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matthew sherman

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As deputy senior adviser to Iraq's Ministry of Interior from December 2003 to January 2006, Matthew Sherman advised four ministers and in this interview offers a detailed, inside view of the obstacles in building an Iraqi civilian security force that could staunch the escalating insurgency and sectarian violence. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Oct. 4, 2006.

Talk about the Ministry of the Interior as you found it when you arrived in December of '03.

Well, right in the beginning we didn't spend as much time at the ministry itself as I think we probably should have. Most of our time initially was spent in the main presidential palace, which is where most of the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] staffers worked. What we did regularly was meet with some of the leadership, the minister, some of the deputy ministers. But really, the type of activity of working with lower-level people within the ministry, working at the ministry, was something that wasn't done.

Why?

One is because there was so much work to get done within the palace itself, ... and two, there was just an uncertainty of having to build up the relationships with the Iraqis. Just like any type of situation, you tend to gravitate toward those you might be comfortable with and things like that, and that's how the environment was initially for the first few months that I was there in Iraq.

You think that was true broadly across all sorts of departments, that Americans would talk to Americans and not frequently enough with the Iraqis?

Absolutely. There would be policy discussions on how to bring about certain types of reforms, how to implement certain types of ideas and policies, and it would be primarily a bunch of coalition Western leaders, diplomats, personnel that would sit in the meeting inside the palace, in the Green Zone, discussing these things, typing them up. The idea at the time was to then hand over a policy book, to hand over plans on how to be able to implement certain types of policies, as opposed to working directly hand in glove with the Iraqis from the start. We recognized that shortcoming, I think, fairly early.

We?

We, the Ministry of Interior advisory team. ... We decided to just shift our focus from all of the meetings and briefings and things like that, within the palace, within the U.S. Embassy, and focus our time just working with the Iraqis. ...

When I arrived in the country, I recognized that, while I have had a security background, dealing with election work, dealing with Middle East issues and things like that, I didn't necessarily have a real intimate knowledge on Baghdad particularly and the dynamics and the politics and tribal issues and things like that. What I decided to do is just take a step back for the first three to four months that I would be there and listen and try to see where things were going, what was working, what wasn't working.

There was a different set of priorities that were in place at that time, and setting up a civilian police force was not one of them.

Once I felt more comfortable with issues, once I was able to start building up some relationships with the Iraqis, we kind of shifted our focus and said that "We're not making the headway. We're not really having the effect that we wish to have [with the] ministry, with the police." So we shifted our efforts and our focus.

You get there just as the Jordanian Police Academy is ramping up, and there are some criticisms that are leveled at that from the Iraqis. Can you remember those?

The criticisms were twofold. One was the cost associated with it, how so much money was then being allocated to build up this academy; and number two -- and this is the one that really aggravated the Iraqis most of all -- was having to send Iraqi policemen, cadets, outside of Iraq. The level of pride that the Iraqis have is incredibly high. [They'd say]: "People used to come to Iraq in order to receive training. Now we're sending our people out."

Why do it that way?

... One, in order to create a training facility in a benign environment; and two, I think it was in order to support the Jordanians a bit and to be able to include them within the reconstruction process.

When you get there, it's [Nouri] Badran who's in charge of the MOI [Ministry of Interior]. [Interim Interior Minister and former New York City Police Commissioner] Bernie Kerik made some comments about Badran hiring former Baathists as his deputies. What was the situation there when you got there?

There were some issues with regards to the Baathists. Nouri Badran was the one who served during the former regime, but then he was also someone who fled right before the first Gulf War because of diplomatic rows he had with Saddam. ... Were some of the contacts that Nouri had Baathists? Yes, they were. To what level they were within the Baathist organization, to what types of crimes they may have caused before, was unknown. ...

There's a concern, as Kerik put it, that these were the seeds of a kind of devolution, for lack of a better word, in the police department, when the Baathists come in, former Saddam loyalists.

It's more complicated than that, in my opinion. We were so fixated on meetings, briefings and things like that going on in the palace, in the Green Zone, we didn't necessarily have our focus on what was going on within the ministry. That was the first problem.

Number two, the Ministry of Interior is much different than the Ministry of Defense in the sense that it was the only security institution that continued, for the most part, relatively intact. ...With the Ministry of Defense, you started completely from scratch. With the Ministry of Interior, the police were still there; the bureaucracy was still there. Did all the police kind of come back after the war? No, not at all. Did we have an understanding of who actually did come back and not? No, we did not.

You had no way of vetting the people that were coming back?

It was very difficult to gain those records, to gain that understanding on that scale, particularly throughout the entire country.

Were you worried at that time that the people joining the police were indeed former policemen, or at least people who were not criminals?

Sure. High-level Baathists, we had lists of those individuals, and we had some types of criminal background information. But it wasn't anywhere near complete or absolute. ...

And when you got there, there's some 35,000 to 40,000 policemen?

I would say about 40,000.

