I understand the need to stifle the guerilla attacks, but does this seem like a smart way to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people....?
Published on Sunday, August 24, 2003 by the Washington Post
U.S. Recruiting Hussein's Spies
Occupation Forces Hope Covert Campaign Will Help Identify Resistance
by Anthony Shadid and Daniel Williams
BAGHDAD, Aug. 23 -- U.S.-led occupation authorities have begun a covert campaign to recruit and train agents with the once-dreaded Iraqi intelligence service to help identify resistance to American forces here after months of increasingly sophisticated attacks and bombings, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.
The extraordinary move to recruit agents of former president Saddam Hussein's security services underscores a growing recognition among U.S. officials that American military forces -- already stretched thin -- cannot alone prevent attacks like the devastating truck bombing of the U.N. headquarters this past week, the officials said.
Authorities have stepped up the recruitment over the past two weeks, one senior U.S. official said, despite sometimes adamant objections by members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, who complain that they have too little control over the pool of recruits. While U.S. officials acknowledge the sensitivity of cooperating with a force that embodied the ruthlessness of Hussein's rule, they assert that an urgent need for better and more precise intelligence has forced unusual compromises.
"The only way you can combat terrorism is through intelligence," the senior official said. "It's the only way you're going to stop these people from doing what they're doing." He added: "Without Iraqi input, that's not going to work."
Officials are reluctant to disclose how many former agents have been recruited since the effort began. But Iraqi officials say they number anywhere from dozens to a few hundred, and U.S. officials acknowledge that the recruitment is extensive.
"We're reaching out very widely," said one official with the U.S.-led administration, who like most spoke on condition of anonymity because of sensitivity over questions of intelligence and sources.
Added a Western diplomat: "There is an obvious evolution in American thinking. First the police are reconstituted, then the army. It is logical that intelligence officials from the regime would also be recruited."
Officials say the first line of intelligence-gathering remains the Iraqi police, who number 6,500 in Baghdad and 33,000 nationwide. But that force is hampered in intelligence work by a lack of credibility with a disenchanted public, and its numbers remain far below what U.S. officials say they need to bring order to an unruly capital. Across Iraq, walk-in informers have provided tips on weapons caches and locations of suspected guerrillas, but many Iraqis dismiss those reports as haphazard and sometimes motivated by a desire for personal gain.
The emphasis in recruitment appears to be on the intelligence service known as the Mukhabarat, one of four branches in Hussein's former security service, although it is not the only target for the U.S. effort. The Mukhabarat, whose name itself inspired fear in ordinary Iraqis, was the foreign intelligence service, the most sophisticated of the four. Within that service, officials have reached out to agents who once were assigned to Syria and Iran, Iraqi officials and former intelligence agents say.
For years, U.S. relations with both Syria and Iran have remained tense and, if anything, have deteriorated since American forces overthrew Hussein's government on April 9. Once-vigilantly patrolled borders stretching hundreds of miles are remarkably porous, and L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. civilian administrator of Iraq, has openly accused Syria of allowing foreign fighters to enter Iraq. A senior American official said those fighters inside Iraq, mainly from Saudi Arabia and Syria, number between 100 and 200.
The emphasis on intelligence mirrors a decision earlier this month by Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of U.S. ground forces, to minimize large military sweeps to the north and west of Baghdad. Launched in June and July, the sweeps rounded up hundreds of Iraqis, but angered residents who complained of mistreatment, arbitrary arrests and humiliation at the hands of U.S. soldiers.
Sanchez and others have suggested that the anger caused by those raids could bolster the support for guerrillas, who are thought to number in the thousands, mainly in the Sunni Muslim-dominated regions that provided Hussein much of his support.
The guerrilla tactics have grown in sophistication over the four months of the occupation. But U.S. officials said the guerrillas remain decentralized, with no sign yet of national coordination. In the view of Bremer, a former counterterrorism specialist, and other U.S. officials, their amorphous nature makes them harder to stamp out, and makes more pressing the need for intelligence to pinpoint raids and create the possibility of infiltrating the groups.
