Diyala - A Laboratory of Civil War?
A recent case study in the dynamics of occupation and sectarianism
Operation Knockout in Diyala Demonstrates US Collusion with Death Squads
In November last year Sunni members of the Diyala provincial council began
to boycott meetings in protest at a 13 November raid on the provincial capital
Baquba and surrounding towns, according to a
report by UPI’s Pentagon correspondent, Pamela Hess. According to
a US military official, the boycotting council members sent a letter to the
chairman of the council in which they alleged that that raid had been orchestrated
by the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) as part of a plan
to disenfranchise Sunnis during the upcoming elections.
Such accusations chime with almost every commentator it seems both inside
and outside Iraq, who have lavished criticism on SCIRI and the paramilitary
militia known as the Badr Brigade associated with it. Whilst anti-occupation
sources tend to regard SCIRI and Badr as US allies, the Western media have chosen
to focus on their relationship with Iran, where they were primarily based since
their foundation in 1982. In either case, commentators charge that SCIRI’s
militiamen have infiltrated or been amalgamated into Iraq’s nascent security
forces. Many reports make little or no distinction between the Badr Brigade
and the security forces. In the Western media lens, this depiction tends to
function as apologia for human rights abuses attributed to the security forces
(for examples of this in action, see Soloman Moore writing
in the Los Angeles Times or Jonathan Steele writing
in the London Guardian).
Hess agrees with the media consensus, stating that ‘anecdotal evidence
of targeted and unsanctioned violence against Sunnis from cities across Iraq
suggests Badr or other rogue elements have a presence throughout the ministry’.
In the case of the Baquba raid which had prompted the walkout by Sunni councilors,
Hess informs us that in this instance it was the Wolf Brigade, an ‘Iraqi
special police unit of some 2,000’, that ‘swept into Baqubah, the
capital of Diyala province, and arrested some 300 people’. As if to clarify
matters, she then tells us, citing a US military source, that ‘The operation
came in the wake of the appointment by the Shiite governor of Diyala of a new
police chief for the province ... The new police chief has no law enforcement
experience ... but he is associated with the SCIRI, the political arm of the
But in fact what initially appears to be an open and shut case is not so straightforward.
While, according to the same military spokesperson, the governor may have requested
the raid ‘to show that he’s got muscle to flex’, ‘US
police assistance teams worked with the Wolf Brigade to plan the operation and
American assets – including a surveillance drone, medical team and a quick
reaction force – were assigned to support it’. Nonetheless, the
spokesperson goes on to imply that support was reluctant, adding, ‘We
put forces with each of their units so that we could watch them work’.
In the case of the 13 November raid, outside observers are fortunate that,
unlike Pamela Hess, they do not have to rely solely on one military spokesperson
feeding a line to the press. The raid in question was called Operation Knockout
and was the first time that the Iraqi Special Police Forces of the Ministry
of the Interior had planned, prepared and executed a division-size raid ‘designed
to destroy or disrupt all of their [ie insurgents’] cells in a large locality
in a single night’. For a far more in-depth depiction of the action, we
can be grateful to US Army Col James K Greer, who was so impressed by the whole
operation that he wrote an account
of it for the November–December issue of Military Review.
The following passages are taken from Greer’s account.
In late October, the minister of the interior [Bayan Jabr] told the Operations
Directorate to study options for a large-scale, simultaneous strike in Diyala
against a large number of suspected insurgents and their support and information
[On 5 November] the Operations Directorate provided a list of insurgent
and terrorist targets to the Public Order Division commander with a warning
to be prepared to move to Ba’qubah and conduct operations to detain
The Public Order Division immediately began planning, focusing on developing
target folders for the hundreds of discrete targets forces would have to secure.
Simultaneously, Multi-National Force-Iraq (MNF-I) was notified through its
cell in the MOI National Command Center. Planning and coordination continued
with an MOI/Multinational Command-Iraq (MNC-I) meeting on 9 November ...
Throughout the planning and coordination stage of Operation Knockout, Special
Police Transition Teams (SPTTs) under Colonel Gordon B. ‘Skip’
Davis and Colonel Jeffrey Buchanan advised the Iraqis and planned and coordinated
their own support to the operation. These teams of 10 to 12 soldiers lived,
trained, and fought alongside the Iraqi Special Police 24 hours a day and
contributed significantly to the Iraqi’s development ...
