Gangs of Iraq
Marcela Gaviria and Martin Smith
ANNOUNCER: This program contains edited language and graphic imagery. Viewer discretion is advised.
ROBERT MacNEIL, Host: I'm Robert MacNeil. Welcome to America at a Crossroads and a special FRONTLINE report.
ANNOUNCER: In a divided country, America set out to train Iraqi forces.
NIR ROSEN, Author and Journalist: They were loyal to Moqtada al Sadr, to Abdul Aziz Hakim, but not to the Iraqi state and not to anybody in the Green Zone.
ANNOUNCER: Now Iraq is even more divided.
DEXTER FILKINS, New York Times Baghdad Bureau, 2003-06: We started hearing reports of death squads, kidnapping rings, extrajudicial killings.
ANNOUNCER: And less secure.
MATT SHERMAN, Ministry of Interior Adviser, 2003-05: My fear is that what we're doing is equipping Iraqis for civil war.
ANNOUNCER: Next, correspondent Martin Smith investigates Gangs of Iraq.
ROBERT MacNEIL: For our third look at Iraq, we come to the situation at the end of the year that forced President Bush to change his strategy and the Congress to become far more skeptical about the war. Violence between Sunnis and Shi'ites and their sectarian militias we out of control. Neighborhoods were being ethnically cleansed, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis forced from their homes, a million-and-a-half fleeing to neighboring countries.
Large majorities of Iraqis and increasingly voices in Congress wanted a timetable for American troops to leave. The Iraq Study Group called the situation "grave and deteriorating, a slide into chaos." It was in this climate, as President Bush announced his troop surge, that FRONTLINE producer Marcela Gaviria and correspondent Martin Smith reported from Baghdad.
A word of warning. This film contains very graphic images of death and violence.
RADIO: Alpha, this is Bravo. Over.
RADIO: Bravo, Charlie. Channel check.
RADIO: Bravo, we deliver, Charlie.
MARTIN SMITH, Correspondent: [voice-over] Adhamiyah, Baghdad. Every morning in this Sunni neighborhood, the dead tell their stories.
RADIO: Bravo, Charlie, this is Alpha. We found a dead body. Over.
Sgt. KEVONTE WILSON, U.S. Army, Police Adviser: He was shot. There was one entrance wound into his neck. I think it exited out of his head. He was dumped in the trash, and that's how we found him.
SOLDIER: See his face?
SOLDIER: Pretty nasty, huh.
SOLDIER: That sucks.
MARTIN SMITH: Fifteen to thirty bodies show up on Baghdad's streets every day. This man was tortured and mutilated before he was killed.
SOLDIER: He has no eyes. His ears have been cut off. Nose been cut off. Tore off part of his skin. No ID.
SOLDIER: Anybody got a knife?
MARTIN SMITH: Soldiers document the killing and try to investigate, but few cases are ever solved.
SOLDIER: First one I've seen with no face on it.
SOLDIER: He's gone.
Sgt. KEVONTE WILSON: He's already started the processing?
SOLDIER: Blood's still fresh. He's got two shots to his head.
Sgt. KEVONTE WILSON: I'm sick of seeing this [deleted], man. I'm done seeing this.
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] Do you see a lot of this?
Sgt. KEVONTE WILSON: Yes. Yes.
MARTIN SMITH: How often do you find bodies?
Sgt. KEVONTE WILSON: Every day, every other day. It's routine.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] In the fall of 2006, FRONTLINE spent two months in Iraq.
Sgt. DAVID FAIRCLOTH, U.S. Army, Police Adviser: Right now, Adhamiyah is pretty hot. We got sniper threats. We got IED threats, EFP threats.
MARTIN SMITH: We embedded with advisory teams like this one.
Sgt. DAVID FAIRCLOTH: Today they have found three bodies in Adhamiyah, three dead bodies, which is totally normal.
MARTIN SMITH: These soldiers are working to train Iraqi police. Standing up Iraqi forces, President Bush says, is a centerpiece of America's strategy. It is also a constant struggle.
