American 'combat operations' in Iraq are now over, and the security of civilians rests with the country's increasingly powerful army and police. Nir Rosen reports from Baghdad.
In September 2004, General David Petraeus penned an op-ed for The Washington Post on the training of Iraq’s security forces, highlighting the critical importance of “the effort to enable Iraqis to shoulder more of the load for their own security.” Petraeus, who was then at the head of a new command charged with building Iraqi security capabilities, suggested that he could see “tangible progress” and “reasons for optimism”: 100,000 police and soldiers were trained and equipped, and Iraq’s security forces were “developing steadily and… in the fight.”
At the time there seemed little cause for optimism. The Iraqi army had performed poorly in Najaf and Fallujah earlier in 2004, and American commanders were openly complaining that 80 per cent of Iraqi soldiers were absent without leave, and that the ones who did show up were incompetent. In the years that followed, American and Iraqi forces failed to halt continuing resistance to the occupation as Iraq’s civil war increased in intensity; the security forces themselves acted essentially as sectarian militias, fighting the civil war rather than protecting the population.
But by the end of 2007, signs of a distinct change in the security forces had become evident. The Americans began to purge the army and police of the worst sectarian elements, and Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al Maliki, surprised Iraqis by targeting Shiite militias beginning in early 2008, winning the grudging support of Sunnis.
In 2008 I was stopped by Iraqi National Police on Palestine Street in Baghdad. They thought I was a suicide bomber; I believed they were members of a militia that might kidnap me. As they tried to handcuff me, they repeated a mantra that I would hear again and again – one that underscored the dramatic shift in their orientation: “We are the state,” they insisted. “We are the law.”
Since then Iraq’s security forces have become vastly more effective in targeting Sunni and Shiite militias; I began to see their checkpoints in remote areas and in neighbourhoods once firmly controlled by the Mahdi Army or Sunni insurgents aligned with al Qaeda. The militias that wreaked untold destruction during the civil war are no longer visible on the streets, and Iraqis no longer need them to serve as sectarian self-defence forces.
In place of the warring militias the state has vastly expanded its own authority, and not without some complications. Iraqi police and soldiers represent a marked improvement on the kidnapping gangs and militias that once ruled swathes of the country – but now there are increasing complaints of corruption; Iraqis resent having to pay bribes to police at checkpoints, or to investigating officers and judges. A few weeks ago one of my friends was arrested while driving through his south Baghdad neighbourhood for smoking during the Ramadan fast. The police at a checkpoint who arrested him, he said, were smoking their own cigarettes; they beat him and took him to a police station, and he had to pay $2,000, after spending three nights in jail, to secure his own release and get his car back. “Everybody in prison is taking money,” he said.
My friend Maher paid $6,000 to secure the release of his nephew, who had been arrested on false pretenses by the Iraqi Army; Maher had previously paid $500 just to transfer him to a prison with better conditions. His brother, he alleged, had also been jailed for a week under a false accusation to extort money from him. "It’s a job now," Maher explained.
On August 31, Barack Obama announced the end of “combat operations” in Iraq; the country was declared sovereign for at least the fourth time since 2003. The milestone, of course, was an artificial one – there were no signs of palpable change in the days that followed. The real shift, in fact, had taken place a year earlier, when American troops largely withdrew to their bases and Iraqi security forces took control of day-to-day policing. The last year, then, has provided a test of how they might handle the country’s security. Iraq remains a heavily militarised country: the ubiquitous checkpoints are now manned by the Iraqi police and the army. It feels, in short, like Iraq is now occupied by Iraqis.
The dark days of civil war are now unquestionably over and show no signs of returning. Armed militias still commit acts of deadly violence, but they are no match for the Iraqi security forces, and there is little chance that sectarian conflict will again engulf the country. But Iraq is far from calm, and the critical question now is whether the country’s own police and army – still targeted by militants – can provide an adequate level of security. In an attempt to find out, I spent much of the last month talking privately and candidly with Iraqi police and soldiers.
The picture that emerged remains complex: there have been unqualified operational successes, and the army and police have established themselves as the dominant force in an increasingly stable, and increasingly authoritarian, Iraq. Bribery has supplanted sectarian kidnappings, and corruption now poses a greater threat than incompetence. Sectarian violence has diminished, but sectarian politics remains the order of the day, and much of the senior officer corps owes its position to patronage rather than merit.
Hassan, a young man from Ghaziliya in west Baghdad, joined the nascent Iraqi army in July 2003 along with 20 other men from his neighbourhood. Today at least four of them are dead, and another is missing a leg. Now a sergeant major, Hassan is a veteran of countless battles: he fought against the Mahdi army in Najaf in 2004, and against Sunni insurgents in Falluja that same year.