At execution, Public Order Division elements, reinforced by a brigade of
Iraqi Special Police commandos, moved along three separate routes to their
objectives in and around Ba’qubah, conducting clean-up operations in
small towns along the way ...
Operation Knockout demonstrated the necessity for and effectiveness of intelligence-based
COIN [counterinsurgency] operations. The MOI Intelligence Office of the Operations
Directorate spent several weeks developing the targets that would eventually
be raided. Local informants confirmed potential targets, and the Intelligence
Office produced one- to three-page papers detailing why each individual was
targeted ... Special Police units developed a target folder for each individual.
Surreptitious eyes-on provided last-minute updates to target sets.
In the rare case of Operation Knockout, we even have a third, official military
account of proceedings given at a press briefing. This description adds one
further important detail, which is that 70 per cent of the 377 detainees were
Sunni, 30 per cent were Shia and 10 were Kurds. While these proportions may
not accurately reflect the ethno-confessional makeup of Diyala province (exact
figures are hard to come by), they do indicate that the raid was far from exclusively
directed against Sunni targets, despite popular impression.
Implications of the reports
This illustration of an intelligence-based counterinsurgency operation undertaken
by US-trained proxy forces, which could have been written just as well about
Vietnam, the Philippines, El Salvador or present-day Colombia, reveals a number
of important points about the conflict in Iraq.
(i) SCIRI had no part in orchestrating Operation Knockout
One of the most important conclusions to be drawn is that we can be certain
SCIRI had absolutely nothing to do with the 13 November raid on Baquba and its
environs. This simple fact discredits 99% of what has been written in the mainstream
media about the role of SCIRI and Badr within the new Interior Ministry.
(ii) Even within Iraq it is very difficult to accurately assess security
It is striking in this case that, if we are to believe Hess’s sources,
even public representatives on the ground in Iraq are unable to distinguish
between what they perceive to be sectarian paramilitaries and the forces operating
directly on behalf of the Occupation. This is in no way intended to represent
a criticism of those on the ground, but only highlights the duplicity of the
US Imperial war machine, whose goal is to cover its own tracks and spread discord
amongst its enemies.
(iii) The Wolf Brigade continues to be used by the media as a fob-off
It is extremely revealing of the mainstream media position that even in Hess’s
relatively detailed and informative report, the responsibility for a joint MOI/MNF-I
operation was subtly shifted towards SCIRI and that it was the Wolf Brigade
which was reported to have carried out the raid. While Hess does not underline
the point in this piece, the reference is unlikely to be missed altogether.
The significance of the attribution is that in many media analyses of human
rights abuses related to the Ministry of the Interior, the Wolf Brigade has
been singled out for blame. Rather than seeking to analyze its structure, most
commentators have been content to describe it as a police commando unit attached
to the Interior Ministry with a specifically Shiite leaning (for instance, see
the Knight Ridder
report by Hannah Allam, now very hard to find on the Internet). In this
UPI report, the US military spokesperson describes the Wolf Brigade as a ‘public
order Brigade’ rather than as police commandos. In fact, the MOI special
police forces are made up of both police commandos and public order brigades,
all of them trained and supported by embedded advisors from MNF-I. According
to Greer’s account, the 13 November raid was planned by a Public Order
Division and was conducted by Public Order Division elements, reinforced by
a brigade of Special Police Commandos, probably the Wolf Brigade. The effect
of the UPI report is once again to divert attention from structure and organization
and frame discourse within narrow sectarian lines that exclude US responsibility.
(iv) Counterinsurgency operations are not in the remit of backroom
In view of the persistent reports that the majority of extrajudicial killings
can be attributed to members of the security forces following the detention
of the victims (eg UN
Human Rights Mission, Iraqi
Organization for Follow-up and Monitoring), it is beholden on all interested
parties to take any insight into the workings of those forces and the processes
by which ‘targets’ are selected for arrest with the utmost seriousness.
Yet no journalist has so much as mentioned the existence of an Operations Directorate,
still less MNF-I’s cell within the MOI National Command Center, while
the one journalist that seems to have written about Operation Knockout has fallen
back into the familiar groove of ‘allegiance to Shiite groups’ etc.
