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How Petraeus Quietly Stoked the Fires of Sectarian War Without Getting Burned

Gen. David Petraeus led the US war strategy to a dependence on Shi’a militia, which inflamed sectarian war.

General David Petraeus tours an Iraqi Army facility where the training is done by Iraqi trainers who received their initial instruction from Coalition instructors, June 17, 2004, in Kirkush, Iraq.

In April 2004, the US-supported Iraqi Civil Defense Corps units, recruited from Sunni communities, collapsed in the face of insurgent offensive, shrinking overnight by more than 50 percent – including 82 percent of the troops in the Sunni stronghold of western Iraq. The US military and the Bush administration suddenly realized that they could not rely on the Sunni troops and police to fight the Sunni insurgency.

That event propelled David Petraeus into a new level of responsibility. He was given a new command to oversee the creation of a new Iraqi military and police force, along with his third star. Petraeus told Newsweek that he had met with President George W. Bush and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and they had told him, “Whatever you need, you’ve got it.”

The decision to name Petraeus commander of Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq (MNSTC-I) was accompanied by another momentous decision: the Defense Department abandoned its previous public policy of requiring that sectarian militias disband – a policy it had not actually carried out. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 19, 2004, Wolfowitz said, “The approach to those militias is to try over time to integrate them into new Iraqi security forces.”

The militias in question were both Shi’a and Kurdish, and the idea of using them to fight Sunni insurgents raised the specter of sectarian and ethnic warfare. But that was consistent with the larger strategy of Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy: a de facto alliance with the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and its military arm, the Badr Organization.

Their friend Ahmad Chalabi, head of the anti-Saddam Iraqi National Congress who was aligned with SCIRI and Badr, had promised them that that a Shi’a government would normalize relations with Israel. Along with the rest of the neoconservative elite, Wolfowitz and Feith refused to believe Chalabi’s allies intended to pursue a sectarian Shi’a political agenda, with support and direction from Iran.

A third consequential Bush decision followed the Petraeus command decision and the new reliance on Shi’a troops: an order to US commanders not to interfere, in effect, with the torture of prisoners by Iraqi security forces. On June 26, 2004, the US military command in Baghdad issued “Frago [fragmentary order] 242,” regarding the handling of incidents of detainee abuse by Iraqi troops and police. The order said, “Only an initial report will be made for apparent LOAC [Law of Armed Conflict Violations] … not involving US personnel. No further investigation will be required unless direct by higher HQ.”

That order, issued a few weeks after Petraeus had set up the new training command, opened the door for the use by newly formed Iraqi security forces of brutal interrogation techniques on suspected insurgents. It came shortly after the Abu Ghraib scandal over mistreatment of Iraqi detainees by US troops had blown up in April, raising serious questions about Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s previous approval of the use of torture by the US military to obtain intelligence on the Iraqi insurgency from detainees.

By then, the US military was anticipating the creation of new Iraqi military units that would be more aggressive in counterinsurgency, and it viewed detainees primarily as potential sources of intelligence.

Petraeus was clearly the lead official in making policy on the role the new Iraqi forces would play in the US war. Even before Gen. George Casey’s arrival to take command of Multinational forces in Iraq on July 1, 2004, Petraeus’s command had already completed an assessment of what Iraqi security forces would be needed and how they would be used. In July and August, Petraeus and Casey did another study that reached the same conclusion Petraeus had reached earlier: The US war effort “urgently needed” more paramilitary forces for counterinsurgency operations.

Petraeus presumably knew very well that pitting Shi’a troops against Sunni insurgents was a dangerous policy. When journalist Patrick Cockburn asked him in early 2004 before he left Mosul what his most important single piece of advice was for his successor, Petraeus answered, “Not to align too closely with one ethnic group, political party, tribe, religious group or social element.”

But in order to advance to a still higher command and get his fourth star, Petraeus needed the support of Wolfowitz and the White House. The evidence that has emerged in recent years indicates he was involved in the key decisions to using Shi’a sectarian paramilitary forces for counterinsurgency operations in Sunni population centers.

Petraeus Embraces the Wolf Brigade

One of Petraeus’s first moves was to hire as advisers two former officers with Special Forces and CIA experience, Jim Coffman and James Steele, and assign them to evaluate militia forces as potential additions to the Iraqi security forces.

