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brig. gen. karl horst

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From 2005 to 2006 Horst was deputy commanding general of the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Division, responsible for security in and around Baghdad. He recounts his discovery of a secret Ministry of Interior detention/torture center holding 169 detainees, nearly all Sunni, many tortured. It was another indicator of the extent to which militia forces had infiltrated this key ministry, which is in charge of Iraq's national police. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Feb. 9, 2007.

How did you go about training Iraqis for national identity and loyalty?

We tied it back to the reason Iraqis needed security forces. We tied it back to: "We are doing this for the country of Iraq. We are doing this for the government of Iraq. For the government of Iraq to be solvent, to be viable, you have to have viable security forces."...

How receptive were they to that?

I think they were receptive. But the sectarian violence and the penetration of illegal militias undermined that nationalist thought.

What was the extent of infiltration of those sectarian militias within the forces that you were training?

In our experience in Baghdad with the 6th Iraqi Army Division, we found not much evidence of penetration in the army side. But in the police side there were indicators the militias had penetrated into public order brigades, into the police commandos and into certain aspects of the police force itself: ... patrol police versus the station police versus the traffic police.

How did you see it?

Our Special Police Training [SPTT] and Transition Teams that were embedded with the units would go into the headquarters, and we would find militia literature and posters in the headquarters. They may be on the trucks and vehicles.

Pictures of al-Sadr?

Pictures of [radical Shi'ite cleric] Moqtada al-Sadr, pictures of [Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) leader] Abdul Aziz [al-]Hakim, yes.

You found that on the patrol cars?

We found them sometimes pasted on the doors of the cars. What we would then do, we'd say: "Listen, national police, you are from the country of Iraq. It is inappropriate to have militia material or things that suggest militia on your vehicles which are outward manifestations of the authority of the Iraqi government."

The unit that operated the bunker was a shadow unit. I attempted ... to determine [what] funded this operation and couldn't find that either.

We didn't take them down, but we would direct them to remove the propaganda, and then we would report up through the chain to the minister of interior that there was militia propaganda in certain units.

When we found it, we acted on it immediately. We then watched it to see if it would re-emerge.

Did it?

Yes. It would manifest itself in things that happened in and around the city. It was there. Frankly, our big fear was that this illegal activity was undermining the nationalistic view that the security forces needed to be successful in their mission.

And why was it happening?

To speculate, it was happening because of the sectarian ties, if you will, inside some of the ministries.

What was the difference in your relationships with the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Defense? The Ministry of Defense was different in that it was more under your control, right?

Correct. ... With the Ministry of Interior, initially there was a resistance to accept SPTT teams. There was a resistance to accept control in terms of selecting targets, giving missions. ... They didn't want the coalition stopping them from doing the things that they felt that they needed to do. I believe that some of that was a passive acceptance of militia-type activity inside the Ministry of Interior.

We hear a lot about militias operating within the Ministry of the Interior. How far did it go? What kind of activities were taking place?

We found several instances where Jaish al-Mahdi [the Mahdi Army] was operating in conjunction with Iraqi police in the Rusafa district of Baghdad.

One thing that I have never understood is how it was that Jaish al-Mahdi was operating within police units, when it was Badr Corps and SCIRI that actually was at the top levels of the Ministry of the Interior. And those two groups have a rivalry?


So what position did Jaish al-Mahdi have as opposed to Badr Corps within the ministry?

Generally in the national-level police, the police commandos, the public order brigades, was where you found Badr influence. In the local police in Baghdad, in the [patrol police] was where Jaish al-Mahdi manifested itself in certain areas of Baghdad. In the Rusafa district of Baghdad, you saw a Jaish al-Mahdi influence; in the al-Karkh district, you did not see a Jaish al-Mahdi influence.

So they carved up Baghdad, operated in some areas and not in others?

Essentially, to the east of the Tigris -- Sadr City and the Rusafa district -- was Shi'a, with the exception of a small Sunni enclave in Adhamiya, whereas on the Karkh side of Baghdad, on the western side of the Tigris, you had predominantly Sunni areas with some districts of mixed Sunni-Shi'a and a couple areas of small Shi'a enclaves. So the militias would manifest in those areas that were relatively secure [for] them to operate or where the local police accommodated or did not dissuade them from conducting operations.

