By Jonathan Finer and Naseer Nouri
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 28, 2006
BAGHDAD, March 27 -- Facing a scathing backlash from Shiite Muslim leaders a day after a deadly U.S.-Iraqi raid in Baghdad, U.S. military officials defended the mission Monday, saying it was a "hugely successful" operation against an insurgent hideout packed with weapons used against soldiers and civilians.
Along with two top generals, Lt. Col. Sean Swindell, whose unit participated in the raid, said the mission was led by Iraqi soldiers and targeted an insurgent group based at a compound in northern Baghdad. Sixteen Iraqis were killed, all combatants, U.S. officials have said.
Their version of events differed sharply from that of Shiite officials and Baghdad residents near the site of the raid, who for a second day voiced anger over the operation, saying U.S. and Iraqi troops targeted a Shiite mosque and gunned down innocent worshipers in the half-light of evening prayers.
"There was no resistance at all from the mosque. There were no weapons during prayers," said Muhammad Ridha, 39, who works at the complex in Baghdad's Shaab neighborhood. "The purpose of the raid was to kill Shiites."
The rejection of such characterizations by Swindell, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group, and other U.S. officers came in a series of television appearances and late-night conversations with reporters aimed at bolstering the U.S. version of events. American officials had been essentially silent about the raid for more than 24 hours, limiting their response to two written statements and a handful of photographs e-mailed to reporters.
Their comments also came as the American presence in Iraq -- long hailed, or at least tolerated, by Iraqi Shiites as a bulwark against factional violence -- faced its most precarious moment in months, according to U.S. diplomats and military officers, political analysts and Iraqi officials.
On Monday, political leaders canceled a round of negotiations over the formation of a new government and instead huddled with American diplomats in an attempt to rein in the burgeoning crisis. Meanwhile, the Shiite-led provincial government in Baghdad suspended all cooperation with U.S.-led forces until an investigation into the Sunday raid is conducted.
The rancorous standoff coincided with yet another devastating day of violence, with as many as 60 people killed across Iraq, including dozens of military recruits in a bombing in the northern city of Mosul.
"I certainly don't see any easy way out of this mess," said Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. diplomat who serves as a consultant to Iraq's Kurdish parties.
Further complicating U.S. efforts is the fact that those killed Sunday are believed to have been followers of the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Once a renegade distrusted by the Iraqi government, Sadr has spent the past year cementing his status as a political insider, incorporating members of his Mahdi Army militia into the Iraqi police force. More than 30 of his followers won seats in the new parliament.
"I was more surprised that the U.S. took on the Mahdi militia as it did," said Michael O'Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "We handled Sadr's forces very well in 2004 with a mix of carrots and sticks, and we have to be prepared to fight him again, but any time you fight him or someone associated with him, you run the risk of taking on all his legions, and that would be a huge negative."
While the enmity between U.S. and Shiite leaders may have peaked as a result of the raid, relations have been souring for the past several months. In late December, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad -- long praised as an evenhanded broker by all of Iraq's factions -- began warning political leaders forming a new government to put the security apparatus outside the control of Shiite militia leaders.
The pointed public request was a thinly veiled swipe at Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, who has ties to the Badr Organization, a Shiite group. On Monday, Jabr condemned the Sunday raid, telling al-Arabiya television that "innocent people inside the mosque offering prayer at sunset were killed," according to news services.
Jawad Maliki, an official with the Shiite Dawa party led by Shiite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari, said the raid was "aimed to provoke a civil war for political purposes during a critical political period of the process of forming a government."
Maliki also accused U.S. forces of "killing this number of people after handcuffing and torturing them." Witnesses said U.S. and Iraqi forces stormed the building at about 6 p.m., just as evening prayers were beginning, and shot several unarmed worshipers and officer workers. No evidence was provided to substantiate those claims.
A visit on Monday to the site of the raid -- which local residents said was a former office complex converted into a community center, with a mosque, a school and an office of the Dawa party -- revealed inner and outer walls pockmarked by bullet holes.
Photographs of Sadr were plastered on walls. The floor was caked with dried blood. In one room a small crater pocked the floor, a sign of what witnesses described as a sound grenade.
Residents carried at least 21 coffins from the mosque at 11 a.m., some draped in Iraqi flags or black mourning banners, and loaded them into the backs of pickup trucks escorted by armed men chanting anti-American slogans. The coffins were said to be bound for the Shiite holy city of Najaf for burial.
Unlike the Shiite leaders, U.S. military and civilian officials kept a low profile Monday, leaving some commanders and diplomats, and their Iraqi supporters, frustrated that their version of events was not being disseminated.
"Someone should have said something. The other side is talking, and the American side is silent," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish politician who works closely with U.S. officials. "To be silent here means you are on the weak side."
When they finally spoke out Monday night, U.S. commanders said that shots were fired from inside the compound and from surrounding buildings as soon as the soldiers arrived and that the Americans played mostly an advisory role. The lead unit, they said, was a special forces battalion known as the Iraqi counter-terrorism force.
"They were the drivers and the machine-gunners and the breachers," said Swindell, the lieutenant colonel.
He said the insurgent group based at the complex had been tracked for at least a month. He said he did not know if the group had a name, or what its religious affiliation was, but that members were believed to have tortured and killed at least three men belonging to the Iraqi counter-terrorism force.
About 50 Iraqi and 20 U.S. soldiers conducted the raid, Swindell said, adding that all but one or two of the slain insurgents were killed by Iraqi troops.
"There was nobody praying when we hit the objective, they were firing weapons at us," he said. "We had resistance the whole time, for about 45 minutes."
In a statement Monday, the U.S. military said 18 suspected insurgents were detained in the assault and three were wounded. The military also catalogued a large number of weapons found inside the compound, including 32 AK-47 assault rifles, two rocket-propelled grenade launchers and 12 "crush switch indicators" used to make bombs.
In a conference call with another general Tuesday night, Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, commander of the Multinational Corps-Iraq , said the Iraqi soldiers had told U.S. troops the targeted building was not a mosque. He also said that footage aired on Iraqi television Sunday and Monday showing unarmed men lying dead and Korans scattered at the scene of the attack had been staged.
"After the fact, someone went in and made the scene look different from what it was," he said.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, an ethnic Kurd, said Monday he would lead a committee charged with reconciling the widely divergent accounts of the raid. If wrongdoing is discovered, he said, "We will take them before a court, whoever they are. Everyone who commits a crime should be punished."
Correspondent John Ward Anderson and special correspondents Omar Fekeiki, Bassam Sebti, K.I. Ibrahim and Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad and Dlovan Brwari in Mosul contributed to this report.