In 2006, he told me, the army was bolstered by cooperation with the Mahdi Army, Muqtada al Sadr’s Shiite militia after the deadly attack on the Imam al Askari shrine in Samarra. “After Sammara”, he said, “Shiites really hated the terrorists.” Describing the army’s collaboration with the Mahdi Army in Hurriya, in northern Baghdad – where thousands of Sunnis were expelled, allegedly for backing insurgent groups – Hassan said: “As the Iraqi army, our interest is the state and when the Mahdi army’s interest was with the state we were with them.”
By 2008, however, the Mahdi Army had become a target; during Operation Charge of the Knights, Hassan fought them in Baghdad’s predominantly Shiite Shuula district. Some of his comrades, he told me, refused to fire their weapons – because they were from Shuula or had relatives there, or because they remained loyal to the Mahdi Army. Forty soldiers from Hassan’s regiment are now in jail for dereliction of duty during Operation Charge of the Knights, some serving up to seven-year terms, which Hassan thought were well-deserved. “They abandoned their comrades,” he said. “People in the army”, he continued confidently, “are loyal to the country, to the government, to Maliki.”
A week ago, on September 4, Muqtada al Sadr sent a message to his hundreds of thousands of followers during the Friday sermons at Sadrist mosques across the country, declaring that they were forbidden to attack the Iraqi security forces. Anyone who did so, the sermons suggested, would not be protected – meaning they could be killed. Hassan had little faith in Sadr’s good intentions, however. “He gives you a rose and then he attacks you,” he said of Sadr. But he was confident that Sadr could not undo his ceasefire. Shiite neighbourhoods in the capital, he insisted, could no longer come under the armed control of Shiite militias: “There is now a strong power in Baghdad.”
Like many Iraqis, Hassan said he thought the Iraqi people would not tolerate the return of armed groups. “I lost my brother. People are tired of fighting. The Iraqi people will fight for a creed but we saw that [the militias] were liars fighting for their own interests.” The army, he said, could handle any internal threat, but he wasn’t so confident about external actors. Hassan is a Shiite, but he said he thought the main threats to Iraq came from Iran and Syria. He was also raring to fight the Kurds: “I hate them like I hate Iran,” he said, “because they are racist against Arabs.”
Today Hassan is based in Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad, one of the last parts of Iraq that still has an al Qa’eda problem. About once a week, he told me, his unit comes under attack from roadside bombs; local electrical towers have repeatedly been blown up, rebuilt, and blown up again. “There are many terrorists there,” Hassan told me; “every week we find a cache of explosives.” In August, he said, his unit was given orders from Maliki to conduct a massive series of sweeping raids, arresting close to 500 people more or less at random; they found hundreds of kilograms of explosives. The army now has informants inside the Sunni insurgent groups, Hassan said; in July these tips led to the arrest of four al Qa’eda commanders in Abu Ghraib. “It was an Iraqi operation,” he said. “The Iraqi army has good intelligence. It has the power now.”
Mushtaq is a 27-year-old lieutenant who joined the Iraqi army in 2007. I met him with his brother Adil, a 17-year veteran of the Iraqi army and now a lieutenant colonel in army intelligence. Mushtaq patrolled former Mahdi Army strongholds like Washash, Iskan and Tobchi. “They all left,” he said of the Mahdi Army commanders. “There are vendettas against them, if they come back they’ll be killed.” The Sadrists were making a comeback now, he said, but only as a cultural current. “It’s impossible for them to return as an armed group because the leadership is outside their neighborhoods and there are warrants against them. If they come back they’ll be arrested.” When Kamal Zamil, an infamous Mahdi Army commander from Iskan, visited the neighborhood, Mushtaq said, “we got more than 100 calls from people saying he was there.”
The sectarian violence was over, Adil told me, and Iraqis refused to allow conditions to deteriorate again. Even the Sadrists, he said, were now working for the state. “They have salaries now, so they don’t want to lose that, now they have families, children. Also people are giving tips and writing statements.” The Sunni militants had also lost their power, Adil said: when Iraqi intelligence detained al Qa’eda leaders in Baghdad, he told me, they confessed under interrogation that their military wing now had fewer than 100 men.
Mushtaq, who is Sunni, told me that his only real encounter with sectarianism in the Iraqi army took place in 2005, when he was assigned to a new district and the commanding officer told him, “We control this area” – making it clear that “we” meant Shiites. Mushtaq and Adil explained that Sunnis avoided joining the security forces prior to 2005, in part because of fatwas from senior clerics and in part because the rapidly expanding Ministry of Interior, controlled by a Shiite sectarian party, only hired fellow Shiites. Things started to change around the time of the so-called Sunni Awakening, they said, but most of Mushtaq’s senior officers were still Shiites.