We have advisers embedded with these police units. How does it happen that they become so heavily infiltrated by the militia under our watch?

I think that the ministers, to a large extent, needed to provide the support to rid their ministries of militias. And I'm not convinced that that took place.

Let's talk about the incident that took place in November, on Nov. 13, 2005. What happened?

We had been looking for a 15-year-old Sunni boy. ... His mother was a medical doctor; his father was a professor at one of the universities. They were an upper-middle-class Sunni family that lived in the Adhamiya district, which is on the eastern side. Adhamiya had militia coming in and grabbing the Sunnis and taking them away, and we believe this is what happened to [the boy].

When you say grabbing Sunnis, do you mean they're grabbing Sunnis that were insurgents or just --

Sunnis that were Sunnis.

Not because they were insurgents?

Yes. [The boy's] parents came to the brigade commander who was responsible for the Rusafa and the Adhamiya battle space and said: "Here's a picture of our son. We think he's been kidnapped. Can you help us find him?" The brigade commander worked it at his level for a little bit until he started running into indicators that it was militia and that it could potentially be tied to the Ministry of Interior. At that point he said to me, "I need your help with the ministry, to see if we can find this young man."

Within the Ministry of Interior it became common knowledge that the brigade commander and I were looking for this young man. On the 13th, which was a Sunday, we were at a meeting. I met a colonel from the Ministry of Interior who on the sly slipped me a piece of paper that said, "The young man that you're looking for is in the Jadiriyah bunker."

And you were familiar with the Jadiriyah bunker?

I had never visited, but knew that it was there. I contacted [then-Minister of Interior] Bayan Jabr and showed him the picture, gave him the name and said: "I have reason to believe he's there. Would you check and see?"

Bayan Jabr came back and said, "No, he's not there." To myself I thought, "Maybe I'll just go over and have a look for myself." So I asked Bayan Jabr for permission to go to Jadiriyah to look for myself, and Bayan Jabr gave me that permission to go.

Was he resisting?

No. He didn't resist at all. He said, "I've told you that he's not there." I said: "I know you've told me that, but that's what your people have told you. I'd like to go for myself so that I can look the mother in the eye and say, 'I went to where I thought he might be, and your son was not there.'" And Bayan Jabr said, "You can go." I asked him not to tell the cadre at Jadiriyah that I was coming in advance, and he did not.

He said, "But if I don't tell them that you're coming, they won't let you in." I said, "When I get there I'll call you and then you can tell them to let me in." We got there, and immediately the guard said, "Nope, you can't come in." I called Bayan Jabr to say: "I am now at the bunker. Please direct the commandant to let me in." So they let me in. The commandant was an Iraqi officer by the name of Ali, Gen. Ali. I showed him the picture and said: "I'm looking for this young man. I have reason to believe that he is here." And he very quickly said, "No, he's not here."

I said, "How many prisoners do you have that are detained here at Jadiriyah?" He said, "We have 43." He says, "I know that he's not there." I asked to see the 43 prisoners so that I could look for myself to ensure that [the boy] was not there. I don't think [he] anticipated I was going to push to go see the prisoners.

I believe Jadiriyah bunker was a classic Potemkin village scenario whereby when Jadiriyah was inspected, it looked like a model detention facility with records and adequate facilities and those sorts of things. I found on subsequent inspection that Jadiriyah was something much more than a Potemkin village.

When I asked to see the 43 prisoners, Gen. Ali took us on a circuitous visit of the compound, showing us offices and admin spaces. I said, "No, I want to see the prisoners." He said, "Well, we're getting to the prisoners." As we were walking down one of the corridors and made a turn, I noticed a guard standing by a double door in the hallway. I kind of broke off from the group and asked the guard to open the door, which he refused because the door was locked. At that time Gen. Ali recognized that I had broken away from the group and immediately came back to gather me in.

I asked Gen. Ali to open the door. He said, "We can't open the door because the door's locked, and the gentleman who has the keys is gone for the day," to which I said: "No, we need to open the door. You either need to bring that gentleman back in with the keys to open the door, or we'll find another way to open the door." ...

You were going to bust it down?

