The Boys from Baghdad: Iraqi Commandos Trained by U.S. Contractor
by Pratap Chatterjee
September 20th, 2007
The “boys” that the report praises are members of one of dozens of elite Iraqi commandos units that function as a "third force” to augment the Iraqi police and army, both of which are widely considered to be failures. On this mission in early July 2005, the Emergency Response Unit, backed by the First Battalion of the Fifth Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army, had detained “anti-Iraqi forces” and intercepted roadside bombs.
Their tactics owed much to a secretive U.S. private contractor, U.S. Investigations Services (USIS), which conducted ERU trainings on U.S. military bases in Iraq -- including at Camp Dublin and Camp Solidarity. The trainings began under General David Petreaus as an effort to bolster security in Iraq, and soon evolved into a system for providing support to the deeply sectarian Ministry of the Interior.
Beginning in May 2004, U.S. authorities contracted with USIS to create the first ERU. The non-sectarian force is supposed
For the first 11 years of its existence as a private company USIS was owned by the Carlyle Group. In May 2007 USIS was sold again to Providence Equity Partners (PEP) for $1.5 billion. The Rhode Island private equity group specializes in media, entertainment and communications companies. PEP’s most famous acquisition was the purchase of Clear Channel’s television network.(41)
The top advisor to PEP is Michael Powell, a former policy advisor to Dick Cheney, when Cheney was U.S. Secretary of Defense. But Powell is better known for two other reasons: He is the son of Colin Powell, a former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest military position in the Department of Defense. Michael Powell's other claim to fame was that when George W. Bush appointed Colin Powell secretary of state, the president chose Michael to be chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). There he presided over the deregulation that allowed Clear Channel to acquire the television stations in a way that would have been previously illegal.(42)
Two years after Michael Powell resigned from the FCC, his client, PEP, bought up the very same television stations.
By April 2006, the ERUs had conducted 117 “Close Target Reconnaissance” missions in Baghdad alone, completing 104 of them, and capturing 236 “suspects,” according to estimates by Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Voss, military advisor in charge of the ERU program.
The ERUs are now officially controlled and paid by the Iraqi Ministry of Interior and are accompanied by U.S. trainers or soldiers throughout their training. But a high-level State Department report issued in 2005 explains that the Iraqi commandos were initially rejected by the very Ministry of the Interior that they were intended to support when they were created more than three years ago. Instead, U.S. officials and contractors controlled the ERUs, which became an unofficial Iraqi face to provide local cover for U.S. operations. With no support from the Iraqi government at the time, the ERU had to rely on USIS for salaries, thereby becoming a privately financed militia.
Michael John, a spokesperson for USIS, told CorpWatch that the company is still under contract with the Pentagon for ERU training, but says that the support is provided strictly as part of training.
Dozens of interviews conducted by CorpWatch with high-ranking military and government officials over the past 12 months suggest that even at the level of Petreaus’s staff, few appeared to know the specific role and scope of ERU activity. What is clear is that the ERU is just one of at least six different U.S. “security” training programs worth over $20 billion that a variety of U.S. agencies have provided to the many factions in Iraq. (See accompanying boxes for examples of other programs.)
It is becoming increasingly clear that such training programs may be causing or at least exacerbating civil war. Part of the blame lies within the complex failures of the U.S. occupation and part with the loyalties and skills of the forces recruited into the myriad security training programs that are associated with different ministries and thus with different, and often rival, political factions.
“Of course, they are fucking things up,” Robert Young Pelton, author of “Licensed to Kill, Hired Guns in the War on Terror” told CorpWatch. “Because the U.S. is arbitrarily putting weapons and power in the hands of those who choose to fight, rather than those who are in the moral right,”(2) explaining that few who sign up have any previous law enforcement credentials.