Steele came equipped with prior paramilitary-backing experience: He led the US Special Forces Advisory Group in El Salvador in 1984-86. In a promotional bio for speaking engagements, Steele says he “commanded the US military group in El Salvador during the height of the guerilla war” and “was credited with training and equipping what was acknowledged to be the best counterterrorist force in the region.” Salvadorian paramilitary “special operations” units were accused by Salvadorian and international human rights organizations of acting as death squads that terrorized the countryside. Coffman had been in the Pentagon’s Office for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict before joining Petraeus’s staff.

Coffman was attached to a police commando unit under the command of Adnan Thavit, the uncle of the Sunni Minister of Interior Falah Hassan al-Naqib. Thavit, a former general under Saddam Hussein, had recruited troops known to be loyal to the former Ba’athist Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Once it had Petraeus’s blessing, it became the “1st Special Police Commando Brigade.”

Steele became adviser to the “Wolf Brigade,” a 2,000-man, openly Shi’a sectarian militia group linked to SCIRI through its commander, a Shi’a former Hussein general named Abdul Waleed.

The Wolf Brigade became the “2nd Special Police Commando Brigade,” but only because Petraeus wanted it. Interior Minister al-Naqib was extremely suspicious of the Badr militia. When President Jalal Talabani proposed sending Kurdish and Shi’a militias affiliated with the Badr Brigade into Sunni areas to help quell the insurgency in April 2005, al-Naqib told Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that using the Badr Brigade for counterinsurgency would pose a threat to national security.

After the collapse of the police force Petraeus had built in Mosul in November 2004, the Wolf Brigade was sent to the city to help put down the Sunni insurgency there. The Shi’a brigade quickly established a reign of terror in the city, as the commandos rounded up large numbers of Sunnis and tortured them. But rather than yielding intelligence on the insurgency, the abuse of prisoners produced only large numbers of coerced confessions.

The confessions gained countrywide fame for the Wolf Brigade and its commander, Abdul Waleed, because soon after the unit arrived, he introduced a weekly television program “Terrorism in the Grip of Justice,” featuring Sunni detainees in Mosul confessing to terrorist actions. The show was very popular among Shi’a when it was broadcast in Baghdad.

But most of the hundreds of confessions shown on the program over the first few months were false, because they were given under torture. A common theme of the program was that the Sunni prisoners were shown confessing not only to participation in the insurgency, but to drunkenness and sexual perversion.

One of those who confessed on camera was a 46-year old woman who was arrested in order to get to her brother who was suspected of being an insurgent leader. She was threatened with being sodomized, and then was whipped with an electric cable by six men, after which she signed the confession put in front of her. She was freed only after the Wolf Brigade left Mosul three months later.

The fact that the Wolf Brigade was systematically torturing the people it detained in Mosul was well known to US military and civilian officials. An Iraqi human rights organization compiled a dossier of 25 cases of detainee abuse in Mosul during those months, most of which were directly tied to the Wolf Brigade. A report from Mosul to the US Embassy in mid-June 2005 on that dossier noted that the allegations about the Wolf Brigade’s human rights violations were consistent with reports that had been received by the Stryker Brigade stationed in Mosul.

When the Wolf Brigade was sent to Ramadi in May 2005, their fearsome reputation among Sunnis across the country was such that some US military officers were worried that the strategy “carries the risk of inciting sectarian violence between the outside Shiite forces and local Sunni population.”

Petraeus’s Sectarian War Cover-Up

As he followed the developments in Mosul in late 2004 and early 2005, therefore, Petraeus could hardly have been unaware that the Wolf Brigade, a Shi’a paramilitary force, was becoming a symbol of terror for the Sunnis across the country. Had that fact become a theme of media coverage, and his own ties to the Wolf Brigade revealed, it would have been a blow to his plans for higher command.

But Petraeus had a strategy for keeping the news media from covering those themes. In February 2005, he shaped a media message on the police commando units that would insulate him from responsibility for their impact.

The Petraeus cover story on the new commando forces appeared in the Wall Street Journal February 23, 2005. The article mentioned “Special Police Commandos”, and stated that they were formed in September 2004, but it made no reference to the single biggest and most aggressive component, the Wolf Brigade.

