later Maj. Wales, ordered in December to track the units,
located the Amarah Brigade in a bombed-out former Ministry of Defense
building. The U.S. Army's First Cavalry Division had been renovating the
building for an Iraqi National Guard unit, but the Amarah brigade pushed
the contractors out.

The leader of the ragtag group of solders claimed to be a cousin of the
Iraqi defense minister and said the minister's tribe had purchased the
cooking equipment the troops were using to survive, according to Maj.
Wales's report on the group.

Over the next three weeks, Maj. Wales says, he tracked down five other new
Iraqi units -- most of them from Shiite-dominated southern Iraq. For a week
no new units popped up on his radar.

Then on Jan. 30, the day before the Iraqi elections, Maj. Wales got a tip
via his boss, Gen. Petraeus, that a new 2,000-man force calling itself the
Second Defenders of Baghdad Brigade had formed somewhere in the city under
the command of an Iraqi general named "Faris."

But Maj. Wales's usual American and Iraqi sources had never heard of the
unit -- or the general. "There are no generals named Faris in the Iraqi
Army," one senior Iraqi general in the Ministry of Defense told him.

Maj. Wales began to think Gen. Petraeus had been passed a bad tip. "There
is no way in the world there could be a Second Defenders of Baghdad
Brigade," Maj. Wales said. "It is just impossible. There is no place in
Baghdad left to put them."

Maj. Wales made a few more calls to U.S. liaison officers working with the
Iraqis and turned up nothing. Finally, he got in touch with Gen. Babakir
Zebari, Iraq's top general, who said the brigade had recently moved into
tents and a hangar bay at Baghdad's long-abandoned Muthana Airport.

On Feb. 1, Maj. Wales and a small team of American officers set out to find
them. After about 15 minutes of searching the airport grounds, they found
the brigade. About half of them were in civilian clothes. The other half
wore new Iraqi Army uniforms. All of the men seemed to be from one or two
Shiite-dominated towns in southern Iraq. Many said they were vetted by
Sheik Ali Shalan of the Al Shamer tribe in southern Iraq.

"I joined this unit as an expression of my love for my country," said
Wathiq Rahim, a skinny young recruit from Hilla who was clad in a black
Christian Dior T-shirt and rubber sandals.

A short while later, Maj. Gen. Fouad Faris, the commander of the brigade,
drove up in a white SUV. A small round man who trained at Sandhurst, the
British military academy, Gen. Faris said there were 1,300 men at the
airport under his command and an additional 1,500 on the way. "I am very
close to the minister of defense, which is why he chose me for this
mission," Gen. Faris said. The Americans later confirmed his account with
top Iraqi military officials.

It wasn't clear, however, what the troops were going to do. Initially the
brigade was supposed to help guard election polling places, but they
arrived in Baghdad two days too late. "I was just yelling at the men for
not arriving here in time for the elections," he explained.

Now the general suggested that his troops might be asked to guard the Green
Zone, where the U.S. embassy is based. In the near term, he needed to find
someplace better to house the men and set up a brigade headquarters. "This
is not a good situation here," he told Maj. Wales. "It is much too crowded."

The unit that has generated the most concern among American military
officials is the Defenders of Khadamiya, the unit forming in northern
Baghdad to guard the Shiite shrine.

There is good reason for the unit. The shrine at Khadamiya draws some
800,000 Shiite pilgrims each year and poses an attractive target for Sunni
terrorists like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi eager to set off a Sunni-Shiite civil
war. But some U.S. military officials worry it could be used in internecine
battles between rival Shiite clerics.

Because the Defenders of Khadamiya force appears so closely aligned with
prominent Shiite cleric Hussein al Sadr, some U.S. officers worry that
other Shiite clerics might use the unit to justify forming their own
unauthorized militias. In particular radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr
might try to revive his Mahdi militia, which U.S. troops battled in Najaf
and Sadr city this summer.

Some senior officers in Gen. Petraeus's command have suggested the
Americans ask the Iraqis to consolidate all the new units in Baghdad under
a single division headquarters, putting them more firmly under the control
of the central government and making it easier for U.S. forces to
coordinate with them.

But there are limits to U.S. influence. "There is no way we can stop the
Iraqis from doing something they want to do. This is their country and
their army now," says Lt. Col. James Bullion who works for Gen. Petraeus.
"We can't put that genie back in the bottle."

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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