And your mandate was to do what, to get to what kind of a number?

That number changed at times. There was an effort to get to about 75,000 police, from what I recall, and to go about trying to provide them equipment, to provide them pay, to provide them training. The difficulty that we had was with regards to our own manpower of being able to provide that. We had a limited staff. ... By March or so, there was a staff of about 60 individuals that were focusing on the MOI --

These are the advisers.

These are the advisers.

Sixty?

About 60.

This is opposed to the 6,600 that the team from DOJ [U.S. Department of Justice] and State Department had recommended.

Right.

So you're at 1 percent of what you should be.

Yeah. And we also didn't have the resources to get out of Baghdad or the Green Zone as much as we would like. We had difficulty being able to push ahead any type of equipment that we needed and so had to rely on military support. We weren't necessarily getting the funding and action from people in Washington or within the leadership within CPA, so it was very ad hoc type of measures that we were all taking, trying just to do what we can with the limited numbers that we had.

Is it because back in Washington they didn't recognize the importance of getting the police up and running, or just what?

... I would say they were not as high a priority as they needed to be, absolutely. ... It was to be able to find and hunt Al Qaeda and former regime elements, that was the primary focus. And there was also the primary focus on setting up a political structure that would then move the country forward, as opposed to focusing on security structure that would be necessary to bring about a secure environment. ...

There was no Al Qaeda in those early days. How can you focus on Al Qaeda when they're not even there?

Well, we know that now, don't we?

You believed that they were there then?

I wasn't involved in those decisions or that approach. I'm just saying that there was a different security focus, a different set of priorities that were in place at that time, and setting up a civilian police force was not one of them.

Was [former CPA head Ambassador L. Paul] Bremer himself a factor in resisting the prioritizing of the police?

I don't think it's so much resisting as opposed to appreciating, of fully seeing that piece of the puzzle being so critical.

He didn't see it.

You'd have to ask him if he didn't see it. I just see that the amount of support that we had, the type of resources that were provided, were limited for such an important component within the reconstruction process.

Well, I'm asking you. You were there; you were in a position to know. And I think what you're saying is that Ambassador Bremer was not giving you the kind of help you needed.

I would say that there was a collective position from not just him, but the people in Washington, of not seeing the civilian security service being a priority.

Seems kind of crazy in retrospect.

In retrospect it does.

And to you at the time?

At the time it was frustrating. You're not only trying to establish a security service, but you're also dealing with so many of the fires that are increasingly springing up left and right: border issues, bombings, assassinations that are starting.

You were also encountering problems with the training. The Eikenberry report comes out. What was the problem?

[Editor's Note: In early 2004, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sent Maj. Gen. Karl Eikenberry to Iraq to assess the state of the security forces.]

The Eikenberry team came out because they saw that what we were attempting to do, with the limited resources, wasn't doing the job. ... They recommended the military take the lead in establishing the Ministry of Defense and also providing the training and equipment function for the Ministry of Interior. That really shifted and changed the direction of the police service significantly, in a way that we were able to do a lot of things quickly.

This is a year into the project, almost a year since the initial invasion. And what you're saying, I think, is that it's not until then that a sort of reassessment gets made of the police training effort.

Yes, that there was a serious deficiency there.

Do you remember what you thought at that time about the way in which things were going?

I was constantly frustrated by the ad hoc approach that we had to try to do our job and the fact that we just didn't have the resources to do it, and that there needed to be a greater collective U.S. government effort to do this. The military would, of course, be the best mechanism to provide that, because of their resources, the manpower. What was eventually done is the military ... were funded with $5 billion in order to create the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior.

Was there a week or day or a moment that really encapsulates that frustration that you felt?

It was constant. As soon as you hit the ground there, you're bombarded with requirements from the front office, with Bremer, from other people throughout the embassy. Iraqis are asking for things. The procedures in order to do things are not clear. So you're fighting to keep your head above water, and you're seeing that you don't have the ability in order to complete the job that you were brought out there to do.

And you weren't being heard up the ladder.

Until the Eikenberry team came out and began to put together some recommendations to change that.

Now, just after that, CPA Order No. 71 CRON is issued. What was it, and how did it affect you?

CPA Order 71 was set up to decentralize many of the powers in Baghdad to the provinces. It was meant so that there would never be another possibility of a totalitarian regime establishing itself again, by making sure that the provinces were able to collect their own taxes, set their own policies, and also more or less control their own police forces.

At the time, this was something that we thought, while good in principle, would be very bad in practice. It wasn't that decentralization would be a bad thing. In time, it's a good thing. But doing it so quickly before the state was able to establish its own centrally controlled security forces, if we just gave that power away prematurely, it would create fractured policies, fractured police forces, security forces. And that's what happened. It was heralded as a huge step forward, and it would be a huge step forward if the timing was different, if it was done after Iraq was on its feet and it was able to defend itself properly.

Why the rush?

