Global Policy Forum

Iraqi Commando Battalion Pulled out of Samarra


US officers say battalion of Iraq's elite commando troops
withdrawn from Samarra for looting, torching houses.

By Ned Parker

Middle East Online
May 5, 2005

A battalion of Iraq's elite commando troops was pulled out of the rebel bastion of Samarra last month after repeated incidents of looting, culminating in the torching of a home, several US officers said Thursday. The battalion, headed by a colonel named Jalil, was widely perceived as running amok, officers said. US soldiers regularly referred to the commandos as "thieves" and said there were several incidents where Jalil's men looted homes.

In an incident in the second week of March that sealed the unit's fate, the commandos searched a home near Samarra, found no incriminating evidence and then set it on fire, officers said on condition of anonymity. US officers and soldiers preferred their names not be disclosed due to their working relationship with the interior ministry and the awkward position of criticising the commandos, considered the vanguard of Iraq's security forces.

The battalion has since been replaced by what US officers describe as a far more disciplined batch of soldiers who are on model behaviour. There are now two commando battalions in Samarra. One US soldier who witnessed the March incident gave the following account. "The ministry of interior (MOI) decided they wanted to hit a few more target houses and the special forces (SF) said 'OK' and we followed along. We were pulling outer security a house or two down and couldn't see the MOI or SF," he said.

"All of a sudden we started seeing smoke billowing up and then SF came over the radio saying that the MOI colonel with us had given his 'commandos' the order to loot the house and then set it on fire," the soldier added. "The SF tried to stop them once they realized what was going on but short of opening fire on them, which I would have preferred to see, we could do nothing to truly stop them. We finally drove off back to Samarra, with the life of some farming family who wasn't home going up in flames.

"The SF and all of us were royally pissed and they immediately severed ties with them cancelling some upcoming missions. We did the same," he explained. In another jab at the interior ministry, several US soldiers and officers also questioned its account of a March 22 raid on an insurgent training camp on Lake TharThar that the ministry said left more than 80 dead.

The soldiers and officers who visited the training camp said they saw no trace of any bodies at the site, which some of them entered alongside and others shortly after the commandos. The commandos are a controversial 12,000-strong unit of fighters, many of them from Saddam Hussein's special forces, security directorate and republican guard. They are a mix of Shiites and Sunnis, with the country's Shiite majority probably edging out the Sunnis, and a small proportion of Kurds.

The commandos have been dogged by torture allegations and at least one of their detainees in Samarra turned up dead last month. The creator of the commandos is Major General Adnan Thabet, 63, a former Sunni Muslim intelligence officer from Samarra who was expelled from the army in 1984, and jailed at Abu Ghraib for conspiracy against Saddam Hussein in 1996. Thabet received a death sentence later commuted to 20 years in jail. He was released in October 2002 as part of a broad amnesty Saddam issued at the time. He has two deputy commanders, one of them Shiite and the other Sunni.

Shiite General Rashid Flaih, a brigade commander, has been a lightning rod for criticism. In October, Iraq's de-Baathification committee protested Flaih's appointment to the interior ministry, citing his job as security chief in the southern city of Nassiriyah in 1991 after the suppression of that year's Shiite uprising. Flaih offers up his own jail time from 1996 to 2001 as proof of his integrity. He was in hiding in southern Iraq around the shrine city of Karbala until Saddam's fall in 2003. He met Thabet during his incarceration at Abu Ghraib prison.

Both Thabet and Flaih acknowledged the commandos' rough tactics, but said they stopped short of torture. "When they find a suspect, they start beating him, it's normal. He's a criminal. He is beheading and butchering people," Flaih told AFP in a recent interview.

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