Suspicious of Iraq’s CIA-funded national intelligence agency, members of the Iraqi government have erected a “shadow” secret service that critics say is driven by a Shiite Muslim agenda and has left the country with dueling spy agencies.
The minister of state for national security, a Shiite named Sherwan Waili, has built a spy service boasting an estimated 1,200 intelligence agents out of a second-tier ministry with a minimal staff and meager budget, Western officials say.
“He has representatives in every province,” a Western diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “At the moment, it’s a slightly shady parallel organization.”
Shiite officials say the minister is providing information on Al Qaeda and former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party that isn’t being supplied by the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, or INIS, Iraq’s primary spy service.
The INIS was established in the spring of 2004 by the U.S.-led provisional authority and has been under the command of Gen. Mohammed Shahwani, a Sunni Arab involved in a CIA-backed coup plot against Hussein a decade ago. For the last three years, the agency has been funded by the CIA, U.S. military and Iraqi officials say.
The service reports directly to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, but coreligionists in his government distrust the agency, which has agents from the Hussein era. For most of 2005 and the first part of 2006, Shahwani said, he was banned from Cabinet meetings.
“The general feeling is that the intelligence service is not functioning or conducting its work in the proper way,” said deputy parliament speaker Khalid Attiya, a Shiite.
The two spy agencies risk becoming open partisans in Iraq’s civil war if vying political parties do not reach an agreement on how to rule the country, one analyst warned.
“If no critical compromise is reached, the security services are going to fall apart on ethnic, sectarian and party lines,” said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East director of the International Crisis Group. “It will be a failed state situation like Somalia.”
From its conception, Shahwani’s agency has antagonized Iraq’s new Shiite elite. In September 2004, his men arrested at least 50 members of a Shiite party in southern Iraq called Hezbollah -- which is not linked to the Lebanese group of that name -- and detained them for several months. In the same period, Shahwani accused one of the country’s main Shiite political parties, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, of being on Iran’s payroll and blamed its militia for the deaths of 10 of his agents.
The Shiite drive to create the parallel secret service can be traced to the spring of 2005, when the United States, mindful of Shiite politicians’ close ties to Iran, fended off then-Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari’s effort to take charge of the INIS.
The U.S. had invested heavily in creating a strong spy service and trusted Shahwani, who has been a crucial asset to the Americans since the fall of Hussein’s regime. Shahwani, who owns a home in the U.S., provided them access to old army officers, and formed an Iraqi special forces unit, called the “Shahwanis,” that fought in the November 2004 battle to retake Fallouja from Sunni Arab insurgents.
Shahwani’s service “is funded completely by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, not by the Iraqi government,” a U.S. military official said on condition of anonymity. “U.S. funding for the INIS amounts to $3 billion over a three-year period that started in 2004.”
Asked about the funding, CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano said, “The CIA does not as a rule discuss publicly the details of its relationships with the intelligence services of other countries.”
After failing to remove Shahwani in 2005, Shiite officials sought to fill the gap. Then the minister of state for national security, Abdul Karim Anizi, lobbied Jafari to turn his post into a full-fledged ministry.
“He pushed to provide a service. He was very proactive. He exerted a lot of pressure and requested to make his post a full ministry, but the proposal didn’t move an inch,” a former government official said on condition of anonymity. “He started to recruit informers and sympathizers. He couldn’t give them full salaries, but he could give them government privileges and he built up a network of informers.”
When Anizi stepped down, he was replaced by Waili. The service has expanded dramatically in the last year, Waili said, getting around its limited state budget by hiring agents on contracts.
The agency provides a hard-line Shiite view in national security meetings, observers say.
“It’s slightly reactionary in a Shiite sense,” the Western diplomat said. “If you talk about [Sunni Muslim] Anbar province, you know he is going to take a view largely uncharitable toward the Anbar tribes.”
A U.S. official suggested that certain sectarian groups were frustrated with their inability to control the INIS and use it to advance sectarian agendas, and that was fueling the emphasis on the parallel service. The official also implied that Iran had sought to undermine the INIS, in part because of its close ties to the United States and the CIA.
“There might be some friction caused by the way this service operates -- it doesn’t operate on a sectarian basis,” the U.S. official said on condition of anonymity. “There appear to be people in Iraq, and perhaps in one of its neighboring countries, who do not like that fact.”
A Shiite official who deals with insurgency issues said that Waili was trying to steer his service away from a sectarian bias, but the problem was with those surrounding him.
“He is trying very hard to move away from sectarianism and say this is a government to protect the people, but some of his officers have sectarian views,” the official said.
Waili said his main goals were to crack down on Al Qaeda, Baathists, militias and criminals. But his service has no legal charter to engage in domestic spying or arrest people, and it is lobbying for a law that would formalize its surveillance activities, make it a full ministry and bring the CIA-funded INIS under its control. But the governing Shiite coalition has not made its mind up about whether to formalize Waili’s powers.
Sunni Arabs speak with deep distrust of Waili’s ministry, describing it as sectarian in nature.
“I think non-Shiites would find it difficult to be accepted in this ministry. It is a nonprofessional organization,” said independent Sunni lawmaker Mithal Alusi, who serves as an informal consultant to Maliki.
Alusi said Waili’s men had been arresting people on raids.
In their most controversial operation, Waili’s agents spied on at least one Sunni member of parliament they suspected of terrorist activities. The agents submitted evidence during the winter to the Iraqi judiciary in a campaign to strip Sheik Abdel Nasser Janabi of his parliamentary immunity.
Janabi, a fundamentalist cleric, is accused of being behind the killings of more than 150 Shiites in the so-called “triangle of death,” a region just south of Baghdad, where Sunni extremists regularly target Shiites.
Parliament Speaker Mahmoud Mashadani, an ally of Janabi, said the investigation was politically motivated, and illegal.
“The information depends on an undercover officer from a ministry that doesn’t even have the [legal] right to conduct surveillance,” Mashadani said.
Waili defended his actions, saying his agents are tasked by the government to gather evidence, adding that they can participate in arrests if authorized by the prime minister. “We are doing our work according to the law and for the service of the people and so far nothing negative has been said about our security agents,” he said.
The fact remains that Waili and the rest of the Shiite-led government have not pursued any investigations of Shiite lawmakers suspected of involvement in sectarian killings.
One Shiite politician acknowledged the problem. “There are things that have happened that when we have peace, people will have to be held accountable for,” the lawmaker said on condition of anonymity.
At the same time, Shahwani’s INIS continues to run into troubles with the Shiite elite.
Shahwani’s most recent controversy involves accusations that his men kidnapped an Iranian diplomat in February in Baghdad. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said four of Shahwani’s agents were involved in the kidnapping and had been arrested.
Shahwani told The Times that the four detained men were his agents, but that they had been in the area on another mission at the time the Iranian diplomat went missing. Shahwani also accused the Iranians of inventing the story of the kidnapping so they could abduct one of his men who had been spying on their diplomat. The freed Iranian diplomat has said he was abducted by an Iraqi security force and then tortured by the CIA.
Both Shahwani and Waili’s agencies have been accused of bending the law in a country that has a legacy of military coups, authoritarian regimes and unaccountable security agencies.
“In Iraq, everybody spies on everybody, everybody kills everybody,” Mashadani said. “We are still living in a Saddam culture.”
Times staff writer Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.