I think it was to empower local authorities. I think a lot of the Shi'a leaders within Iraq and throughout the country were calling for this because they didn't want the Baathists to come back. Number two, I think there was a blind look at democracy and being able to spread democracy to the local levels without really making sure that when those powers are handed down to the provinces that there would be enough resources in order to assist those new provincial and local governments in being able to administer and use that new power.

What do you mean by "a blind look at democracy"?

By thinking that if we simply just give them powers to do as they wish, that those powers would then be used for the benefit and good of the people as a whole, as opposed to their own personal agendas.

I think what you're saying is that this fractured the ministry in a way that was damaging. How did it play into the creation of militias?

That's a complicated issue. The CPA Order 71 allowed for local police to carry on with their own activities without any central government overwatch. There was very little accountability to the center, since the central government had very little authority over the provinces, particularly with regards to equipment and with regards to pay. You were never able to instill any national policies because the command and control mechanism[s] were taken away. Police forces throughout the Middle East, in many parts of the world, are hired locally, but there usually is some type of overwatch that keeps them in line. That was completely taken away.

I think by taking that power away prematurely, before any types of new measures could be put in place in order to modernize the police, they just were able to carry on as they wished, which wasn't always for the benefit of Iraq as a whole.

What did you see starting to happen?

What you start to see happen were open -- just disagreements, where we were trying to instill certain types of human rights policies, where we were trying to gain greater insights into what was going on in certain police forces. You'd hear stories of units going off and doing questionable activities with regards to sectarian violence, targeting certain other groups. ... Police were conducting their own rogue operations.

There were certain sects within Basra, certain sects within Baghdad, there were certain sects up north, that were able to go across town and target certain individuals and do it under the guise of a police uniform, or security forces as a whole. What we had was very few political, financial types of controls in order to deal with them.

This is part of the reason why right now, Prime Minister [Nouri al-]Maliki has so much difficulty reining in the police problem down in Basra, because there aren't those types of political pressures that he can really apply down there: withdraw pay; fire certain individuals. His ability and the minister of interior's ability is very limited.

So what you saw was throughout the course of the two years and the four ministers that I advised, you had some Shi'a ministers, you had some Sunni ministers. But the real power that those ministers had was with their own political establishments. So when a Sunni minister had a problem in Mosul or Tikrit or Samarra, he was able to use his own political capital in order to deal with that issue, as opposed to the political power of the ministry. When a Sunni minister would have problems down in Basra, at Najaf, he really had no control whatsoever because those were Shi'a areas, and they were just able to continue doing as they saw fit.

And was there any reconsideration of CPA Order 71?

I don't think people saw the consequences of CPA Order 71.

You don't think Bremer saw the consequences of it?

No, because it was something that was heralded as another step in democratizing Iraq. It was another step in letting the Iraqis choose their own destiny. In many ways, the genie was out of the bottle. To be able then to rescind those types of powers would have caused great difficulty, particularly at the provincial level. ...

In that same month [April 2004] you started to see the first Sadr uprising [led by radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr]. ... How did your police do?

They deserted.

Tell me the story of what happened.

There were attacks in Najaf particularly that were going on. There were a large number of Mahdi Army that were beginning to take greater hold within Najaf, that were beginning to attack police forces, because they were the only security forces that were there. This is the time before the Iraqi army was established. They were shooting mortars and attacking police from the cemetery that's in Najaf to the police stations that are right nearby. These were very significant attacks, and the number of Mahdi Army individuals far outnumbered the number of police that were there. And the police disappeared.

There was lots of criticism that was then levied on the police for leaving. My argument has always been that I'm sure that if police officers from Detroit, Washington D.C., were levied with that sort of attack, they, too, would likely go. Also, the police that were there in Najaf 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. ...

But these were policemen who had gone through your training and vetting. They should be approved police.

We were not able to train and equip that many police by that time. This was before the military took the lead in training police. How many of the Najaf police the coalition had trained and equipped I don't know, but it wasn't many. Most of these guys were still police that were from the former regime, without significant training.

The insurgents are attacking the police; they're bombing police stations; they're chasing them out of their stations. And still the resources aren't coming your way?

That was April. The Eikenberry team had already come through by then, from what I recall, and the recommendations, and the decision was still being made in Washington on what to do.

Who did you scream at?

It wasn't an issue of screaming. It was still just trying to do your job: trying to put out all the damn fires that kept popping up; ... trying to deal with requirements that Bremer's asking [of] you and position papers he wants on border issues; and trying to deal with problems that the Iraqis were having with getting into the Green Zone. ...

And what was Bremer asking of you, besides the papers on one thing or another? What was he looking for?

Anything and everything that you want to know about.

He presumably wanted to report better numbers.

Wanted to be able to report better numbers; wanted to be able to report how many border guards would be necessary; wanted to report on what type of progress may have been made at building a certain police station; wanted to know whether the minister had decided to make certain institutional changes within the ministry -- lots of those things -- and wanted to know what the police were doing in certain cities that were coming under attack. Just lots and lots and lots of things that were going on, which, again, were distracting us from working with the Iraqis, from being able to try to mentor them and to listen to what their concerns actually were.