The fact that neither the Iraqi army nor the police were able to tackle the growing insurgency became glaringly obvious in April 2004 when violent uprisings exploded across the country. Iraqi soldiers assigned to fight in Fallujah fled the field.(3) A group of Baghdad police, sent to assist U.S. soldiers battling the Mahdi army in Najaf at the same time, also refused to fight.(4)
The ERUs are not the only “third force” police commandos trained in Iraq under the control of the Ministry of the Interior. The Special Police Commandos, a SWAT team that has been often described as death squads, also have unofficial U.S. “advisors.” (Unlike the Anbar militias described below, the Special Police Commandos are not trained by USIS, but are a separate force, albeit working for the same ministry.) The commandos were first composed of veterans of Hussein's special forces and Republican Guard, and headed up by Adnan Thabit, the nephew of Falah al-Naqib, the interior minister under the interim government of Ayad Allawi that followed Paul Bremer. The commandos quickly became notorious after a nationally televised reality show featured them brutally interrogating suspected “terrorists.”(21)
Maass also noted the potential for the commandos to become enmeshed in sectarian killings, observing that Allawi, Naqib and Thabit are all Sunni.
Weeks after Maass’ article appeared, his words would seem prophetic. In May 2005, Allawi was replaced by Jaafari, a conservative religious Shiite from Islamic Dawa Party, in the first elected government. Bayan Jabr, a former high-ranking member of the Iranian-backed Badr Brigade, the military arm of the fundamentalist Shiite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), took over as interior minister in Iraq's transitional government.
Each commando unit had a nickname such as the Scorpions, Snakes and Tigers. One particularly notorious group, led by General Gharrawi, was the Wolf Brigade, later renamed the Volcanoes.(23) A U.S. Department of State report recounts an August 2005 incident in which about 50 men suspected of being Volcanoes raided the Al Huriya neighborhood in northern Baghdad, kidnapped 36 Sunnis and killed them. Acid was used to burn their faces before they were shot in the head.(24)
Under Jabr, the Special Police Commandos were taken over by two generals, Rasheed Fleyah and Mahdi Sabeh, both Shiites. In November 2005, American troops discovered 169 beaten, whipped and starved prisoners (most of whom were Sunni) at the Al-Jadiriyah bunker, a secret detention center run by the country's Interior Ministry. One of these victims, Jamal Hamdani, was left impotent and paralyzed on one side of his body after repeated electrocution of his spine and genitals during two months in detention in a secret prison in Kadhamiya, Baghdad. An electric drill had been used on his chin.(25)
Six months later, in May 2006, a similar center was found in Hilla, where some victims had holes drilled into their bodies. Then, as many as 1,400 torture victims were discovered at Site Four in east Baghdad under the control of the Wolf Brigade. Jabr later admitted that torture had taken place in both Al-Jadiriyah and Site Four.
U.S. military officials declared themselves surprised.
When the current government of Nouri al-Maliki took charge in April 2006, the Special Police Commandos were officially disbanded, merged with the ERU, and renamed the National Police.(27) In October 2006 the new Minister of the Interior, Jawad al-Bolani dismissed Fleyah and Sabeh, but the rumors of death squads run out of the Interior Ministry persist.(28)
It should be noted that as each new political group takes control of the Interior Ministry and receive U.S. training, it creates new fiefdoms inside the bureaucracy that never disappear but instead support rival militias that exacerbate rather than resolve the sectarian conflict. A recent Los Angeles Times article explains that each floor of the 11-story headquarters of the ministry is now occupied by a different faction (most of whom are Shiite) working under the U.S. advisors stationed directly above them on the top floor.(29)
U.S. planners in Iraq were suddenly forced to admit that the country was on the verge of spreading insurrections and looming civil war. Officials at the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), headed by Paul Bremer, began earnest discussions about creating a “third force” (5) of highly trained commando units that would be able to deal with hostage situations and unforeseen criminal or political violence. (In a monograph on the evolution of Iraq’s security forces, Andrew Rathmell of the Rand Corporation, a think-tank closely affiliated with the Pentagon, defined the third force as “constabulary forces that lie somewhere between civilian police and armed forces.”)