We weren't going to bust it down, kick the door in. We were simply going to cut the lock and gain access, ... but amazingly [we] found the key and went into a small room, probably 6-foot by 12-foot. In the room were 12 prisoners; all of them were blindfolded. So I said to Ali: "You said you had 43. I only see 12." I thought the prisoners were someplace else. He said: "Well, this is temporary. These are just here in a holding area. They're being held here to be processed."

I asked Gen. Ali and his guards to leave the room so that I could talk to the prisoners with my interpreter to find out exactly how long they'd been here. As soon as the door closed, the 12 immediately started singing like canaries about what had been going on. I asked them how long they'd been there, and they said four months. ...

And who were they?

They were just Sunnis.

How do you know they weren't insurgents?

We asked for the files on each of these guys to determine why they were detained, what terrorist activity were they guilty of. Gen. Ali and his staff couldn't produce detention records.

Did they tell you that they were bad guys?

Yeah. They said they were all terrorists. I said: "Well, what evidence do have that they're terrorists? What's the file? What's the judiciary process you're following here? The right of due-process representation -- how's all that working?" And of course the Potemkin village was unraveling.

The interesting thing was the [prisoners] that were in the outer room pointed to two doors that were on either side of this smaller room and said, "You really need to go and look in there." Naturally the doors were locked, so we went through the same drill: "OK, we need the keys. Open the door." "Don't have the keys." "Please find the keys." We ended up getting the doors unlocked. The rooms were probably 15 by 30, and inside of the two rooms were 166 prisoners. All of them were blindfolded. They were all sitting in lines with their knees crossed.

What kind of condition were they in?

They were in pretty rough condition. Again, we asked Iraqi [guards] to step outside, and as soon as we did that, they started lifting up their shirts to show us where they'd been beaten and where they'd been tortured.

It was clear to you that they had been tortured?

Very clear. I immediately asked Gen. Ali, "If you only have 43 prisoners, what is all of this?" And he said: "Well, these are prisoners that are being held for processing. They have been taken from the greater prisoner population to actually be counted. This is a holding area."

Again, the question was, "How long have you been here?" Many of them had been there for months. It was just a room. There was no latrine. They were using 1-liter water bottles as toilets. There was an acrid, pungent smell of urine and feces and rotted food and unclean bodies. It was absolutely horrendous living conditions.

We called for three quick reaction forces [QRFs]. The first was a security element to come in and take control and secure the bunker. I directed Gen. Ali to take all of his guards and sentinels and put them into their barracks and not to let them out, and we took control of security of the bunker complex.

And we called for a legal quick reaction force with judge advocates and lawyers and detention specialists to come and look at the detention facility, look at the files and attempt to determine who was there, why were they there, what were the detention aspects that were being adhered to or were being violated.

How many of the prisoners showed signs of torture?

Of the 169 that were there, I would say that probably 25 percent of them showed signs of recent torture. There were 14 that were so badly beaten that we evacuated them to the combat support hospital for further medical evaluation.

Could you tell what had been done to them?

It looked as though as they'd been beaten with blunt objects, with sticks, with aluminum poles, with belts. There was one gentleman that had been severely, severely beaten. Gen. Ali said: "Well, we don't beat anyone here. We don't torture anyone here. We just hold them here." This one particular detainee had been recently beaten. I said, "You're telling me that this guy was beaten up like this before he arrived here at the bunker?" And Gen. Ali said, "Yes, he was." So again, I asked the Iraqis to leave so that I could talk directly with the detainee, and I asked, "When were you beaten?" He said, "I was beaten today." I said, "Where were you beaten?" He says, "I was beaten in this room."

Did you call Bayan Jabr?

I did. Since Bayan Jabr had given me permission to go to the bunker, I believed that I owed it to him to tell him what I found.

I said: "I did not find the boy, but what I found here is very tragic. You need to personally come over and see this so that you can take charge of this." What I wanted Bayan Jabr to do was to take charge of his own forces, his Ministry of Interior people and this compound. It's not my job to chase down detention facilities. When I find one, I couldn't walk away from it, but I wanted him to be the solution to solving this problem.

He said, "OK, I'll come over." A few minutes later I get a phone call: "The minister is busy. Can't come over." I called him back again and said: "Mr. Minister, I implore you to please come over here. See this for yourself so that you can take action to make this right."