Sgt. DAVID FAIRCLOTH: And they all know it's Thanksgiving. They know it's Thanksgiving and they're going to hit us, all right? We'll just hope it's grenades, some small arms fire, stuff that we can handle, all right?
MARTIN SMITH: On this day, we're going back into Adhamiyah, this time to check up on a police station.
SOLDIER: All right, we're rolling.
SOLDIER: Let's get out of here.
SOLDIER: It's Thanksgiving. What could possibly happen? [laughter]
RADIO: VBID's just happened!
MARTIN SMITH: On the way, Sgt. David Faircloth gets a radio call about a car bombing in nearby Sadr City.
Sgt. DAVID FAIRCLOTH: We got a VBIED [Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device] detonation. We're going to go to it. What I want you to do is take a right to the station. You can turn right, like, right now.
We're going to go inside. We're going to grab some IPs [Iraqi Police]. We're going to out to that VBIED detonation and see what the injuries and damages are.
MARTIN SMITH: But when we arrive, the station is empty.
Sgt. DAVID FAIRCLOTH: Salman is Who's in charge?
MAN IN POLICE STATION: Kader Salman! He out.
Sgt. DAVID FAIRCLOTH: Where? Where did he go?
TRANSLATOR: Patrolling or in his house.
Sgt. DAVID FAIRCLOTH: Why is the place so empty? How come nobody can [deleted] tell me if anybody's here? What the hell is going on?
SOLDIER: Captain Salan's not even here.
SOLDIER: There is nobody here -- the commander, Fouad, nobody. Nobody.
MARTIN SMITH: While the Americans are waiting for some police to show up, they learn that there has been more than one blast in Sadr City.
SOLDIER: Four VBIEDs in Sadr City. Did you hear that?
Sgt. DAVID FAIRCLOTH: That's what they wanted to respond to, but I'm not going into Sadr City with no IPs.
MARTIN SMITH: In Sadr City, chaos. Sunni insurgents have struck with a string of coordinated bombings. Over 200 Shia are killed. It is the most deadly sectarian attack of the war.
CAPT. FOUAD: Hello, Faircloth.
Sgt. DAVID FAIRCLOTH: Hello, Saidy.
MARTIN SMITH: Back at the police station, the commander arrives. For his protection and that of other policemen, we've been asked to obscure some faces.
Sgt. DAVID FAIRCLOTH: How you doing?
Capt. FOUAD: Alaikum Salam.
Sgt. DAVID FAIRCLOTH: How you been?
Capt. FOUAD: Fine, fine.
MARTIN SMITH: They go inside to talk, but there is no electricity.
Sgt. DAVID FAIRCLOTH: Do you want to turn the generator on not?
IRAQI POLICEMAN: [subtitles] The electricity was on this morning but went off.
Capt. FOUAD: [subtitles] Go turn the generator on.
[sound of explosion]
SOLDIER: Where at, Craig? Inside Adhamiyah?
MARTIN SMITH: Mortars are flying towards us from Sadr City to avenge the attack. Several land nearby.
Sgt. DAVID FAIRCLOTH: Like I told him -- that's getting close.
SOLDIER: They're shooting back over here.
SOLDIER: That's what it is.
SOLDIER: That's what I just told my guys. I said they're shooting over our heads right now.
SOLDIER: It's retaliation.
Sgt. DAVID FAIRCLOTH: What is going on?
TRANSLATOR: I'm going to tell you something. I think something bad is going to happen here.
Sgt. DAVID FAIRCLOTH: All right. If he's leaving, we're leaving. He's leaving for a reason. We're getting the hell out of here.
Sgt. DAVID FAIRCLOTH: [on the radio] The deputy commander has left the station. He left pretty fast, in a hurry. He gave some excuse why he wanted to leave. We have very minimal IPs at this station right now. I am recommending we cancel this combined patrol and the 1-4 element be back en route to Camp Shield.