Senior U.S. advisors at the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, notably State Department official Steve Casteel, supported the creation of this third force. A former senior U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration official, Casteel previously helped train government forces in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia, where he was involved in the hunt for Pablo Escobar, head of the Medellin cocaine cartel.(6)
Ministry of Interior advisors drew up plans for an Emergency Response Unit consisting of three companies of 60 men each, plus a headquarters unit to do high-risk search, arrest, hostage rescue, and crisis response operations. Once trained, these units were to be integrated into the regular Iraqi Police Service. The advisors also planned similar elite units, Bureau of Dignitary Protection (BDP), to protect high-ranking Iraqi officials who were under threat of kidnapping. A total of 370 ERU and 395 BDU personnel were trained in the initial phase and deployed in counter-insurgency operations in Baghdad.(7)
This early ERU training was conducted under a $64.5 million no-bid contract issued in May 2004(10) to U.S. Investigations Services (USIS), a former federal agency that started out conducting background investigations for civil service personnel.(11) At first, the CPA officials who controlled the purse strings of the Iraqi Ministry of Finance, used oil revenues to finance the contract. Today, the USIS contract, which has been renewed twice, is paid for with Pentagon (and thus U.S. taxpayer) funds.(12) Most of the trainers are retired military personnel plus a few police officers and federal agents.
U.S. control was further enhanced by conducting the trainings at U.S. military bases. At Camp Dublin, near the Baghdad International Airport, new ERU recruits were expected to live alongside their USIS trainers. The four- to eight-week trainings took place at a special facility inside Dublin that was built on a bare plot of land by First Kuwaiti, a contractor that later won the bid to build the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.(13)
USIS also trains ERUs at Camp Solidarity (originally dubbed Camp Gunslinger) in the Sunni neighborhood of Aadhamiya.(14)
Greg (not his real name) worked in a team of 45 USIS trainers based at Camp Dublin to teach ERU recruits skills such as weapons use, close-quarter battle tactics, and forced entry into buildings through doors and windows.
Once trained, the ERUs were quickly dispatched to “lead” counter-insurgency operations beside U.S. forces, often in combat zones. “They conduct their missions with us on the sidelines,” Lieutenant Voss, the ERU program head, told The Advisor, a newspaper published by the U.S. military security training program in Baghdad.(16)
U.S. Investigations Services traces its origins back to 1883 as a part of the federal government’s Civil Service Commission (CSC). (8) Tasked with checking backgrounds of prospective government employees, CSC evolved into the Investigations Service arm of the Office of Personnel Management. In 1996, the Clinton administration privatized this office, purportedly to save money, and sold it for $545 million to the Carlyle Group and the New York investment firm of Welsh, Carson, Anderson, and Stowe.(37) Ten years after the sale, USIS, a private company, has a near monopoly on “screening transactions,” conducting some 20 million a year, roughly 90 percent of the total.(38)
The contract to provide commando training in Iraq was a departure for USIS, which had no previous involvement in security training. And it was just the first of several government projects that USIS took over from federal agencies. In September 2006, USIS won a contract to provide the staffing for around-the-clock watch operations at towers erected by Boeing in the Arizona desert to monitor the Mexican border for the U.S. government. Its task is
A year later, in July 2007, USIS won a contract to provide the data, software and analysts to track the estimated 550,000 “fugitive aliens” in the U.S.(40)
USIS’s ERU training program ran into problems from its first days in Iraq during the caretaker government of Ayad Allawi, who took charge in July 2004. Iraqi government officials refused to recognize the ERU graduates or to pay them salaries on a regular basis. This stance led to conflicts with U.S. government officials, who believed ERU trainees should be integrated into the police force, according to a critical July 2005 report from the Inspector General of the U.S. State Department.(17)
Rejected by Baghdad, the ERU became an adjunct of the U.S. military, relying on the U.S. Special Forces for operational intelligence. At one point, when the ERU salaries were five months in arrears, USIS started to pay its recruits a $75 monthly salary.(18)
The rank-and-file of Iraq’s police also undergo training and mentorship from a private company -- some 700 trainers working for DynCorp, a Virginia-based corporation.43 DynCorp also employs 377 people to train police in Afghanistan.(44) For its training and security work in the two countries in fiscal years 2004, 2005 and 2006, the company received $1.6 billion, which accounted for roughly 30 percent of its revenue during those years.(45)
The Iraq program was first issued to DynCorp as a no-bid contract in April 2003 and renewed in September 2006.(46) The latest contract, which expired at the end of May 2007, is currently up for bid. The Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction, an independent U.S. government agency, criticized DynCorp for overspending on the building of training facilities -- such as $43.8 million for a residential camp in Baghdad for trainers that has never been used.(47)
A 2006 Pentagon and State Department investigation into the police training program in Afghanistan revealed that managers had no idea how many police officers were actually on duty or what became of thousands of trucks and other equipment issued to police units.(48) The report concludes that the police were largely incapable of carrying out routine law enforcement work. While the report investigators do not blame DynCorp directly, Afghan officials have complained about the poor quality of trainers and their high salaries.