Is that the way you talked to him, or were you angrier than that?

No. I spoke to him just very matter-of-factly. I mean, he's the minister of interior. I treated him with the dignity and respect that is due a minister of a foreign nation. While I was concerned, and I was certainly upset with what I had found because of the grave conditions, I believed that it was his responsibility to mitigate this.

Did Jabr tell you he'd come over?

He told me he'd come.

Did he?

He did not. He sent a representative. He sent Maj. Gen. [Hussein Ali] Kamal, who was one of his subordinate leaders in the ministry, to come over to look at the situation and to effectively take charge.

Jabr told us that there was no torture.

Bayan Jabr never came to the compound to see for himself that there was torture, so if he told you there was no torture, frankly, I don't know how he would know that because he never went there. I asked him twice to come, and he did not.

Frankly, I think that was a sticking point in terms of the mutual respect between the two of us. ... In fact, in a subsequent meeting I said to him: "Mr. Minister, I called you first. I called you before I called my own division commander to report this. When you didn't come, you left me no other alternative but to take charge of the situation and report what I found through the coalition."

What did he say?

He said; "I understand. I wish you wouldn't have done what you did." I looked at him and I said, "Mr. Minister, are you suggesting that I should have just walked away?" "No, no. That's not what I'm suggesting." I said: "Well, somebody had to take action, Mr. Minister. I gave you the opportunity to take the action. You didn't, so I did. And I had to report it."

Why do you think he didn't do anything?

I think it was a political decision for him. We were 30 days away from the national referendum to choose the leadership of the Iraqi government for the next four years. I think that in Bayan Jabr's mind, he did not want to become embroiled in a potentially embarrassing situation. ...

Is Bayan Jabr responsible for what went on in these centers?

I think that indirectly Bayan Jabr was responsible, because as the minister of interior he's responsible for everything that happens inside the ministry. Whether he's directly responsible and he ordered it, or he's indirectly responsible because it took place under his leadership, [I don't know].

Who were the men that were in the chamber? Were they all Sunnis?

... Of 169, three of them were Shi'as and 166 were Sunnis.

We ended up loading the 169 detainees onto vehicles and moving them to Abu Ghraib, into an approved facility that was to standard. We then transferred whatever files and paperwork that we were able to muster together and moved that to Abu Ghraib. The Iraqi government appointed an investigating committee, several judges, to go and examine the detainees, examine the detainee files, and to make a determination of their legal status.

Jabr said there's been a lot of exaggeration about this whole bunker issue; that, in fact, nobody was beheaded or killed.

Again, Bayan Jabr is speaking from a position of speculation because he never personally went there. ... I believe that he is trying to, from a political standpoint, limit the embarrassment to himself and his ministry as a result of this.

Did you find the 15-year-old boy you were looking for?

I think that the 15-year-old boy was moved around, much like a checker match, one step ahead of where we were looking. We never found the boy. Tragic situation for an Iraqi family.

How do you know that boy wasn't working with insurgents?

I don't.

And how do you know that the other detainees weren't in fact insurgents, other than the fact that there were no files on these guys? Is it possible that these guys were bad guys?

It's possible that they were bad guys. But the fact that there were no files, the fact that they had not seen lawyers, the fact that they were simply incarcerated with no due process --

And had been tortured.

-- and had been tortured, really casts doubt in terms of the legitimacy of what was going on. As we talked to them, we found that most of them were either petty thieves or just Sunnis in the wrong place at the wrong time when they got picked up.

One of the things that Jabr told us was that there's a culture of torture in Iraq, and it's difficult to weed that out.

Yes, that's true. In their culture there is an acceptable level of violence, and there's an acceptable level of torture. We as Westerners, as Americans, have a different value set. We don't tolerate torture. Does it happen? Sure. There are bad actors everywhere. But as a matter of practice, in their culture it's expected.

Who ran the bunker?

The commandant of the bunker was a brigadier general by the name of Ali. But the leadership of the bunker was a gentleman [known as Engineer Ahmed]. He was a Badr Corps individual. The fact that he came from Badr immediately caused us to look at this in a skeptical fashion. ... The presence of an illegal militia in an MOI [Ministry of Interior] facility gave us concern. Badr Corps doesn't necessarily have any reason to pick up a Sunni other than the fact that they're a Sunni.