MARTIN SMITH: Bombings of Shia are routine. So are revenge attacks on Sunnis. On this day, Iraq's police were powerless to stop the killing.
The training and equipping of the Iraqi Army has been another costly experiment for the Americans, with mixed results.
SOLDIER: Lieutenant Vargo's going to -- wants to give you a patrol brief where he wants to go and the route he wants you to take.
MARTIN SMITH: We patrolled with the Iraqi army in a Shi'ite neighborhood in Yusufiyah, a town south of Baghdad. This unit is rated Level 3, or in military jargon, "partially capable." Like the police, the army has been unable to stop Sunni insurgent attacks. The people here have turned instead to a Shi'ite militia for protection.
[Graffiti on wall: "This area is protected by the Mehdi Army"]
SOLDIER: This is where the marketplace car bomb went off.
MARTIN SMITH: There have been six bombings in the last month.
[on camera] Jesus! That's a hell of a bomb.
[voice-over] And there are no policemen. The police station was destroyed by another insurgent bomb.
[on camera] This was a new building?
SOLDIER: Yes, sir. It was built -- I mean, about two days before it was scheduled to open, it was destroyed.
MARTIN SMITH: What happened to the police after the bombing?
SOLDIER: To the best of my understanding from stories, that after the bombing the police forces in the area were reassigned or left the area to go to other places around the area.
MARTIN SMITH: So they gave up.
SOLDIER: Gave up or were reassigned, sir. Yes.
MARTIN SMITH: Do you know how much they spent on it?
SOLDIER: I don't, sir. Probably more than I make in a year.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] More than 6,000 Iraqi policemen and soldiers have been killed in the last four years. Standing up Iraq's security forces in the midst of a civil war has been difficult, at best. The effort began in earnest back in November 2003, when the Coalition opened a major police training center in neighboring Jordan. Thousands of recruits from all over Iraq were flown in, equipped and given an eight-week crash course.
There were problems right from the beginning.
MICHAEL R. GORDON, The New York Times: The emphasis in the American training program has been on force generation. It's been on producing a lot of guys very quickly. So I think it was too much of an emphasis on quantity over quality.
TRAINER: When you see a hazard, OK, you're going to notify the rest of the patrol. You're going to tell your colleagues that there's a problem.
ROBERT PERITO, Police Training Expert: The question was, who were these people? There was very little vetting that went on, not the sort of vetting that took place in previous operations, where a real effort was made to find out who people were.
MARTIN SMITH: Many of the recruits were more loyal to local sheikhs and clerics than to a new Iraq.
TRANSLATOR: How many of you are from Kut?
Lt. Gen. PETER CHIARELLI, Cmdr. Multi-National Corps, 2006: Because of the way they were brought on board, many of them came from the same part of the country, some of them from the same town, the same province, and some of them from the same sect. And some of them were, in fact, members of different militias.
MARTIN SMITH: The new Iraqi army faced similar issues. American officials had completely dissolved Saddam's army, so they were starting from scratch. Still, the Pentagon claimed progress.
DONALD RUMSFELD, Defense Secretary: [October 30, 2003] Indeed, that progress has been so swift that Iraq is now the second largest of the security forces in the Coalition. It will not be long before they will outnumber all Coalition forces combined.
MARTIN SMITH: But the question was, how would this swiftly assembled force perform in battle? The first test came in April 2004. That month, American marines went in to clean out the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah. Iraqi soldiers assigned to the mission refused to fight.
[on camera] In other words, they said, "We're not going to fight our own."
Maj. Gen. PAUL EATON, (Ret.) Cmdr. Army Training, 2003-04: Correct. You had soldiers say, "I thought you told us that we were going to defend from enemies from without. Now you're sending us to attack Fallujah." And at that point, the American major on the ground said, "Well, we're going to abort the mission. Go back to your barracks."
MARTIN SMITH: That same month, the young anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al Sadr ordered his militia, the Mehdi Army, into battle.
MILITIAMAN: [subtitles] No, no America!