Ali Jalali, a military historian who served as Afghanistan’s interior minister from 2002 to 2005, told the New York Times: ''They were good on patrols in Oklahoma City, Houston, or Miami. But not in a country where you faced rebuilding the police force.''(49)
Others say the same -- that DynCorp's Iraq training has also been a wasted effort.
Another source of conflict between Baghdad and Washington centered around how to define the pool of potential trainees. The State Department report recommended that trainers should draw recruits from within the existing police force, in order to make the ERUs more palatable to the Iraqi government. When the first elected government took over in May 2005, al-Jafaari’s administration agreed to integrate the ERU and BDP units into the Ministry of the Interior.(19) However the training continued to be conducted separately from the regular police program contracted to Virginia-based DynCorp (see box).
The ERU initial training also came under fire for alleged human rights abuses. In the spring of 2005, Colonel Ted Westhusing, a military ethics expert from Oklahoma who was in charge of the USIS contract, received an anonymous four-page letter accusing USIS of deliberately reducing the number of trainers to increase its profit margin. Westhusing was supervising the ERU program at the time. The letter, which was eventually released to Texas journalist Robert Bryce earlier this year under the Freedom of Information Act, detailed two incidents in which USIS contractors allegedly witnessed or participated in killing Iraqis during the assault on Fallujah in 2004.
Worried that “it would put his contract at risk," an unnamed USIS manager did not report the accusations to the U.S. military supervisors according to a November 2005 investigative article by T. Christian Miller in the Los Angeles Times.(20)
On receipt of the letter, Westhusing reported the allegations to his superiors, but told them that he believed USIS was complying with the terms of its contract. U.S. officials investigated and found "no contractual violations," and “these allegations to be unfounded.”
But over the next few months Westhusing became increasingly dissatisfied with the company. In June 2005, he attended a meeting in Iraq in which he angrily complained of
Shortly after Westhusing had left the meeting, a USIS employee discovered the colonel lying on the floor in a trailer in a pool of blood, a single gunshot wound to the head. A note discovered by the body, in Westhusing's handwriting, pointed to suicide:
"Equipping Iraqis for Civil War”
USIS training continues today under a new contract issued earlier this year, although few details have been made public. Occasionally the Pentagon’s public affairs office publishes short descriptions of ERU missions. A July 21, 2007 press release, for example, describes one group, accompanied the previous day by U.S. military advisors, that
Such raids are fraught with problems: The perception that the U.S. or the Iraqi government is backing raids on groups with popular support and parliamentary representation, such as the Mahdi Army, could fuel civil war.
Indeed some fear that U.S.-trained militias, rather than adding security, are already exacerbating sectarian strife.
"It is like raising a crocodile," Saad Yousef al-Muttalibi, told the Washington Times when asked about the various “third force” training schemes. The Al-Maliki cabinet member, who is in charge of negotiating reconciliation agreements, continued: "It is fine when it is a baby, but when it is big, you can't keep it in the house."(36)
Others point out that these trainings are a throwback to colonial divide-and-conquer techniques.
