Iraq to Purge Corrupt Officers

Times Staff Writers

Iraq’s Shiite Muslim leadership, alarmed by a surge in attacks as the new government prepares to take office, plans to crack down on Sunni-led insurgents and purge suspected infiltrators and corrupt officers from the nation’s security forces, officials and lawmakers say.

A likely tactic, authorities say, is unleashing well-trained Iraqi commandos in Baghdad and other trouble spots. The special forces units have a reputation for effectiveness and brutality.

Whether additional Iraqi troops can tame an insurgency that has not withered in the face of massive U.S. military might remains to be seen. But Shiite leaders express confidence that determined Iraqi forces, with U.S. backup, can use their superior knowledge of the culture, language and terrain to gather intelligence, infiltrate cells and defeat the guerrillas.


The plan for Iraqi commandos’ wider deployment is indicative of how the raging guerrilla conflict here is increasingly a war pitching Iraqis against Iraqis, leading to a decline in U.S. casualty rates as the number of Iraqi dead soars.

The prospect of stepped-up counterinsurgency efforts is greatly unsettling to a Sunni Arab minority that already considers itself besieged and disenfranchised in the new Iraq. Most Sunni Arabs boycotted the Jan. 30 election, and their political representation is scant.

Shiite leaders insisted on controlling the Interior Ministry during marathon talks to form the new government. Their plan is to oust guerrilla informants and sympathizers of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party and go after insurgents in a more concerted fashion than the regime of outgoing Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, whose political slate was shut out of the new Cabinet.

Allawi, a secular Shiite who was himself a Baathist turned foe of Hussein, tried with little success to coax insurgents into the government through talks with Sunni tribal leaders and other intermediaries.

Although Allawi did sign off on the U.S.-led attack on the former Sunni rebel bastion of Fallouja in November, the Shiite Islamists about to assume power here are clearly signaling a much harder line.

“Our policy will be to develop the security forces and uproot the terrorist cells,” Jawad Maliki, a prominent member of the dominant Shiite coalition in the new National Assembly, said in an interview here.

“They [Allawi’s appointees] should have dealt with this situation from the beginning,” added Maliki, a member of the political bureau of Dawa, the Islamist party of incoming Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari. “We will not let this grow.”

The incoming interior minister also took a tough stance. “The recent acceleration in terrorist attacks is posing a serious challenge on the ground,” Bayan Jabber told Al Hayat newspaper a day after the new government was approved. “We must take immediate action.”

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other U.S. officials have warned that a large-scale purge could sweep out capable officers as well as compromised ones. U.S. authorities also fear a backlash among Sunni Arabs who might otherwise join the evolving political process and renounce armed struggle.

“If they [Iraqi authorities] want to reduce the level of the insurgency, having competent people and avoiding unnecessary turbulence is a high priority,” Rumsfeld said in Washington last week.

But representatives of the new Shiite administration have harshly assailed the outgoing Interior Ministry, which is in charge of internal security, as riddled with insurgent informants and sympathizers of Hussein’s former Baathist regime.

The names of new policemen are being sold to “terrorists” bent on assassination, the new interior minister said, and suspects pay bribes to be sprung from custody.

“I could not sleep when I heard about this,” Jabber said in an interview with a television station run by his Shiite political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. “We know many of these violators and we plan to discover the rest. We will take measures and people will see the changes in two months.”

Shiites have agreed to allow a Sunni Arab to run the Defense Ministry but have already vetoed at least one candidate because of past Baathist ties. In the absence of a Sunni candidate acceptable to the Shiite majority in the National Assembly, Prime Minister Jafari assumed the top defense post on a temporary basis.

The new Shiite leadership appears determined to use its control of the Interior Ministry as a spear point in coming offensives. Tens of thousands of police officers and other troops are under its command.

Authorities plan increased deployment of the Interior Ministry’s special commandos, known as Maghawir (Fearless Warrior) brigades.

The units are largely composed of well-trained veterans of Hussein’s military who worked closely with U.S. forces during pitched battles last year in Najaf, Fallouja and the northern city of Mosul. Their loyalty to the new Iraq has been tested, officials say, despite their service as commandos in Hussein’s regime.

“We get involved once the police are helpless [against insurgents] and unable to do their job,” Maj. Gen. Rasheed Flayih Mohammed, commander of the 12,000-strong Maghawir, said in an interview here.

Although he acknowledged U.S. logistical and technical support, Mohammed insisted that his forces were all-Iraqi and largely free of the U.S. taint that has marred many Iraqi units. “The Iraqi people treat us with respect,” Mohammed said. “They love us because we are wearing our own Iraqi uniforms, and because we are doing our work by ourselves.”

The special forces units sport provocative titles -- including the Wolf, Scorpion, Tiger and Thunder brigades. Many Sunni Arabs view the squads suspiciously as largely composed of Shiite and Kurdish rivals eager to exact revenge for decades of suppression under Hussein, a Sunni Arab.

“I blame the Maghawir for this outrage,” Abdel Salam Kubaisi, a leading Sunni cleric in Baghdad, said of predawn raids and arrests early Friday at half a dozen Sunni mosques in Baghdad and Baqubah, northeast of the capital. At least one Sunni imam was killed.

“All of these people arrested are not terrorists: They are wise, simple and humble people,” said Kubaisi, spokesman for the Muslim Scholars Assn., a leading Sunni Arab group.

In a recent interview at the heavily guarded Interior Ministry here, an already legendary Iraqi commander known only as Maj. Gen. Abu Walid pointed at a sprawling wall map of Baghdad to indicate future targets.

“We are studying Baghdad now, to be ready for any mission we are assigned,” said Abu Walid, who heads the Wolf Brigade, which helped control Mosul after most of the police force abandoned their posts late last year during an insurgent uprising.

“Baghdad is filled with terrorists,” declared Abu Walid, a native of Shiite-dominated southern Iraq and whose real name remains a secret for security reasons.

The Wolf Brigade commander became a national celebrity after he began serving as host for taped “confessions” of alleged insurgents that were aired on television here. Sunni critics charge that many of the confessions were coerced through beatings, torture and other extra-legal means. Abu Walid denies mistreatment.

In recent days, blue-and-white pickups ferrying Wolf Brigade commandos have been seen about Baghdad. As is customary, the commandos were outfitted in Hussein-era garb: green-and-beige uniforms and red berets, the latter often adorned with their parachute wing medallion pins. They toted heavy machine guns, Dragunov sniper rifles and, in one case, rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

The planned counterinsurgency campaign comes as U.S. forces are increasingly turning over security to Iraqi forces, and attacks with sectarian overtones continue on almost a daily basis.

On Saturday, a car bomb went off outside a recently formed Sunni political organization that favored participation in the new government, killing at least one bystander and injuring 17. The night before, officials said, someone had sprayed automatic-weapons fire at the office.

“Whoever did this means to cripple the political process,” said Salih Mutlig of the Iraqi National Dialogue Council, the group that was targeted in Saturday’s bombing. “Without dialogue, the county will be headed to greater tragedies.”

Times staff writers Saif Rasheed, Raheem Salman, Caesar Ahmed, Suhail Ahmad and Zainab Hussein contributed to this report from Baghdad.