Amb. L. PAUL BREMER, Coalition Provisional Authority, 2003-04: Moqtada chose this time to rise up, as well, and attack American forces, Polish forces, Spanish forces in Najaf. He took over a provincial capital. He attacked the Coalition in Hilla. He attacked Karbala. And so we had, in effect, two crises at the same time.
MARTIN SMITH: Again, Iraqi forces crumbled.
Lt. Gen. PETER CHIARELLI: When the fighting started, those Iraqi battalions just melted away down to 100 or less than 100 soldiers per battalion. Basically, they returned home, and for the most part, refused to take part in any of the fighting.
MARTIN SMITH: The Iraqi police didn't perform any better.
MATT SHERMAN, Ministry of Interior Adviser, 2003-05: The police disappeared. They deserted. They had never been confronted with that sort of violence. It was never something that they were trained to deal with. So as a result, they simply melted into the population.
MARTIN SMITH: Some policemen even switched sides and joined the Mehdi Army.
CROWD: Yes! Yes to Moqtada!
Gen. JOHN ABIZAID, Cmdr., U.S. Central Command: [press conference] Clearly, we know that some of the police did not stay with their posts, and that in some cases, with Sadr's militias in particular, that there were some defections.
Amb. L. PAUL BREMER: It was a very serious problem because we found that these forces that we had been working with were not prepared to work with us to restore order.
MARTIN SMITH: The Coalition was forced to redeploy troops to areas south of Baghdad.
DAN SENOR, Coalition Provisional Authority: [press conference April 17, 2004] We want the rule of law to prevail in Iraq. There is no room for militias and mob violence. And there's no room for militias or organizations to just single-handedly and unilaterally decide that they're going to take over government buildings and government properties.
MARTIN SMITH: In defiance of the Americans and the Shi'ite religious establishment, Moqtada al Sadr and his Mehdi Army set up their military headquarters inside Najaf's Shrine of Imam Ali, the holiest of Shi'ite mosques.
MOQTADA AL SADR: [subtitles] The battle of Holy Najaf has unified Iraqis. Say with me, No to occupation! No, no occupation!
CROWD: No, no occupation!
MOQTADA AL SADR: No to America!
CROWD: No, no America!
DEXTER FILKINS, New York Times Baghdad Bureau, 2003-06: The mainstream Shi'ite religious leadership, they gave the Americans the green light to go in and take out the Mehdi Army, take out Moqtada, with the one condition, absolute condition, that they not damage the shrine.
MARTIN SMITH: The fighting dragged on for weeks. And at times, remaining police units behaved more like private militias. One group of policemen apparently loyal to Moqtada al Sadr's main rival, Abdul Aziz al Hakim, opened fire on a crowd of unarmed Sadr supporters. An American filmmaker, Andrew Berends, shot this footage.
Eventually, Sadr agreed to leave the mosque, but he kept his Mehdi Army and emerged a folk hero, a Shi'ite leader who had successfully defied the coalition.
DEXTER FILKINS: Moqtada, the young upstart fiery guy, starts this big uprising, breaks a lot of furniture, kills a lot of people. But you know, they let the angry young child kind of run out the back door.
[www.pbs.org: More on the Moqtada problem]
MARTIN SMITH: The battle of Najaf revealed just how weak and splintered Iraqi security forces were.
After watching Iraqi forces disintegrate and defect, the Coalition began looking for ways to revamp their training program.
LAITH KUBBA, Iraqi Gov't Spokesman, 2005-06: There was a fundamental flaw in the assumption that by simply training Iraqis, showing them how to use guns, wear the uniforms, answer to their line of management, that automatically, we're assuming their loyalty is going to be to the state. In reality, the Kurds had more or less their loyalty to Kurdish leaders. And many of the Shi'ites had their loyalty to Moqtada al Sadr or to al Hakim.
TRAINER: How's everything going?
NIR ROSEN, Author and Journalist: You had very little Sunni participation in the security forces. Which means that they weren't really Iraqi security forces. They were loyal primarily to Moqtada al Sadr, to Abdul Aziz al Hakim, but not to the Iraqi state and not to anybody in the Green Zone.