Hosham, a 25-year-old sergeant first class, joined the Iraqi army in July 2004. Originally from the Sunni bastion of Ghaliziya, he fled with his family after threats from Shiite militias, and now lives in a large squatter camp in Sadr City, a massive Shiite slum. The Sadrists allowed his family to settle there, he told me, as long as one of the men joined the Mahdi Army, a duty that fell to Hosham’s brother.
“I will fight in Mosul, Falluja, Diyala, but not in Sadr city,” Hosham told me. “I’m not going to fight my cousins.” But, he continued, “the Iraqi army doesn’t care about Sunnis or Shiites, there is no sectarianism. My loyalty is to the country, to the military.” His brother Osama, who is in the police, put it like this: “I am a military man. I am for my country, and I don’t follow any political party or religious party.”
Hassan, who is a Shiite, agreed there was no sectarianism in the army – the problem, he said, was political rather than religious. “Maliki took the generals for himself,” Hassan told me. “He planted people. All the senior officers are his men, and they are mostly Shiite.” Several soldiers, including Hassan, complained to me about what they call dubbat ad damaj, or “merged officers” – senior officers who obtained their positions thanks to political contacts. Most of these men came from Maliki’s Dawa Party, or the Badr brigades – the armed wing of the Shiite Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. “Three quarters of my officers are like this,” Hassan complained. “They don’t know anything. They can’t give orders and don’t know strategy. A sergeant gives better orders than them.” The problem, he said, had only got worse since Operation Charge of the Knights, Maliki’s 2008 offensive against the Mahdi Army: “The Americans removed their hand from the army and Maliki got stronger. When they started bringing in damaj officers it started destroying the army. Saddam did this for his Quds Army, putting Baath members as officers. Maliki is doing the same thing.”
As an example of the pernicious influence of the damaj officers, Hassan told me that the general in charge of his brigade was afraid of a 1st lieutenant serving under him because the lower-ranking officer, a Shiite who fought against Saddam in 1991, had better political connections. “My battalion commander is a coward,” Hassan said. “He is a Sunni and afraid of the damaj officers.”
The army and police have seen off any rivals to their own power – though the two services now regard each other with open disdain – and the sectarian divisions within their ranks have been all but erased. But the consolidation of power has brought its own problems, from corruption to unchecked authority and total lack of accountability.
Every soldier and policeman I spoke to lamented the rising corruption in both forces. Mushtaq, the army lieutenant, said that bribery was a bigger problem with the police, who commonly demanded payments to release prisoners. “The army can only hold someone for 24 hours, after that we have to give him to the police or free him,” he said. “People in the army fear and respect the law.” Despite that, he said corruption was a serious problem among army officers, and he knew many who had been jailed. “The army takes 150,000 dinars ($13) each month from our pay cheques for services and for food,” he said, “and the officers take half of that for themselves.”
Hassan told a similar story. “Our battalion takes money from soldiers for food, but the officers are taking the money, and they don’t bring good food for us.” Corruption, he suggested, trickled down from the officers to soldiers as well: “If a soldier is at a checkpoint for many days and the food is bad,” Hassan said, “what can he do? He’ll start to take money from people.” Some officers have become relatively wealthy: one friend of mine, who serves as a captain in the army, drives a Nissan Armada that cost more than what he makes in a year.
Raad is a first lieutenant who works in intelligence for the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (SOF). Along with the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Forces (ICTF), the SOF is considered the most professional and elite unit in Iraq, and answers directly to Maliki. The Americans consider these units to be the premier counter-terrorism forces in the Middle East; their detractors refer to them as Fedayeen al Maliki, a reference to Saddam’s own paramilitaries and to the black uniforms worn by the ICTF.
A few weeks before I met him, Raad said, the SOF had confronted a police chief and his captain in Abu Ghraib over allegations of corruption: “They used to charge tens of thousands of dollars to release hostages,” he told me. But when the Special Forces arrived, the police chief’s men emerged with guns, and he refused arrest; the SOF pulled back to avoid a shootout, and the counter-terrorism forces returned at night to make the arrest. “A month ago,” Raad continued, “we arrested three captains from the army for supporting armed groups.” They were also arresting “a lot” of police officers, he said, for abusing civilians.
At the same time, Raad described to me operations in which the SOF executed its own targets rather than make arrests. Hamudi Naji, the notorious head of the Mahdi Army in Baghdad’s Washash neighbourhood, was riddled with bullets and then hung on the street as a warning. “What kind of information can you take from Hamudi Naji?” Raad asked. “We don’t need anything from him, we only need his head.” Afterwards, he said, the SOF received a letter from Maliki insisting that they couldn’t simply execute people. The SOF had killed about 30 people in a raid at a Sunni mosque in 2009, Raad told me, but those days were over. “We can’t do that anymore because things are stable, we can’t just go into mosques and kill people.” But they could still conduct massive sweeps for suspects, arresting men by the dozens: after a suicide attack in August targeting army recruits, he said, they arrested about 130 people at random in the Sunni Fadhil neighbourhood, because the suicide bomber was thought to have come from there.