"The expectation is that we're going to have to fight it out," one senior official said.
The official said it might require 500,000 U.S. troops, perhaps far more, to secure every potential target in the country -- an unlikely prospect, given that many U.S. allies are balking at the prospect of sending more soldiers, especially without a U.N. mandate. The United States has 132,000 troops in the country, and there are 17,000 other soldiers, the majority of them British.
"The key is to try to stay ahead of this game and prevent it from happening," the senior official said.
At a news conference today, Bremer repeatedly stressed the need for better intelligence, saying that U.S. authorities were "constantly working to refine and upgrade our intelligence capabilities."
The goal, he said, was "to find and, if necessary, kill as many of them as possible before they find and kill us."
Hussein's security forces were a suffocating presence in Iraq and still cast a long shadow.
Of the four security branches, the Mukhabarat was the best-treated and often supplied agents for the other branches. The largest was internal security, known as Amn al-Amm, which focused on domestic intelligence. The third was special security, which protected government officials. These three answered to the presidency. Only military intelligence was nominally independent of Hussein's inner circle and operated within the Defense Ministry. The Baath Party, with membership in the millions, provided a check of sorts, with its almost endless network of informers in every town and village.
Within the Mukhabarat, former intelligence officers say, the branches dedicated to Iran, Israel and, during the 1990s, the United Nations were the most important. One officer, a 23-year veteran who spied on the United Nations, said about 100 agents worked on Iran, between 75 and 100 on the United Nations and 50 each on Israel and Syria, in addition to their networks and contacts.
Earlier this summer, Bremer dissolved those services, along with the information and defense ministries. But Wafiq Samarrai, a former military intelligence chief who went into exile in 1995 and retains contacts, said U.S. officials were seeking to reconstitute them in some form. "They are trying to rebuild it very quietly," he said.
One officer, who was not contacted by the Americans, said he believed that about 300 people were being recruited. Adil Abdul Mahdi, the director of the political bureau for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the groups taking part in the Governing Council, said his organization has a list of almost 20 names of recruited officers from the dreaded Fifth Section, an organ inside military intelligence that focused on Iran. He said his group believed that at least one of those agents was sent to the United States for training last month. An official with the U.S.-led administration said he was not aware of agents having been sent to the United States.
While not disclosing how they check the operatives, U.S. officials said they believed some agents remained "fairly untainted" by Hussein's government. But they said they recognized the potential pitfalls in relying on an instrument loathed by most Iraqis and renowned across the Arab world for its casual use of torture, fear, intimidation, rape and imprisonment.
"We have to be very careful in how we vet them, in how we go through their backgrounds," the senior American official said. "We don't want to put a cancer right in the middle of this."
Another official called the recruitment part of an ongoing struggle between principle and what he called the practical needs of the occupation. "Pragmatically, those are people who are potentially very useful because they have access to information, so you have to compromise on that," he said. "What we need to do is make sure they are indeed aware of the error of their ways."
While many Iraqi officials say they are aware of the recruitment, some have spoken against the use of former operatives, and others have warned against reconstituting an intelligence service before an independent Iraqi government takes charge. Former exiles who cooperated with the Americans were trailed by Iraqi intelligence for years, and among them the issue is particularly sensitive. "We've always criticized the procedure of recruiting from the old regime's officers. We think it is a mistake," Mahdi said. "We've told them you have some bad people in your security apparatus."
The objections come in the context of a struggle between Bremer and the Governing Council over the degree of Iraqi control over the security services. Bremer said today that despite Iraqi objections, security will remain in the hands of U.S. forces. But many Iraqis, both former operatives and U.S.-allied officials, are dismissive of the U.S. ability to run intelligence inside the country. They say U.S. officials lack the means to recruit effective networks and are overwhelmed with information of dubious quality.
"There's a difference between how we perceive things and how they react," said one council member. "There's no quick response to intelligence. The Americans have huge quantities of it, most of it nonsense. They have no means of distinguishing."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company