The reason that I have quoted from Greer’s account at such length is to
demonstrate the enormous behind-the-scenes effort required to conduct counterinsurgency
To reiterate the stages by which targets were selected:
1) Two months before the operation the intelligence section
of the Operations Directorate began preparing a list of suspects based on
intelligence gleaned from local informers;
2) The intelligence section produced dossiers on individual
3) One week before the operation the intelligence section
passed the list of suspects to the Public Order Division commander;
4) The Public Order Division prepared folders on the individual
suspects, making use of an airborne mapping capability;
5) Before commencement of the operation, last minute visual
checks were made of individual suspects.
In the case of Operation Knockout, which seems to have half-served as PR exercise,
Greer et al are falling over themselves to persuade their audience that the
police behaved in exemplary fashion and that detainees were treated humanely.
So how far is it possible to regard this operation as representative and how
should we evaluate such operations in human rights terms?
By far the most important aspect of this operation from an analytical perspective
is that it was ‘Intelligence Based’. It is quite clear from Greer’s
description that what that means in layman’s terms is that lists of targets
were put together in some sort of centralized planning hub before being passed
to individual police units responsible for seizing them in the middle of the
Whilst nothing like the level of detail offered in Greer’s report is
available for most of the cases of arrest and extrajudicial killing by the security
forces, in a few accounts we do have evidence that the victims have been selected
based on lists of suspects (eg see Sydney
Morning Herald, 11 March 2006, Reuters, 17 November 2005), These details
are the hallmarks of ‘intelligence based’ counterinsurgency operations
and strongly indicate that most or all of the campaigns of mass arrests taking
place nightly across Iraq emanate from the intelligence offices of the Interior
Ministry. This impression is further reinforced by another UPI
account of an earlier raid that took place in Baghdad in June 2004. Once
again, we are told that the lists of suspects (in this case ordinary criminals)
had been meticulously prepared in advance through the use of informers by the
intelligence branch at the Ministry of the Interior, incidentally under the
command of a Sunni Kurd.
Such operations simply cannot be conceived and carried out from some backroom
at Badr or Mahdi HQ. If we were still to persist in advocating that SCIRI, or
some such party, was behind these operations, against all of the available evidence,
we would also be forced to conclude that the US had ceased to have influence
inside the Interior Ministry, unless of course they were acting in tandem. In
fact, we know that Iraq’s entire new intelligence apparatus was built
by the CIA (see Washington
Post, 11 December 2003, Knight Ridder, 8 May 2005) and we can be certain
that the intelligence offices at the Interior Ministry and elsewhere remain
saturated with US intelligence agents/advisors (New
York Times, 14 December 2005).
And despite reassurances from the US military that Knockout represents the
new style of ‘humane’ Interior Ministry operation, the empirical
evidence keeps mounting up , day upon day, week upon week and month upon month,
that death squads are continuing their genocidal campaign without stint. The
figures from Baghdad suggest that an average of 70 new victims of extrajudicial
execution appear in the Morgue every single day and these are now starting to
be backed up
in Basra, where we told that on average one person is killed per hour.
Let us pray that in this case the more than 300 detainees taken during Operation
Knockout have indeed been treated humanely. In this case it is beholden not
just on the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior but on Multi Nation Force-Iraq to
demonstrate that every one of the people seized from the Baquba vicinity on
13 November has either been released or continues to be held in ‘humane
conditions’. If MNF-I really wants to prove that it is not responsible
for the death squads, it must publicly release the names of all 377 supposed
suspects so that the world can see who it is arresting and tell us where they
are today. It needs to prove to its critics that the human rights of its detainees
have been respected and that they have not been hung by their wrists until their
arms are dislocated or beaten until it is impossible to tell the color of their
skin, or burnt with cigarettes, or had their eyes gouged out or their fingernails
removed. MNF-I needs to prove that one of its proxy policemen hasn’t tortured
a single one of them with an electric drill and thrown their body onto the street
like the other thousand that appear every month in Baghdad. It needs to prove
it, because otherwise we’ll know for sure that this time it ordered it!