He and his comrades were frustrated with the Iraqi court system, Raad said, complaining that the judges were corrupt and that guilty people were often released after paying bribes. One militia leader from Basra who was arrested during Operation Charge of the Knights in 2008 after killing about 70 people was subsequently released by a judge, Raad said. “Our commander told us to get him out of court.” After one SOF general was killed, along with his daughter, by a magnetic bomb attached to the underside of his car, his men found the five culprits celebrating in Baghdad’s Yarmuk district. They captured and executed them, Raad said. Harsh torture was still common, Raad admitted, and the SOF were still very much above the law.
Most of the soldiers, officers and policemen told me, with great confidence, that the security forces would have no trouble securing Iraq after an American withdrawal. “If there aren’t Americans,” I was told by Abdel Karim, a lieutenant colonel with the emergency response police, “there won’t be IEDs. The situation will improve after the Americans leave.” Hosham and Osama, the brothers from Sadr City, agreed. “If the army doesn’t control the situation, then the police can control it,” Osama told me. “If the Americans leave, things will stabilise and get better after a month or two.”
Hassan, the sergeant major from Ghaziliya, said he didn’t believe the Americans had really left, despite the proclamation that combat operations had concluded. “Of course this government is occupied,” he scoffed. “Can the prime minister act for himself?” At the same time, however, Hassan said he hoped the US military would continue training Iraqi forces for the next decade. The Iraqi Security Forces could unquestionably control Baghdad and other urban areas, he said, but they still had trouble in rural areas, and their logistical ability was still weak. Since the withdrawal began, he said, the quality of Iraqi equipment had deteriorated, and the culture of the army had suffered from a lack of American guidance. The American army is built around the leadership skills of its non-commissioned officers, and the Americans struggled to instil the same military culture in the Iraqi army. “In the Iraqi army they don’t let sergeants have authority," Hassan complained. "The Americans tried, but after they left it changed. In the Iraqi army there is discrimination and segregation between sergeants and officers. Iraqi officers get better food and better weapons than soldiers.” As a result of the growing corruption, the rise of politically appointed officers, and the ill-treatment of soldiers, professionals like Hassan were losing their enthusiasm. “I joined because I loved my country,” he said. “I loved working with the Americans. Now it’s just for money: before, there was a creed, but now it’s just following orders.”
Mushtaq, the army lieutenant, wanted the Americans to stay to help build the Iraqi air force. The Iraqi army still needed air support, he said. His brother Adil added that they needed logistical support as well: “The Americans provide pressure to encourage officers to work better," he said. Mushtaq complained that his company of soldiers patrolled an area with three ministries, three colleges, eight mosques and three schools, but “we only have one Humvee. When the Humvee broke down we had to use personal vehicles.” One of the damaj officers, he added, often wouldn’t let the men use the Humvee, forcing them to drive around in non-armoured personal vehicles. “There are thousands of Humvees in the warehouse,” Mushtaq complained. “I hear Maliki is afraid to give the Iraqi army new Humvees because he is afraid of a coup.”
Not everyone has such confidence in the ability of the Iraqi army and police to maintain security in the wake of the withdrawal of American combat troops. This was the question of the week on the popular American-sponsored station Radio Sawa; most of the callers said “no”. “They can’t even protect themselves,” one caller scoffed. But despite the increasing anxiety over the protracted struggle to form a new government, there has been no sign of a developing security vacuum to match the ongoing political vacuum. If the security forces can hold together – and not split along political or sectarian lines – then Iraq will become more stable, even if it becomes more authoritarian at the same time. For the time being, the security forces have maintained their professionalism, but they are still new and fragile, and susceptible to the corruptions of power and money. Some officers in the south, especially in Basra, have begun to meet openly with politicians; other commanders, fearing for their careers, now take what several soldiers described to me as excessive caution when approving operations – lest they alienate parties or politicians who may be their bosses in the future.
But the challenges still ahead for the security forces cannot obscure the changes that have already taken place in Iraq. This week, while leaving Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, I picked up a soldier hitchhiking home. He was originally from Basra, and had been transferred to Ramadi. The militias in Basra, he said, were finished now, and the army was strong. In Anbar, he continued, units were still targeted by occasional insurgent attacks, but they had the situation under control. He too complained of incompetence among some commanding officers, who had been appointed because of their background in Maliki’s Dawa Party; because of administrative problems, he added, he hadn’t been paid for eight months. As he sat in the car, I thought that none of this would have been possible two or three years ago: back then, off-duty soldiers had to lie about their work and leave their military identification back at the base. And in those days, no civilian would ever have picked up a stranger asking for a ride in Ramadi.
Nir Rosen is a Fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security. His book Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World is out next month.