The term “Emergency Response Unit” has also been used for various schemes that arm and equip local militias to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq under the auspices of the Ministry of the Interior. For example, some 2,500 men have been trained under such a scheme in Anbar province and another 800 in Babil province in the past year.(9)
But Lieutenant Colonel Michael Meese, an advisor to General David Petreaus, told CorpWatch that U.S. Special Forces were in charge of these ERU training schemes around the country, noting that they were different from the USIS training scheme at Camps Dublin and Solidarity.
Petraeus has personally lent his support by attending an ERU graduation ceremony in Hilla this past June.
The most widely touted example of U.S. Special Forces-trained ERU deployment has been in Anbar province, the vast western desert province that borders Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia, where Al Qaeda in Iraq and various sectarian forces are currently attacking Maliki government and occupation troops. In September 2006 Sheikh Abdul Sattar al-Rishawi, head of the Anbar Salvation Front, joined hands with the U.S.(31) The enemy-of-my-enemy alliance served al-Rishawi in various ways: It helped him fight off Al Quaeda of Iraq's attempt to undermine his tribal power, and it procured special training for his followers.
All told some 2,500 al-Rishawi supporters received U.S. Special Forces-provided ERU training. Touting Anbar’s declining violence, including carjackings and bombings, the U.S. military and even Al-Maliki hailed the “Anbar Awakening” as a major step forward in combating “terrorism.”
Al-Maliki made a much publicized trip to Ramadi, the provincial capital, in a show of support and solidarity with Al-Rishawi in March. Indeed it was his first trip to the city in 30 years and reporters were invited along to witness the new militias.
Monte Morin, a military reporter with the Stars and Stripes described an ERU he witnessed in Ramadi.
Like the USIS-trained ERU, these militias are backed up by the U.S. military. Morin described how Colonel Mohammed Rashid (an ex-Baathist), was put in charge of an ERU to patrol the 50-square-mile Jazeera suburb, beside the 1st Battalion of the 36th Infantry Regiment and the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army.(32)
Some say that providing ERU training to groups such as the Anbar Salvation Council is a dangerous game, given the council’s history and the U.S. record of training groups such as the Afghan resistance that later turn their weapons and skills back on the U.S.
Lieutenant Colonel Richard Welch, a U.S. Army reserve officer in Baghdad who specializes in tribal and religious affairs, told the Washington Post that Al-Rishawi
Then there is the question of loyalty.
The Anbar success has been short-lived. In June, a suicide bomber blew himself up inside the Mansour hotel in Baghdad, killing a number of the sheikhs affiliated with the Anbar Salvation Council. In the last three months support for the group has crumbled.(33) Al-Rishawi himself was killed in a bomb attack on September 13, 2007, a week after meeting with President George Bush.
This article was made possible by a generous grant from the Hurd Foundation. It is the third in a series on the failure of reconstruction in Iraq.
The first article, on healthcare in Iraq, may be read here: http://www.corpwatch.org/article.php?id=14290, and the second, on oil metering, may be read at http://www.corpwatch.org/article.php?id=14427. To contact the author, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Unit History of 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment, Task Force BobCat, 1 July 2005, Battalion Commander: LTC Todd McCaffrey
3. Andrew Rathmell, "Developing Iraq's Security Sector," RAND Corporation, December 2005
4. Author interview with police trainer who worked at the Ministry of the Interior at the time. (Name withheld)
6. Peter Maass, “The Way of the Commandos,” New York Times, May 1, 2005
7. "Interagency Assessment of Iraq Police Training," Report # ISP-IQO-05-72 U.S. Department of State, Report # IE-2005-002, U.S. Department of Defense, " July 15, 2005)
8. “Privatization of Federal Investigations,” Kennedy School of Government case study, http://www.innovations.harvard.edu/awards.html?id=49041
9. “North Babil’s ERU Graduates, Ready to Train,” July 28, 2007, Press Release from 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division Public Affairs
10. The original contract issued for training and life support was # DABV01-04-C-0083
11. See USIS history, http://www.usis.com/history_USIS.htm
12. The training and support contract #s obtained from FedBizOpps, were: W914NS-04-R-9025, W91GY0-06-R-0001, and W91GY0-07-R-0008 See also
13. Contract # W916QW-04-D-0012-0003. Recorded in Appendix H, Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, Report to the U.S. Congress, July 2006
14. History of Camp Solidarity obtained from Global Security.org website
15. Sandra Svoboda, “Soldiers of Fortune,” Detroit Metro Times, May 9, 2007
16 John J. Pistone, “Emergency Response Unit proves mentorship work,” The Advisor, April 1, 2006
17. "Interagency Assessment of Iraq Police Training,” op. cit.