Well, were his needs legitimate, or was this simply so that he could report back to Washington?

Most of it was to report back to Washington. There was a saying -- it's always called, "You need to feed the beast." ... We had to feed the beast, making sure that we had those details, make sure we had those facts, in order to inform them of what was actually going on in the country.

So on a given day, how much time did you spend feeding the beast?

Four-plus hours a day. ...

You get to June of 2004 a few months later and the CPA Order 91 on disbanding the militias. Now, it's surprising that it took that long to get to a point where we asked for militias to be disbanded. And at the same time that they're calling for militias to disband, you're saying militias form within local police departments.

It didn't all come together at that time. Looking back in hindsight, you see all that. But what you saw were these rogue groups starting to take collective action against the police and starting to infiltrate and take part within the police. But it was minor. It wasn't something that was clearly evident, like it is now.

In many ways, these militias were allies of America's during the war and before the war. The Badr Brigade was a Shi'a militia that fought against Saddam Hussein and was someone that we in the leadership worked openly and freely with. So the makeup and direction of these units changed significantly from the days when we were negotiating CPA Order 91 and the establishment of the death squads.

I was in this meeting with Ambassador Bremer, and with Dr. Terry Kelly, who led the CPA Order 91 initiative, and [Interim] Prime Minister [Ayad] Allawi. When we were briefing on this plan, and how certain militia groups had signed up to be integrated within the security forces after renouncing allegiance to the militia groups, I think Allawi said, "Let's take a step back on this." What he saw, in my opinion, was that the amount of political capital that would be necessary in order to really fully implement this plan was very high, and would be very complicated to do, from an Iraqi perspective.

In other words, it would be really difficult to get these militias to disband.

Absolutely. The amount of political capital that Allawi would have to expend in order to bring that about would be high as well. I think he recognized that "I'm only in power here for nine months, and there are so many other priorities that have to be dealt with," that he chose to take a step back from that.

On the coalition side, I don't know if we fully appreciated the militia problem either. We did put a lot of effort into those negotiations, but there wasn't necessarily assistance in being able to carry them out with regards to either personnel to work with the Iraqis to implement that policy or funding to make sure that the retirement programs, the retraining programs, would then be provided to those militia members that came on board.

So execution of this order to disband the militias was halfhearted?

Was not a priority.

Then you have another phenomenon occurring around the same time, and that was Naqib's initiative to form a commando unit. What was the motivation behind that?

[Then-Interior] Minister Falah al-Naqib came into power right after the disbanding of the CPA and the establishment of new government under Allawi. The first week Naqib brought to our attention his idea of creating a security force that will save Iraq. He truly and honestly believed this. The person to lead that group would be his uncle, [Gen.] Adnan Thabit, who had built up a number of contacts himself as a tribal sheik in Samarra and then also while he was imprisoned, because he led a resistance and revolt against Saddam.

Naqib was going to create this force no matter what we said. He felt that there was a need to establish this force that would be made up primarily of former army officials that were disbanded by the CPA, and that it needed to be controlled centrally out of Baghdad, out of the ministry, as opposed to the police force, which had been all decentralized.

So he says: "Why should we reinvent the wheel with this training that you're recommending when the wheel is already primarily built? What we just need to do is recruit back a number of these former military officials and Special Republican Guard officials." And he went about doing just that.

What was your and [senior adviser to Ministry of Interior] Steve's [Casteel's] assessment of the idea?

We liked the idea generally, as a principle, of the Iraqis seeing a problem and taking an initiative to solve it; where you saw a growing insurgency, particularly in many of the Sunni areas at the time, and you saw a minister who saw that problem and was coming up with his own suggestions to deal with them, as opposed to just hearing what we had to say and smiling and nodding and moving on. He was being proactive. We didn't necessarily want to stop that, but we also didn't want it to get out of hand. And so there's a fine line that you had to walk.

I remember us going back then later on and asking him more details, saying: "Well, what do you plan on doing? How big do you plan on seeing this force? What type of operations do you plan to see them do? Where are they going to be based?" And they had ideas on what they were going to do. About a month later myself and a British brigadier, Andrew Mackay, [former commanding general of the Civilian Police Assistance Training Team], were the first two Westerners to see the commandos train and come together in order to fight a Sunni insurgency.

What did you think?

Very impressive.

Did you see that this was a Shi'a group, this was a Shi'a army?

No, you didn't.

Did you suspect it?

No, and that's because it wasn't. Naqib is a Sunni. He's someone who has never been sectarian. I've always viewed Naqib as a nationalist, if anything. He primarily was recruiting former military officials -- Republican Guard, Special Republican Guard -- that were primarily Sunni, but were also Shi'a as well. Sectarianism was never a big thing for him.