RICK BARTLE, Instructor: My name is Rick.
TRANSLATOR: [subtitles] My name is Rick. Not my name, his.
RICK BARTLE: I am not here to impose my American will upon you.
MARTIN SMITH: These recruits were filmed on their first day of class.
RICK BARTLE: Repeat this after me.
MARTIN SMITH: Rick Bartle is a private contractor --
RICK BARTLE: Freedom.
MARTIN SMITH: -- and an instructor at the Jordan Police Academy.
RICK BARTLE: Freedom.
MARTIN SMITH: He's also a self-described motivational speaker.
RICK BARTLE: Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!
Maj. Gen. JOSEPH PETERSON, Cmdr., Police Training,: When we enlist somebody into the police forces of Iraq, they swear an oath to serve the people of Iraq. They swear an oath to serve the constitution of Iraq and to be loyal to this effort.
RICK BARTLE: I want everybody to stand up. Stand up.
Brg. Gen. KARL HORST, 3rd Infantry Division, 2004-06: We spent a lot of time talking about the Iraqi flag.
RICK BARTLE: I want you to look at your flag. Look at your flag.
Brg. Gen. KARL HORST: We said the national interest is what is most important here because in their culture, what religious sect they're from, what tribe and family they are from very much defines who they are.
RICK BARTLE: I want you to pledge allegiance to your flag. Repeat after me. I pray Allah to give me the courage to protect my country of Iraq.
Brg. Gen. KARL HORST: And so the challenge was establishing this nationalist feeling in them --
RICK BARTLE: And I pray Allah --
Brg. Gen. KARL HORST: -- to move to the greater good of Iraq --
RICK BARTLE: -- for the souls of all my brothers that have gone before me.
Brg. Gen. KARL HORST: -- not to the greater good of Shia Islam or Sunni Islam. I mean, it was a challenge. It was a cultural difference.
RICK BARTLE: Long live Iraq!
RECRUITS: Long live Iraq!
RICK BARTLE: Long live Iraq! Yeah!
STEVE CASTEEL, Ministry of Interior Adviser, 2003-05: We were trying to build a Western model in an environment that really was a Middle East environment. You have to see the world through their eyes. If you see -- go in there and see the world through an American pair of eyes, you'll never be successful because this ain't America. And I think probably too many people saw the world only through an American pair of eyes.
MARTIN SMITH: In mid-2004, the Pentagon turned the training effort over to one of their biggest guns, General David Petraeus. Petraeus had received near universal praise for stabilizing one of Iraq's largest cities, Mosul, after the U.S. invasion. He earned the nickname King David.
[on camera] Is it fair to say you were brought in to fix a situation that was broken?
Gen. DAVID PETRAEUS, Cmdr., Police and Army Training, 2004-05: Well, we were certainly brought in to bring it all together. I mean, there were elements that were -- that had not done well. There were elements that were broken. There were also elements that had done well. And so what we needed to do was to do a comprehensive look and say what organizational changes -- what increases in resources do we need, in terms of coalition forces and in terms of money?
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Petraeus got the Pentagon to give the Iraqis more body armor, more radios, more guns and more ammunition.
U.S. ARMY TRAINER: They love to have meetings and talk and drink chai, and that's when you can get a lot of your good feedback out of them. Sit down and have a cup of chai, eat some bread, eat some rice.
MARTIN SMITH: And Petraeus expanded a program to embed U.S. advisers inside Iraqi units.
U.S. POLICE ADVISER: They're good at that. They like that. Meetings go kind of long sometimes.
MARTIN SMITH: And those advisers were given cultural awareness training.
U.S. ARMY TRAINER: A lot of times, they will give you the answer that you want to hear. It's an Arab thing.
MARTIN SMITH: But the emphasis under Petraeus remained on getting the numbers up.