An aide to Petraeus referred to the forces in question as “Irregular Iraqi ministry-directed brigades,” as though the MOI had actually made the decisions about the Wolf Brigade’s formation, deployment and combat roles. In fact, both the 1st and 2nd “Special Police Commando” units were operating under US military direction. As a retrospective study by Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart W. Bowen, Jr. acknowledges, however, “After being trained and equipped by MNSTC-I, Iraqi units were transferred to the control of MNC-I, which deployed them in support of the counterinsurgency campaign.”

The Wall Street Journal article further suggested that the commandos were autonomous from the US military command, while hinting that some of their behavior might have been problematic. It posed the choice facing Petraeus’s command as “whether to encourage these forces … or to try to rein them in.” Petraeus was quoted as saying he favored “fostering initiative,” adding, “I want to get the hell out of here.”

Three days after the Journal article, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius contributed to the Petraeus gloss on the police commandos. He wrote a column on the relationship between the commander of the Special Police Commandos, Gen. Adnan Thavit and Petraeus’s assistant Jim Coffman. Supporting the theme that the commandoes were autonomous, Ignatius wrote that Thavit had initially rebuffed US advances.

Ignatius even touched on the question of sectarian representation in the commandos, but only to reassure readers that it was not a real problem. While admitting that “most” of the commandos were “probably Shiite” – something he had presumably learned from Petraeus – Ignatius suggested that they included “a mix of the country’s religious and ethnic groups.” He quoted Thavit as saying, “I don’t care who’s Shiite, who’s Sunni. I want only a good soldier who will fight for his country.”

The Ignatius column, like the Journal article, failed to mention the existence of the Wolf Brigade, much less the problem of human rights abuses by Shi’a troops against Sunni suspects.

Even well-informed readers – including the rest of the news media – would have gleaned from the two articles inspired by Petraeus that the Iraqi police commandos were operating on their own, and in any case, reflected Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic breakdown.

From Counterinsurgency to “Sectarian Cleansing”

Despite the obvious sectarian bent of the Wolf Brigade and its ostentatious use of torture of Sunni detainees to obtain confessions, the Pentagon and the US military command were committed to using the Wolf Brigade as an aggressive counterinsurgency force against the Sunni insurgency and the Pentagon was determined not to interfere in their abuse of detainees. Apart from Mosul, in late 2004 and 2005, elements of the brigade were sent to virtually every Sunni population center in the country, including Samarra, southern Baghdad, Ramadi, Baquba and Tal Afar.

Iraq war logs released by WikiLeaks in 2010 included reports that described the US military handing their captives over to the Wolf Brigade for “further questioning” and using the threat of being interrogated by the Wolf Brigade to intimidate detainees.

The employment of the Wolf Brigade to do the dirty work of counterinsurgency was part of a larger Bush administration strategy to use militias that they could count on to hit the Sunni insurgents hard. Petraeus did not conceive the strategy, and may well have serious reservations about it personally. Nevertheless, he and his command provided a key element in the strategy.

And equally important, Petraeus did not use his considerable influence with the news media to create some pressure for significant modification of the strategy. Instead, he used the media to distance himself from what he knew were serious problems with it.

When he generated a narrative about the police commandos in February 2005, the Shi’a sectarian forces had won the national election, as expected, and Badr Brigade was poised to take over the Ministry of Interior in May 2005 and use it to expand operations like the Wolf Brigade into full-scale sectarian war against Sunni political-military forces in Baghdad.

Once it gained control of the Interior Ministry, the Badr Organization brought thousands of its own Shi’a militiamen and members of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army into the Iraqi police force and collaborated with the Mahdi Army to form “death squads” and otherwise terrorize the Sunni population of selected Baghdad neighborhoods. It was the beginning of “sectarian cleansing” in Baghdad.

Petraeus knew before he left his MNSTC-I command in September 2005 that US policy was leading to a Sunni-Shi’a war for Baghdad. When the New York Times asked an unnamed “senior American officer” at MNSTC-I in late July 2005 whether the US might be arming Iraqis for a civil war, the officer paused for a moment and then nodded and said, “Maybe.”

But the news media never made any connection – at least in print – between Petraeus and the appearance of the Wolf Brigade and the bloody sectarian war that followed.

The next segment (Part 3) of this series will chronicle how Petraeus continued to manage the war of perceptions in Iraq.

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