What made this force legitimate, at least, was that they were a primarily Sunni force -- they were definitely a Sunni-led force -- that was then fighting a Sunni insurgency. As a result, the sectarian conflict never really came into play at all. ...

So you go out with Mackay and you watch the commandos training. Describe the scene for me.

There was a base right outside the Green Zone which was a dirt field, in many ways. It had just a few bombed-out buildings, shells in many ways. You saw maybe 200 to 300 men dressed in some camouflage tops, some camouflage bottoms, a few with both; some with shoes, some without. Very ragtag. ... But they were doing their calisthenics; they were doing their takedowns; they all were falling into formation.

And we went down the line, and you saw that there was this spark; there was this fire that they had. They all had a patch on that said "Iraqi Police Commandos" in Arabic and an outline of the country, with a wolf then coming on the corner of Iran. ... They knew that for the first time someone from the coalition was going to visit them, ... and they wanted to show that "We are striving to become a professional force." ...

But this was exactly what [CPA Order No.] 71 was supposed to prevent, right? To get rid of a potential for there to be a national police force that could oppress from the center?

To empower the provinces in order for their own elections, their own security and things like that -- absolutely right. But there was at that time also other measures that the coalition was taking, trying to set some high-level national police force as well.

So it's all a little confused.

Right.

But OK, so you're seeing this spark.

Right. They have this fire that you don't necessarily see when you see other police or other security forces. There was something special about them. They wanted to be there, and they believed in what they were doing.

We went and had discussions with Adnan Thabit, general of the commandos. We're in his office, which is this yellow building, no windows, and this metal, fold-out table. He's telling us how this is going to be the force that will save Iraq, that is preparing to go out and do operations against the insurgency and things like that. At that point it became clear that these guys meant what they were saying, and they were going to do it.

We went back to the embassy and military leadership and told them this. But it was only after the commandos did some operations on their own and were successful in what they did, did the leadership begin to say, "Well, maybe we need to take a closer look at these individuals and decide whether we should support them or not."

But when you first reported to the U.S. military what you had seen, what was their reaction?

They [thought it was] questionable. What they wanted to set up were their own national public border battalions which would be able to hold the ground after a military operation, in order for the police to then be reconstituted and then come into the town or city. If they supported this other unit that the minister was setting up on his own, in some ways they wouldn't have as much control or influence on it. ...

What was [Gen. David] Petraeus' feeling?

Initially he wanted to kind of wait and see, and throw support still behind the public order forces that he was intending to create. ...

I had understood that he simply didn't like the idea of the commandos.

I wouldn't say that. ... He wanted it after the commandos were able to prove [themselves] and he then was able to say, "These guys know what they're doing, and we're going to support them."...

And these forces were known as --

They were then known as the commandos. Now they're known as the National Police. There were different divisions, different brigades and battalions, because they were organized like an army unit. So there were brigades with certain names: Wolf Brigade, Volcano Brigade, other sorts of brigades like that, even though they all had the wolf on their sleeve.

After Naqib, who takes over the MOI?

Bayan Jabr comes to the ministry around March or April 2005. We had the elections in January of 2005, which were very successful, particularly from a security perspective. It was something that the Ministry of Interior took the lead on, and it was probably one of the proudest days I had in Iraq, seeing those elections and having the security plan work as well as it did.

But the elections brought in a new set of leaders and a new direction. The most successful political entity within those elections were the Shi'as, and within the Shi'a coalition was SCIRI [Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq]. They were the most dominant.

[Abdul Aziz al-]Hakim's group.

Hakim's group. And of all the ministries that they were interested in being able to place one of their officials in was the Ministry of Interior. In fact, it was the only ministry that they sought out, and they were able to achieve that goal by bringing in Bayan Jabr.

Why are they so interested in taking over the Ministry of Interior?

One, of course the security ministry is a very powerful ministry, lots of resources that are being dedicated to it; but more importantly, the commandos, because the commandos were a force that were, a, very effective in their fighting, and b, they weren't necessarily under the operational control of the coalition military, MNFI [Multi-National Force-Iraq].

[The Iraqi army was] under the control of MNFI. The police have never been under the control of the coalition military, so this would be an entity that they could use however they saw fit. I also think they wanted to gain control of it so it wouldn't again become so strong that it would then be a security force that would repress them like some of the former regime security forces repressed the Shi'a community following the first Gulf War. So this collective thinking went on, and they then put their political capital to gaining control of the Ministry of Interior.

This is a kind of golden fleece then, as they see it: If they can get hold of these guys, they can have real power throughout the country.

Because at the time, the commandos were the most effective Iraqi fighting force throughout the country.

Before I go forward, I want to go back to Petraeus just a little bit here. He's training a lot of guys in Jordan and the Baghdad academy, other police academies around the country. What's the attitude of the MOI, of Naqib and then Jabr, toward these trained recruits?

I think Minister Naqib and Minister Jabr saw the police training mission as a coalition effort.