18. "Interagency Assessment of Iraq Police Training,” op. cit.
19. U.S. Department of Defense, Section 9010 Report, October 2005
20. T. Christian Miller, “A Journey That Ended in Anguish,” Los Angeles Times, November 27, 2005
23. Michael Moss and David Rohde, “How Iraq Police Reform Became Casualty of War,” New York Times, May 22, 2006
24. “Iraq Country Report on Human Rights Practices - 2005” State department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
March 8, 2006
25. Ibid. Catherine Philp, “State Denial Adds Insult to Torture Victims’ Injuries,” Times (UK) November 18, 2005
26. “Gangs of Iraq,” Frontline documentary, PBS television. Original interview recorded by Martin Smith on October 11, 2006
28. Sabrina Tavernise, “Iraq Removes Leaders of Special Police,” The New York Times, October 18, 2006
29. Ned Parker, “Interior Ministry mirrors chaos of a fractured Iraq,” Los Angeles Times, July 30, 2007
30. Coalition Forces, Iraqi Emergency Response Unit detain three rogue JAM,” Multi-National Corps – Iraq Press Release, Public Affairs Office, Camp Victory, July 21, 2007
31. Todd Pitman, “Sunni sheiks join troops to fight insurgency,” The Associated Press, March 26, 2007
32. Monte Morin, “Iraqi's promise highlights ambition of Ramadi Emergency Response Unit,” Stars and Stripes, March 3, 2007
33. Joshua Partlow and John Ward Anderson, “Tribal Coalition in Anbar Said to Be Crumbling, “Washington Post, June 11, 200735 Frontline, Op. Cit.
35. “Gangs of Iraq,” Frontline documentary, PBS television. Original interview recorded by Martin Smith on October 4, 2006
36. David Enders, "Iraqi tribes reach security accord,” Washington Times, July 23, 2007
37. Shane Harris, “Former federal employees benefit from buyout,” Government Executive, April 21, 2003 See USIS website: http://www.usis.com/ourinvestors.htm, and http://www.usis.com/history_USIS.htm
38. See http://www.usis.com/commercialservices/overview.htm, Shane Harris, Op. Cit.
39. “USIS to provide staffing for operation centers,” USIS Press Release, September 21, 2006
41. “USIS Announces Agreement to be Acquired by Providence Equity Partners,” USIS Press Release, May 11, 2007, by Providence Equity Partners website lists the management team at http://www.provequity.com/team/index.asp?Employee_Type_ID=All&Section=0,1,1&, “Clear Channel Agrees to Sell Television Station Group to Providence Equity Partners,” Clear Channel Press Release, April 20, 2007
42. Michael Powell biography on Providence Equity Partners website, By Robert Kuttner, “Deregulation: Why Michael Powell Is Wrong,” April 14, 2003
43. Renae Merle ,
44. James Glanz and David Rohde, “Report Faults Training of Afghan Police,” New York Times, December 4, 2006. “Interagency Assessment of Afghanistan Police Training and Readiness,” State department and Defense Inspector Generals, November 2006
46. Andrew Higgins, “As It Wields Power Abroad, U.S. Outsources Law and Order Work,” Wall Street Journal, February 2, 2004. Tod Robberson, “Contractor with Texas ties operates with secrecy, arouses suspicion,” Dallas Morning News, December 24, 2006
48. Interagency Assessment, Op. Cit.
50. Testimony of Gerald Burke, before the U.S. Congress House of Representatives Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on April 25, 2007