Out for the count? Interpreting conflicting narratives
Operation Knockout proved to be no final engagement for the security forces
either in Diyala province or just around Baquba. Since then the social and political
space has been dominated by at least five forms of violence. The following analysis
is drawn from a trawl of mainstream Western media sources on the Internet and
from a day by day examination of Iraqi Resistance reports compiled by Free
Arab Voice between 13 November and the middle of May. It is not intended
to be seen as comprehensive.
Resistance reports make reference to around a dozen supplemental raids since
Operation Knockout in which hundreds more Iraqis have been detained. No information
is available about the fate of the detainees and detailed reports of the raids
themselves are absent. The raids are variously described as having been undertaken
by ‘troops’, ‘Interior Ministry Shock Troops’, ‘US
occupation forces backed up by Iraqi puppet army troops’, ‘Interior
Ministry troops’, ‘militiamen with official government documents
issued by the Ministry of the Interior’, etc. From such descriptions it
is difficult to know which units were responsible, although in most cases one
suspects units of the Special Police. Western media sources do not make identification
any easier and fewer raids have been reported.
(ii) Resistance attacks against US/Iraqi security forces, including
killings of alleged collaborators and members of Shiite militias
Most of these attacks took the form of roadside bombs, but well-orchestrated
assaults on police/army bases and checkpoints were also frequently reported.
A handful of alleged ‘collaborators’ are also reported to have been
executed by Resistance fighters.
(iii) ‘Mysterious’ bombings
Several bombs which exploded in civilian areas were described in Resistance
reports as mysterious. Mosques seem to have been the intended targets in several
instances; one is reported to have been Sunni, one Shiite, and two others are
not attributed. Other targets included a girls’ school and a crowded market.
According to a report
for Middle East Online, dated 1 May 2006, the police chief of Baquba claimed
that 70 bombs had been planted on the city streets in the preceding two weeks
alone, of which 40 had gone off, killing 12 people.
(iv) Extrajudical killings and assassinations
Several instances of extrajudicial killings bearing the hallmarks of death squads
have been reported. On 23 December 2005 three bodies were found with multiple
gunshot wounds in Southern Baquba; the bodies were found blindfolded with their
hands and legs bound. On 23 February gunmen pulled factory workers off buses
and killed 47 of them; the bullet-riddled bodies were found behind a brick factory.
On 25 February 2006 13 members of a Shia family were killed in their home by
gunmen. On the same day, 12 farm laborers, both Sunnis and Shiites, were found
shot dead in an orchard; the victims had been shot in the head and face. On
26 February two boys were killed when gunmen opened fire on a group of teenagers
playing football. On 28 February nine bodies were found in wasteland around
Tarfiya; the victims had been shot in the head. On 27 March at least 18 bodies
of males were found in a deserted brush area around Tarfiya; the victims are
variously described as having been decapitated or having been shot in the head.
On 8 April 10 bodies were found in black body bags in Balad Rooz; the victims
had been shot in the head. On 19 April three professors were killed when gunmen
opened fire at Diyala University. On 10 May 11 workers at an electrical plant
were killed by gunmen on their way from or to work. On 13 May four unidentified
bodies with bullet holes in their heads and chests were dumped in a stream in
Khan Bani Saad; according to one report they were Shiites. It should be noted
that the spike in reports after 23 February may well represent increased media
attention following the bombing of the Askari mosque in Samarra, rather than
any quantifiable surge in attacks.
(v) Ethnic cleansing
According to Quds Press, quoted in a Resistance report for 8 March, around 1000
Sunni families have fled their homes in the Madain area after receiving death
threats from members of the police and special police.
While these accounts of various forms of violence and intimidation undoubtedly
reflect a climate of pervasive and widespread violence, including an ongoing
struggle between the forces of occupation and an organic resistance, it is extremely
difficult to make objective comments about their significance. The following
passages drawn from four separate accounts underline this point.
a) ‘If the insurgency stays at this level, I expect
to free up combat power before the end of our deployment,’ [US Col]
Salazar says. The
Nation, 9 April 2006
b) In this confessionally divided provincial capital [Baquba]
just north of Baghdad, the mounting sectarian tensions that have gripped the
new Iraq have spelled a spate of tit-for-tat killings of civilians as Shiite
militiamen avenge attacks by Sunni insurgents, sparking a vicious circle of
"Drive-by shootings and other gun attacks have proved deadlier, killing
nearly 40 people in the past two weeks," Bawi said ...