They saw that as not valid?

Not as something not valid, but ... the idea to train and equip 135,000 police was primarily a coalition idea, one being led by Gen. Petraeus. This idea was then sold to Minister Naqib, who was supportive of this. There was a meeting that we were all in with Gen. [George W.] Casey, Gen. Petraeus, Minister Naqib, Steve [Casteel] and myself. And Naqib was fully supportive of all this. But I think his focus was still on the commandos.

What made things difficult for the ministry then, on the application of this training and equipping mission, was that there was this huge influx of equipment and individuals and logistics that the ministry couldn't handle in such a short period of time. As a result, equipment went everywhere; individuals went everywhere. Being able to keep track of all that information proved too much of a problem for the ministry in Baghdad.

You say people were going everywhere. What do you mean by that?

Well, Gen. Petraeus was very good at being able to push our resources, set up academies and make sure that they were fully supported financially. ... Every 10 weeks a new set of graduates would finish at these academies and go out to their police stations in their local areas. But being able to track where those individuals were, and the central ministry being able to identify them in order to deal with pay issues, made things very, very complicated. We just weren't able to keep track of all those individuals.

And there were abuses. "Ghost jobs" were created.

The "ghost employees" and things like that is a combination of a number of issues. One is never having a full grasp on how many police came back into the ministry after the war; two, the decentralization issue; three, having so many people coming into the ministry as police officers under this 135,000 plan that you were unable to make heads or tails of who was where; and also then corruption issues, certain people taking money for their own personal benefit.

Taking money ... to pay people that didn't exist.

That did not exist.

Petraeus' goal was to meet this number, 135,000. That was the promise, right? What I think you're saying is that there was no accountability for what happened with those recruits that he pushed out, even though they were reported back to Washington as yet one more policeman on the beat. So the American public is being told that we just put another 20,000 policemen on the beat.

But where those policemen are is always the question that has to be asked.

And what you believe is that many of them didn't show up.

Some showed up; some did not. Some sold their equipment. But where they actually are and who they're accountable to is not Baghdad, and not the Ministry of Interior.

And it could be to a local policeman who is running his own private militia.

Or going about doing things for his own personal reasons.

Or sectarian reasons.

Sectarian reasons, criminal reasons. Whatever.

But Petraeus is meeting his numbers. He's doing what he's supposed to do.

Correct.

Is he to blame for this?

... No. Gen. Petraeus' mission was to train and equip 135,000 individuals. That was done. But the accountability of those individuals is also a key component which got missed.

Well, that's an understatement. You're training all these guys, they were given weapons, but then we don't know what happens to them. It's a badly broken system.

My greatest fear is that in our effort to train and equip the Iraq security forces, what we've been doing is equipping Iraqis for civil war. We have been pumping out so many individuals with weapons, with uniforms, but there's no command and control and accountability for those individuals. They can go out and do as they wish.

These individuals have 10 weeks of training, compared to efforts in Kosovo where they had more than five months of classroom training before they went out in the field, and when they were out in they field they had six months of intense mentoring. Being able to bring about fundamental changes in policing, being able to establish civilian-based, community-based policing, takes much more than just 10 weeks. It's a quality issue that you have to deal with, not a quantity issue. ...

We're making the numbers, but we're not monitoring quality or performance.

And this was a huge, huge problem. It continues.

But why did Petraeus and the whole project get such good press?

I think because they were able to show that ... a huge effort was being made. But you always had to look beyond the numbers, and maybe some people in the press didn't do that. Maybe it wasn't evident to a lot of individuals. But to quite a number of people in Baghdad, within the Ministry of Interior, it was very evident.

Starting when?

Mid- to late 2004. ... There were lots of debates and issues that were going on. But after a while, you were then able to have an understanding of how the ministry was being overrun and overcome by the deluge of new individuals coming into the Ministry of Interior. Seeing the equipment going out at the rate that it was --

Equipment meaning uniforms, ammunition, guns?

Cars, trucks, bulletproof vests. Anything. ...

The commandos are a good thing at first, but then you start to see problems. What do you see? What happens?

In Iraq it's always difficult to tell ... fact from fiction and to be able to make sense of rumors. Nothing is black and white in Iraq. Nothing. You just begin to hear more prevalently certain types of attacks that are being made by commando forces in certain parts of Baghdad, in Samarra and areas like that.

In Sunni areas.

In Sunni areas.

By Shi'a commandos.

No.

There are still Sunni commandos.

You're just hearing [about] attacks that are happening. You're starting to see individuals get detained. You're seeing human rights issues multiply. What brought things clear in my mind was being able to find out more about the background of the individuals who were targeted. Only once I was able to understand the background of those victims did I understand why actions were being taken by some Shi'a members of the commandos against these individuals. What made it even more clear was it wasn't just Sunnis [being targeted]; it was also some Shi'as. What unified that group was that mainly these were individuals that served during the former regime, that were involved in the putting down of the Shi'a uprisings following the Gulf War. It all started to make sense as a defensive measure by SCIRI and by Badr in order to make sure this never happens again and to make sure they were able to have their own secure hold on power. ...

