In Iraq, U.S. Special Forces gearing up to leave

March 24, 2011

Several nights a week, Iraqi and U.S. special forces operatives head out in Humvees or Black Hawk helicopters to arrest extremists in the most volatile region of Iraq.

After years of training with their U.S. counterparts, the black-clad Iraqi forces are taking the lead, busting in doors and arresting suspects while their American advisers monitor the mission.

The United States has its own counterterrorism force on the ground here, and its work has remained a priority even as the number of American combat troops declines, in preparation for their full withdrawal by the end of the year.

But the U.S. Special Operations trainers here say their work is almost done, as the about 4,100 members of Iraq’s Special Operation Forces — trained and equipped by the United States — gear up to be the main bulwark against insurgents.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s direct command of the elite forces has prompted fears among some Iraqi political parties and factions that the units will turn into a private militia. Maliki has denied that he maintains a security force outside the regular chains of command, but the United States has pushed for the force to be placed under a conventional chain of command, overseen by the Defense Ministry.

In Mosul, one of the key areas for counterterrorism operations in Iraq, worries about prime ministerial meddling are distant. On a recent day, Col. Farhad Haji Omer, an Iraqi Kurd who leads the 7th Regional Commando Battalion, based at the U.S. military’s Camp Marez, was focusing on the mission later that night.

Farhad, dressed in the signature black army fatigues of his unit, used a PowerPoint presentation and a red laser pen to brief his 43 men and nine American trainers. He showed aerial pictures of a neighborhood in the city of Tal Afar where they planned to detain a man suspected of making car and road bombs. Weeks of intelligence operations had confirmed that the man, and possibly his two brothers, would be hiding in a safe house on the edge of town.

“In the beginning, we did the planning and the hits,” said a U.S. Special Forces captain. “Now we just give advice after the mission is over.” The Americans sometimes do more, providing intelligence assistance before and during missions and using their weapons, if needed, in self-defense.

The U.S. officer had spent four tours training Iraqi counterparts and, with his time in the country coming to an end, he said his mission was nearly done. “These guys can take care of business themselves,” said the captain, whose identity, like that of other U.S. Special Forces operatives, was withheld for security reasons.

A late-night operation

Farhad rode shotgun in the leading Iraqi Humvee as a nine-car convoy winded through the deserted streets of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in the dead of night. At his request, the Americans wore the same black fatigues and checkered scarves as his men, so suspects would not think the United States was leading the mission.

The three vehicles that carried U.S. soldiers were painted in the same camouflage used by the Iraqi army. And despite their secondary role, the Americans were fully armed. “We remain in the background,” one officer one. “But we will use deadly force if needed.”

Tapping on a flat screen, communicating with those controlling the surveillance drones flying overhead, the U.S. soldiers focused on the dimmed taillights of Farhad’s vehicle as they sped to Tal Afar, dodging potholes and stray dogs.

The Iraqis “don’t just drive there and pick up the guy,” a U.S. Special Forces intelligence officer said. All suspects must first be read a warrant for their arrest written by a judge in Baghdad, he said. After a suspect is taken into custody, the Iraqi source who supplied information about the suspect’s whereabouts must confirm that the correct person has been detained.

Using U.S.-supplied night-vision equipment, dozens of Iraqi special forces operatives silently streamed into a one-story house in a rundown Tal Afar neighborhood. Seconds later, a man kneeled on the floor with his hands behind his back. One of Farhad’s assistants read him his rights and his warrant. The U.S. soldiers, recognizable only because of a small American flag on the shoulders of their uniforms, nodded in satisfaction.

As the man confirmed the nearby location of one of his wanted brothers, Farhad made a snap decision to round him up as well, and, by phone, secured an arrest warrant. When the steel door to the brother’s house didn’t open after repeated kicks, Iraqi soldiers used a metal battering ram to break through. Once inside, the suspect was quickly seized, his wife and children crying, as an Iraqi special forces camera team taped the entire operation, gathering evidence to counter any accusations of mistreatment.

A third brother, alleged to have financed the terrorist cell with money brought in from neighboring Syria, was said to be hiding in Mosul. “We’ll get him tomorrow,” Farhad said.

Controversy over role

The Iraqi Special Operations Forces are not without controversy.

A report by the Office of the U.S. Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction in October emphasized growing worries about the weak oversight of the special forces, which are divided into two brigades, one in Baghdad and the other spread out in battalions across the country. It also noted that the Iraqi government is not investing in the units, which were formed using $237 million in U.S. aid.

In February, Human Rights Watch said that elite forces under the control of Maliki were operating secret detention sites in Baghdad where prisoners were being abused. Some human rights activists in the Iraqi capital suspect that the Baghdad brigade may have played a role in the violent crackdown late last month on participants in pro-reform demonstrations there.

The lieutenant general who commands the two brigades said U.S. worries about the prime minister supervising the country’s special forces were hypocritical. “In the U.S., the highest politician is also the commander in chief, so why not in Iraq?” said Talib al-Kenani.

He pointed to the intervention by his forces during an October kidnapping of dozens of Iraqi Christians in a Baghdad church as proof that his troops were acting for the good of their country and were capable of taking charge.

“We didn’t wait for the Americans when we saw those terrorists at work,” Kenani said. Although several people were killed, the Iraqi special forces operatives who entered the church managed to take out attackers wearing suicide vests. “If we had waited any longer, all would have died and the church would have been destroyed,” Kenani said as he sipped sweet tea in his office.

The highest-ranking U.S. Special Forces adviser to the Iraqis, based in Baghdad, agreed that the October hostage-taking could have turned into a “total disaster” had the Iraqi special forces not responded so swiftly. He said that the elite force had reached full professional levels and that any questions about its legal supervision were beyond his purview.

“These folks are not at the beck and call of Prime Minister al-Maliki,” he said, adding that they were excellent fighters. “In the end, it’s up to [Iraqi officials] to lay the legal framework for their forces. That is out of our hands.”

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