The apparent impotence of Iraq’s fledgling security forces in the
face of the worsening bloodshed has sparked anger among residents. Middle
East Online, 1 May 2006
c) rebels spread control over most of Diyala Province of
which the city of Baquba is the capital.
The city’s nearly 350,000 live in a state of terror as the security
forces charged with keeping law and order can hardly protect themselves. Azzaman,
11 May 2006
d) Mrs Mohammed is a Kurd and a Shia in Baquba, which has
a majority of Sunni Arabs. Her husband, Ahmed, who traded fruit in the local
market, said: ‘They threatend the Kurds and the Shia and told them to
get out ...
It was impossible to travel to Baquba, the capital of Diyala, from Baghdad
without extreme danger Independent,
20 May 2006
It should be noted that the US assessment referred to here predated a major
increase in attacks against occupation forces that began towards the end of
April, which might well invalidate the opinion expressed by US Col Salazar.
Nonetheless, even comparing these descriptions of the overall situation with
the various accounts of violence that are available is far from straightforward.
The account in Middle East Online indicates a level of violence against civilians
that is not adequately reflected in either the mainstream media nor the Resistance
reports. However, it remains credible because we know the same relationship
would hold in areas where we have a better overall impression of the extent
of the violence.
Uniting the narratives
The accounts offered in the Independent and Azzaman appear to stand in total
opposition to one another. If the Resistance has spread control over Diyala,
surely a communitarian civil war of the kind alluded to in the Independent is
extremely unlikely to be taking place. That is, unless we are prepared to entertain
a very special definition of ‘civil war’. Such a definition would
require us to accept that the Resistance represents an exclusively Sunni faction
(not even borne out in the US military’s statistics for detained suspects,
see above) and that the security forces, especially the counterinsurgency brigades,
represent an exclusively Shiite faction (not borne out in any credible
analysis of their composition, nor in their relationship to the occupying
powers, including the presence of special police transition teams). Thus, with
a fierce conflict taking place between the Occupation and the Resistance, it
might indeed be possible to conclude that a ‘sectarian civil war’
was underway. This seems to be the preferred definition for the Western media
But what of Mrs Mohammed? It is possilbe that angry Sunnis have responded
to perceived sectarian assaults in kind, but, assuming that this story is real,
it seems much more likely that she and her family are the victims of a cruel
deception designed to fracture the country along ethno-confessional lines. More
and more evidence of such a pattern is starting to emerge, including a recent
account published by the BRussells
Tribunal anonymously from within Iraq, which refers to evidence that the same
special covert units are employed to fabricate sectarian attacks against both
Sunni and Shiite Iraqis. In addition, there are indications that other killings
are being carried out by death squads operating from within the paramilitary
If we want to make sense of what is happening in Iraq we need to recognize that
words like SCIRI, Badr and Mahdi, together with phrases like civil war, sectarian
violence, revenge killings and tit-for-tat murders all serve to deemphasize
the centrality of the occupation and mystify what is a very real and deadly
From an external perspective, it is extremely difficult to discern whether the
Resistance has seized control of Diyala or whether a genuine civil war along
sectarian lines has broken out. What we must suspect, though, based on concrete
reasoning, is that the security forces trained, armed and guided by the British
and Americans will be committing terrible crimes against humanity in their role
as attack dogs for the occupation.
This is not to try to say that every single killing is carried out by the security
forces, but it is to say that the security forces are so obviously involved
in a great many cases that the Western media and other apologists for the occupation
and abettors of genocide have been forced to resort to claiming that the security
forces have been infiltrated by various militias. If there are militias in the
Ministry of Interior, you can be sure that they are militias that stand to attention
whenever a US colonel enters the room. And if there are masked gunmen claiming
to be from Badr of Mahdi or anywhere else, the first question we should all
be asking is where did they get their lists of victims from? For my money, they
will have come straight out of the Intelligence Office of the Operations Directorate
at the US-run Ministry of the Interior.