When do you go into Jabr and say, "Hey, what the hell is going on with these commando units?"

It all started when we found [in November 2005] a large number of individuals detained [in a bunker in Jadiriyah], something like 150 Sunnis and then 30 Shi'a. [Jabr was able to say]: "It's not sectarian. You see, Shi'as are detained also, you know." He always had an explanation for things.

It was only by being able to understand the background of these victims did you see what was driving this activity. It was political violence more than anything else.

Tell me about the bunker. What do you discover, and what do you do?

I'm trying to make sure that I say things that are not classified. We had heard rumors that there were these targeted missions that were happening. You heard reports about two or three individuals with police uniforms that would go out and kill somebody. In my mind, I tried to say, "That might just be some uniforms that were stolen or something that's done by that individual as opposed to by higher authorities," and things like that.

But when you start to see activities where there's large numbers of individuals that are using police cars, that are in police uniforms and things like that, then you start to say, "This is something that's more sanctioned." We had heard reports that there were these activities going on, that there were then people being rounded up in the evening and then taken to the bunker --

And what happened in the bunker?

-- where then they would be abused.

Tortured.

Yes.

Killed.

To some extent, yeah. Once the evidence was conclusive about what was going on, the military took action in raiding the bunker and saw the individuals abused and detained in very small quarters. ... They weren't just held on the top floor of the bunker. It was downstairs in a more secluded area. You saw the bruises on them. You saw the flesh falling off of them, and then them saying, "Up there, on top of the tiles, is where the whips were," where they had the chains that were being used, things like that. And you just were appalled with what you saw.

This is all your work falling apart right before your eyes.

You see the reputation that you've been trying to instill within the ministry, within the security forces, just completely go out the window. It was one of the most difficult days that I was there.

To see this, ... when you put so much effort into these things -- you hear rumors, but then actually seeing it, and your whole two years of work just kind of go by the wayside. And then you have to confront the minister and the ministry in order to deal with these things. That was not my role; that was the role of more senior individuals in the military and the embassy. ...

So Ambassador [Zalmay] Khalilzad is going to confront Jabr? Are you there? You talked to Jabr yourself.

Jabr had excuses for everything. He viewed these individuals that were in the bunker as terrorists. He was someone who then viewed the torture -- that it was only "little torture." It wasn't much.

Is that what he said to you?

Yeah.

He said it was just little torture?

They weren't beheaded; they weren't killed; there was no torture. This was what he said in a press conference a day or two after the incident became public.

But what did he say to you personally? You had worked with him for a long time. What did he say to you?

He said, "These are terrorists, and we need to bring security to the country." We had a very heated discussion about how this is supposed to work. This is not how power is to be used. This is not how we've been building this ministry. ... I was more just disappointed and exhausted from the whole thing than anything else.

Back to what you saw exactly. It wasn't quite clear to me.

I was not there with the military when they went on that initial raid.

But you saw what? When?

Afterward. Two days afterward or something like that. You went and you saw the room, which was a very small room, 15 by 15, where more than 100 people were just slammed in there. The blood on the wall. You saw feces, excrement on the floor. You just smelled horrible. These are where people were then held for days, if not weeks, on end.

And you said you saw bruises on the people. This is from photographs?

From photographs.

And this was, as Jabr put it, "little torture."

"Little torture." ...

Editor's Note: Read Jabr's response to what was discovered in the bunker.

This is the beginning of the discovery of other facilities. This bunker is discovered, and then you find there are other sites, torture centers.

... It's like a levee. Once there's a crack in the levee, the levee breaks. So as a result, there was a collective effort, with the military as well, to make sure that these areas were then thoroughly investigated. ...

So Jabr had been basically pulling the wool over your eyes for some time.

I guess that's one way of saying it. He presented things not necessarily as they actually were.

That means he deceived you. Why are we being so gentle on the guy?

The perception I have of Jabr is that he was not necessarily ordering a lot of these things. I think he might have somewhat permitted things. I never came up with conclusive proof that he authorized these certain types of things. What I do think, though, is that it was a much larger effort that was going on by Badr as a collective whole as opposed to just Jabr.

Jabr was someone, in my mind, who was there to provide a perception. He was someone who was diplomatic, someone who is well-dressed, someone who speaks English. He was able to provide a cover for what was going [on] behind the scenes, something much more. But I've never actually been able to conclusively find evidence that he authorized those things.

Plausible deniability.

No, it's not. He has to be held responsible because he is the minister. But again, I think this problem was much more than just Jabr; it's not just the Jadiriyah bunker. There's history. There are reasons why those people were sought out.