We were encouraging people from the various militias to put down their guns and join the Iraqi security forces. So what is necessarily wrong with a Badr Corps officer having a job inside the Ministry of Interior?

Because they didn't come in as individuals. They came in in units. The minister of interior attempted to codify Badr militia organizations as MOI units, ... bring in whole units intact, to which we said, "Not a good idea." ...

Engineer Ahmed is running this [the Jadiriyah bunker operation] as what kind of unit, a commando unit?

... There was no unit affiliation. This group, this unit, didn't exist on the MOI books as a legitimate, sanctioned MOI unit.

So that explains why there was no American adviser with them?

Exactly. It was a shadow unit. It existed, but it didn't exist on the books.

Did you find out more about how this worked? Can you talk about that?

I asked one of the privates. I said, "Do you just guard the facility?," and he said, "No, sometimes we go out on missions and we capture terrorists" -- ostensibly, those that were contained there in the Jadiriyah bunker. To a rank-and-file Iraqi soldier, he doesn't know the difference between a terrorist and just an Iraqi. He just does what he's told: Pick up these people and bring them in.

So the unit that operated the bunker was a shadow unit. I attempted ... through the Ministry of Interior to determine where the budget line was coming that funded this operation and couldn't find that either. ...

Whose responsibility was it to make sure that these people responsible for this torture chamber be prosecuted?

Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the prime minister, called for a full investigation. Bayan Jabr pledged a full investigation. The coalition's guidance on this was, "Allow the Iraqis to investigate and handle this situation." ... At the time that I left Iraq, in January of '06, the investigation was still ongoing. What the final disposition was I don't know. I don't know what happened to Engineer Ahmed. I don't know what happened to those responsible, if anything was done, and I don't know what happened to the detainees once their legal status was determined.

There are reports that, as of July of '06, Engineer Ahmed still works at MOI.

Engineer Ahmed probably still works at MOI because he happened to be related to Bayan Jabr.

But what does that tell us?

What it tells us is that not all of the ministries are interested in policing their own and doing the right thing for the country of Iraq.

There was no American adviser because this was a shadow unit. But what does it tell us about the effectiveness of the U.S. training and advisory effort? We're both training and then embedding advisers with these units that are out in the field trying to monitor what's going on.

Units that had advisers with them by and large did pretty well. They also tended to adhere to the accepted standards of conduct. Shadow units, or units without advisers, is where illegal, illicit behavior manifested itself.

The real challenge goes back to the Iraqis, in terms of making sure that you have viable, capable forces that adhere to the rule of law to support the government of Iraq and the stability of Iraq. Where that breaks down, it shows a lack of willingness to adhere to the rule of the law.

Could we have done a better job of monitoring what was going on inside the MOI?

How many advisers do you want to commit to the mission?

If it's the centerpiece of our policy -- as the president said many times, "They stand up, we stand down" -- it would seem important to put enough advisers in there to make sure that what's going on is done with our approval.

Yeah, and in fact we have continued to increase the number of advisers, both in the army and in the Ministry of Interior. It's consistent with the strategy. Where the strategy has not worked well is where you do not have that coalition presence to ensure adherence to standards and adherence to the rule of law.

What unfolds after the Jadiriyah bunker incident? There are other incidents.

What I found was once it became known within the Iraqi security forces that I had been involved in this incident, I was constantly fed tips and notes about other facilities that existed.

This is coming from people who --

This is coming from Iraqis that feel a nationalistic sense about what they're doing. They see illegal things going on. They don't feel they can come forward to their leadership for whatever reason, but they do feel comfortable telling an American.

How many other facilities were there?

... There might have been 12 in the Baghdad area, but I believe that once Jadiriyah was discovered, there was a very conscious effort to move the other stuff around so that we didn't find it.

But you did find other things?

Not me personally, but once we went into Jadiriyah, there was a heightened awareness among the coalition for illegal and bad stuff going on. And other units found other facilities within the Baghdad area. ...

What happened to the investigation that the prime minister and Bayan Jabr promised?

I left Iraq in January [2006]. I did a quick check to see where we were at and was told the investigation was ongoing. No decisions had been made. ... I have no knowledge of what the final results of the investigation were.

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posted april 17, 2007

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