Appendix: The Memory Vortex
Communities fight back against raids
Two reports in May seem to indicate that communities are seeking ways to fight
back against nighttime raids. According to an Iraqi Resistance report
dated 1 May 2006, citing Mafkarat al-Islam, fierce fighting erupted around the
areas of al-Hadid and Abu Zayd when a raid by ‘Iraqi puppet police and
puppet army troops’ was opposed by armed residents. According to the report,
nine of the assailants and dozens of locals were killed in the fighting. Following
the battle, US troops joined the Iraqi forces in carrying out massive and indiscriminate
On 11 May, international press sources reported
that village leaders and clerics alerted police and US soldiers when gunmen,
some of them wearing military uniforms, raided two ‘Sunni’ villages
near Khan Bani Saad. According to these reports, US and Iraqi forces were able
to rescue seven of 10 men that were being abducted. Thirty people were arrested,
including an unknown number of the gunmen. According to the reports, some gunmen
told police they belonged to the Shiite militia loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr. This
attribution was supported by the Interior Minister at the time, Bayan Jabr,
who claimed that the gunmen were carrying badges identifying them as belonging
to the Force Protection Service (FPS) of the Ministry of Health, which has been
reported to be under the control of Muqtada al-Sadr. A spokesman for al-Sadr
subsequently claimed that that the FPS members had gone to help, according to
It is difficult to believe that these two account are not related despite the
time gap, although I can find no evidence that this is the case. It is also
difficult not to credit the Mafkarat al-Islam as being a far more plausible
general depiction of events. Clearly, if Sadr militiamen had formed a secret
death squad to attack villages around Khan Bani Saad, we should be hearing about
it all over the press. Unfortunately, this is yet another case ‘under
investigation’ that is likely to be consigned to the dustbin of history
and blacked out by the Western media.
Diyala police linked to death squads
On 27 March, in what was described as ‘an unusual admission’,
that the Iraqi Interior Ministry had arrested a police major, Arkan al-Bawi,
in Diyala province for operating death squads in Baquba. According to the Interior
confessed that his gang members wore police uniforms stolen during attacks
on police checkpoints and that they had killed many people. On 28 March, Reuters
that the police chief in Diyala, major-general Ghassan al-Bawi, the brother
of Arkan, had been arrested for ‘corruption and threatening security’.
Unbelievably, even this bombshell of a story died instantly [in fact, the story
now seems to have been removed from the Internet; the version offered here is
copied from a printed extract of the original]. Even more remarkably, on 28
April, provincial police chief Maj. Ghassan al-Bawi was reported
to have stated that troops and police were on the streets of Baquba and roads
to the city were closed because of fears the insurgents might regroup [This
story too is now extremely hard to come by, with only two examples still available
through Google; the only other evidence that Ghassan al-Bawi has retained his
post is a cached BBC page which refers to an Interview with al-Bawi in June
2006]. It appeared that the arrest of two senior police officers linked to death
squads in Diyala had simply not taken place at all. Perhaps it was a case of
mistaken identity. Perhaps it was another major-general Ghassan al-Bawi that
had been arrested for ‘threatening security’!
If we go right back to Hess’s UPI report of the November 13 raid, we will
recall that the new police chief ‘is associated with the SCIRI, the political
arm of the Badr brigade’. Is that not then newsworthy either! Mahdi militiamen
in death squad arrested in act and SCIRI police appointee linked to death squads!
Apparently not. One can only assume that any detailed independent investigation
would rapidly be forced to conclude that neither Mahdi nor SCIRI were responsible,
but the US-installed police force were.
Max Fuller has worked for some years as a member
of the Colombia Solidarity Campaign in the UK and has read extensively on US
policy and Latin America. He is the author of several reports published in the
'Bulletin of the Colombia Solidarity Campaign'. Max Fuller is the author of
Iraq, the Salvador Option Becomes Reality’ and 'Crying
Wolf: Media Disinformation and Death Squads in Occupied Iraq' , both
published by the Centre for Research on Globalisation. He is a member of the
BRussells Tribunal Advisory Committee and he is an authority in the field of
"Death Squads" and "the Salvador Option". He can be contacted
via the website www.cryingwolf.deconstructingiraq.org.uk
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