We're dealing not only with the current insurgency, the current difficulties with training and equipping [the security forces]. We're also dealing with the history that Saddam Hussein left us and with the nightmares that so many people suffered through with that. From Jabr's perspective, he was helping out and trying to make sure those individuals paid a price. I'm sure that's his perspective on things.

... It's easy to point fingers at Jabr, because he's right there right now. But it's also important, at least in my mind, from a policy perspective and also from a historical perspective, to understand why those actions came about. There has to be a more complete story, because nothing in Iraq is black and white. There's nothing that's clear. There's always history. There's always something else that you're finding out that makes you shift your understanding and perspective on things.

You were finding other sites, other secret prisons. You're uncovering more and more. Describe for me that process of going through those months of finding these other sites.

What you're seeing is not only site after site after site, but then the reaction from finding site after site after site. And then you're starting to see the sectarian issue become even more dire, more complex.

You find them, and then the news goes out. What's the dynamic?

... Sunnis see this [as] a target against Sunnis. While many Sunnis were targeted, the ones who were really targeted were former regime elements that were engaged in putting down the Shi'as. It's not simply just a Sunni/Shi'a thing, but that perception isn't conveyed. As a result, the rumors start going. The tensions start boiling. People begin to view things personally as being against them because of being Shi'a, because of being Sunni. And so that anger is released, as opposed to having more understanding of why this violence is happening.

For every car bomb that goes off, for every 40 bodies that show up in a river, there's a reason, in my mind. What we need to do is to be able to better understand who those victims are so you can address the sources of violence, you can address the sources of those conflicts. That's the only way you'll ever be able to really solve the sectarian issue that's going on right now.

But instead it's just being generalized.

It's being generalized. There's no good guy; there's no bad guy. There's so much stuff that's in between. It's all gray.

You left in January of '06. You've been back three times, so you can speak to these issues. In April of '06 you have Maliki saying, "We've got to disband the militias."

Easier said than done.

Didn't we disband them with an earlier order already?

Well, that's what many people said: What you need to do is now actually implement CPA Order 91. But action was never taken on that. And easier said than done. What's important to recognize is that it's no longer just a simple militia activity. When we were looking at the Jadiriyah bunker issue, when those militia death-squad types of activities were really starting to show their heads, that violence was primarily politically motivated. What you have now is that militia violence has changed. It's evolved. It's now much more criminally minded. Individuals are maybe using the flagship of [the Mahdi Army] or Badr or the Omar Brigades, the Sunni militia. But really, what's driving them isn't a political message, but driving their own personal and monetary gain at a local level.

Let me ask you a more difficult question. I can't hold you responsible for Saddam Hussein's abuses and the putting down of the Shi'a uprising, but this is all developing under your watch. You already said you felt terrific disappointment in Jabr and in others, that all the work you have put into establishing a good police force was seemingly going for naught. What responsibility do you feel personally for this the tragedy?

Of just not seeing it sooner. Of not trying to push harder for greater accountability measures.

Why didn't you see it sooner?

Why didn't I see the sectarian thing sooner? Because, again, you're in an environment where there are 50 problems that pop up in a day, and you're spread very thin. The staff that we worked with was, at its low point, eight individuals. By the time that we were working with Jabr, it was about 25.

For a ministry of how many?

Two hundred thousand.

But do you say to yourself, "Look, this sectarian violence occurred on my watch"? Do you blame yourself?

Do I blame myself for it? I don't blame myself. You always wish you can do more. But I recognized then, at that point, which was closely approaching my two-year mark, that there was only so much that I could do and that I'd given it the best that I can, and that my appointment was coming to an end.

Does it seem inevitable that this would have happened now, given the history of Iraq; that scores would have to be settled?

Yeah. There's still a lot of bad blood, and people are still afraid of Saddam Hussein or some other totalitarian regime rising up. You need Iraq to establish itself, to develop a strong security force. But then there are those individuals who are in power who were repressed by the central government who say, "We don't want to create an institution that may have the ability of repressing us again in the future." So you're caught in this circular problem. ...

Now, you said that your worst fear was that what we've been doing all this time is training and equipping people for civil war. Has your worst fear come true?

Not yet. But it could very easily come true if the strong leaders within Baghdad don't stand up and start making hard decisions.

Are there strong leaders in Baghdad?

They've yet to show themselves. I don't think judgments should be made yet against the Maliki government. It's only been in power for less than a year.

Why do you care so much about this?

Because I've invested so much of my time. It's something that I've just put so much effort into, something that has become part of me in many ways. This has really been the most definitive, the most complicated, difficult and frustrating, rewarding experience of my life.

What's rewarding about it?

The roller coaster that you're on -- their being able to take part in the January elections, being able to see that process come about, being able to see a plan that you worked hand in glove with Iraqis be implemented and succeed; to be able to see the entire country come out and support something, to be able to see the police and the military working together on something.

Even though it was only for one day, it shows that there still is the possibility of everyone being able to come together and move forward.

You think?

I do. I honestly do.

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posted april 17, 2007

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