Gen. DAVID PETRAEUS: [press conference February 4, 2005] The progress has been substantial. There are currently 136,000 trained and equipped Iraqi security forces. There are now 90 battalions that have completed training.
MATT SHERMAN, Ministry of Interior Adviser, 2003-05: General Petraeus was focused on the numbers. He was focused on making sure the resources were pushed out. D.C. was interested in making sure that manpower was generated.
MARTIN SMITH: But soon tens of thousands of U.S.-trained Iraqi policemen would fall under the control of a Shi'ite cleric, Abdul Aziz al Hakim. He and his party had emerged the big winners in Iraq's parliamentary election.
REPORTER: [subtitles] What are your feelings at this moment?
ABDUL AZIZ AL HAKIM, Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq: [subtitles] I am very happy. Thank God. helped me participate in this historic process of elections.
MARTIN SMITH: Secular candidates backed by the Bush administration fared poorly.
ANTHONY CORDESMAN, Ctr. for Strategic and Intl. Studies: I think one of the great ironies of the election is democracy produced just the opposite result from the one most people thought it would. It created for the first time a government dominated by Shi'ite religious politicians acting not necessarily without regard to the nation's interest, but primarily on the basis of their own agenda.
MARTIN SMITH: Abdul Aziz al Hakim had spent 20 years in Iran, where he headed up a 10,000-man anti-Saddam militia, the Badr Corps. After the fall of Saddam, Hakim and his older brother, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al Hakim, returned from exile. Ayatollah Hakim was considered by many to be Iraq's new leader.
Three months after the Hakims returned, Sunni insurgents detonated a powerful car bomb outside Najaf's holy shrine just as Ayatollah Hakim was leaving Friday prayers. He and a hundred others were killed. The assassination of Ayatollah Hakim was the first major Sunni attack against Shia. Iraq's Shia have never forgotten.
ABDUL AZIZ AL HAKIM: [through interpreter] They started this war of eradication. They started their operations with Bloody Friday, when they killed my brother. And they continue their operations to this day.
MARTIN SMITH: With his party in power, Abdul Aziz al Hakim moved quickly to place party members and Badr militiamen in top government posts. One ministry was of special interest.
MATT SHERMAN: Of all the ministries that they were interested in being able to place one of their officials was the Ministry of Interior. In fact, it was the only ministry that they sought out.
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] Why were they so interested in taking over the Ministry of Interior?
MATT SHERMAN: I think -- I think the Commandos were the primary reason why.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] The Ministry of Interior is in charge of all of Iraq's 200,000 policemen, including the elite units known as the Commandos. The Commandos were formed in 2004. Many of the officers were Sunnis. Hakim wanted to make sure the Commandos and the Ministry of Interior came under Shi'ite control.
STEVE CASTEEL, Ministry of Interior Adviser, 2003-05: The Ministry of Interior had power. It was people on the streets. You control the population. It was all the civilian forces. You control what came across the borders. It was power.
MARTIN SMITH: Abdul Aziz al Hakim selected one of his party's top deputies, Bayan Jabr, to head up the Ministry.
ABDUL AZIZ AL HAKIM: [through interpreter] I knew Bayan Jabr and his extraordinary capabilities and his courage, his decisiveness and faith in the new Iraq. And I suggested his name as one of the best candidates to hold this very important position.
BAYAN JABR, Minister of Interior, 2005-06: Our party, they decided that I will be minister of interior. In the beginning, I refuse because I know it is tough job and it is not my job. I am civil engineer.
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] Did you have any experience in security work?
BAYAN JABR: No. I haven't. I was -- before I left Iraq in 1982, I was merchant.
MARTIN SMITH: But you had no experience in security?
BAYAN JABR: No, no experience.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Despite the elevator music, the Ministry of Interior is widely feared. Under Saddam, it housed torture centers. The ministry was where people disappeared. When Jabr took over, he started re-staffing commando units with Badr Corps commanders. The previous Interior Minister, Falah al Naqib, complained.
FALAH AL NAQIB: You know in those units, we had Shia and Sun