US Military Still Runs With Dreaded Wolf Brigade

Despite the U.S. command’s announcement last week that it would seek to curb abuses by Iraqi commando units, the U.S. military has been extremely tolerant of the most abusive unit of all – the notorious Wolf Brigade – because it regards it as highly effective against the insurgents.

As reported in a front-page New York Times story on Dec. 30, a senior U.S. commander said the United States would greatly increase the number of soldiers advising Iraqi commando units. The unidentified U.S. general also suggested that commandos had developed with little U.S. supervision.

"The commandos sort of grew like Topsy [a character in the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin]," he said, "very quickly, without much control, and without much training, but with lots of influences from the Ministry of the Interior and SCIRI [Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq]-Badr organization."

The senior U.S. commander further hinted that many of the commando operations are by rogue elements outside formal government control. "It is not easy to identify that some operation tonight was legitimately directed by somebody in the security organization of MOI [Ministry of Interior] or MOD [Ministry of Defense]," he said, "or whether it was some people in stolen uniforms who decided to attack someone’s opposite number in some other tribe or neighborhood."

Finally, the commander criticized Iraqi commando abuses of detainees as "making new enemies here" and said, "You’ve got to be more moderate. You must follow the rule of law."

The record shows, however, that the U.S. military has had a close operational relationship with the Wolf Brigade, the most hated and feared commando unit, and has even carried out joint operations with it. The U.S. command had repeatedly sent the Brigade to carry out operations in Sunni cities despite the opposition of U.S. embassy officials who warned that such deployments would fuel sectarian tensions and violence.

And until last week’s press briefing in Baghdad, high-ranking U.S. officers had portrayed the Brigade as effective and suggested that its reliance on such extreme methods were to be expected under the circumstances in Iraq.

The day after the press was informed of the plan to add more U.S. advisers to commando units, Maj. Gen. William Webster, commander of "multinational forces" in the Baghdad area, told a press briefing that the move is "not specifically designed to prevent them from abusing detainees, but that is certainly part of our goal."

The Wolf Brigade, which formed in October 2004, trained with U.S. forces for nearly two months and was then sent to Mosul. It has operated in the Baghdad area, Ramadi, and Diyala province, always in close cooperation with U.S. military units and with U.S. police assistance teams attached to it.

The Brigade is well-known to regard Sunnis in general as the enemy. Its founder, Shi’ite General Abul Waleed, is so strongly sectarian in his attitude toward Sunnis that he has referred to the Association of Muslim Scholars, the most important organization of Sunni clerics, as "infidels." The indiscriminate torture and killing of Sunni detainees appears to be motivated in large part by revenge against Sunnis for their historical support for the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Last May, the Association of Muslim Scholars publicly accused the Wolf Brigade of having "arrested imams and the guardians of some mosques, tortured and killed them, and then got rid of their bodies in a garbage dump in Shaab district" of Baghdad.

Journalists began reporting details of forced confessions through torture and indiscriminate killing of Sunni detainees by the Wolf Brigade last summer. In one case reported by the Associated Press last July, a woman detained by the Wolf Brigade in Mosul was whipped by six men with electric cables and forced to sign a false confession that she was a high-ranking local leader of the insurgency. After the Brigade left the city and turned her over to local authorities, they released her with an apology for the torture she endured.

The Financial Times reported in late June that 474 people had been seized from their homes during one Wolf Brigade sweep in the Abu Ghraib area and had suffered systematic abuse at the hands of the Brigade. A former detainee said commandos had "attached electrical wires to his ear and his genitals, and generated a current with a hand-cranked military telephone."

The Wolf Brigade commander, Gen. Rasheed Mohammed, told ABC news on Dec. 13, "Sometimes we have to be aggressive to come up with a confession from a detainee." He then added, "Of course, you should not torture."

Despite this mounting evidence of systematic torture, the U.S. command had shown no evidence of discomfort about supporting the Brigade. Some Wolf Brigade sweeps through Sunni neighborhoods have been carried out alongside U.S. troops.

On Nov. 10, a U.S. officer described on his personal weblog a "battalion sized joint operation" between the "Nightstalkers" (Army Airborne 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment) and the Wolf Brigade in southern Baghdad. The blogger concluded, "As we passed vehicle after vehicle full of blindfolded detainees my face stretched into a long wolfish smile…."

The following week, according to UPI’s Pamela Hess, the Wolf Brigade was sent to Baqubah, the capital of Diyala province, where U.S. military "police assistance teams" actually helped the Brigade to plan the operation and provided a surveillance drone, a medical team, and a quick-reaction force to support it. A U.S. military officer said it was a success, commenting that "they didn’t come in here and shoot the place up or beat people in the streets."

According to NBC’s Richard Engel, the U.S. command decided to send the Wolf Brigade to Ramadi in advance of the recent parliamentary elections – a move that Engel reported embassy officials regarded as "insensitive," in light of its record of violent abuses against Sunnis. An official of the U.S. command suggested to Engel that the Wolf Brigade is a very effective unit, crediting it with successfully driving insurgents out of Mosul a year ago.

As recently as Dec. 13, the U.S. command had signaled that the Wolf Brigade’s methods were not an issue. When ABC news reporter Elizabeth Vargas asked Gen. Martin Dempsey, who is responsible for training Iraqi security forces, about the Wolf Brigade’s methods, Dempsey said "We are fighting through a very harsh environment … these guys are not fighting on the streets of Bayonne, New Jersey."

Referring to complaints about the forced confessions, Dempsey said, "There is a sense in our society that a man or a woman is considered innocent until proven guilty. Now I wouldn’t exactly say it’s the opposite here, but it’s close."

Vargas summed up his view of the issue: "For Dempsey, a big part of building a viable police force is learning to accept, if not embrace, the cultural differences."

In light of the U.S. command’s past close relationship with the Wolf Brigade and its attitude toward its abuses, the latest move by Washington to distance itself from commando operations such as the Wolf Brigade appears to be more of a public-relations ploy than a substantive change in its own policy toward commando abuses.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Gareth Porter

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.