Sunday, Sep. 18, 2005
The secret history of U.S. mistakes, misjudgments and intelligence failures that let the Iraqi dictator and his allies launch an insurgency now ripping Iraq apart
Five men met in an automobile in a Baghdad park a few weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime in April 2003, according to U.S. intelligence sources. One of the five was Saddam. The other four were among his closest advisers. The agenda: how to fight back against the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. A representative of Saddam's former No. 2, Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, was there. But the most intriguing man in the car may have been a retired general named Muhammad Yunis al-Ahmed, who had been a senior member of the Military Bureau, a secret Baath Party spy service. The bureau's job had been to keep an eye on the Iraqi military--and to organize Baathist resistance in the event of a coup. Now a U.S. coup had taken place, and Saddam turned to al-Ahmed and the others and told them to start "rebuilding your networks."
The 45-minute meeting was pieced together months later by U.S. military intelligence. It represents a rare moment of clarity in the dust storm of violence that swirls through central Iraq. The insurgency has grown well beyond its initial Baathist core to include religious extremist and Iraqi nationalist organizations, and plain old civilians who are angry at the American occupation. But Saddam's message of "rebuilding your networks" remains the central organizing principle.
More than two years into the war, U.S. intelligence sources concede that they still don't know enough about the nearly impenetrable web of what Iraqis call ahl al-thiqa (trust networks), which are at the heart of the insurgency. It's an inchoate movement without a single inspirational leader like Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh--a movement whose primary goal is perhaps even more improbable than the U.S. dream of creating an Iraqi democracy: restoring Sunni control in a country where Sunnis represent just 20% of the population. Intelligence experts can't credibly estimate the rebels' numbers but say most are Iraqis. Foreigners account for perhaps 2% of the suspected guerrillas who have been captured or killed, although they represent the vast majority of suicide bombers. ("They are ordnance," a U.S. intelligence official says.) The level of violence has been growing steadily. There have been roughly 80 attacks a day in recent weeks. Suicide bombs killed more than 200 people, mostly in Baghdad, during four days of carnage last week, among the deadliest since Saddam's fall.
More than a dozen current and former intelligence officers knowledgeable about Iraq spoke with TIME in recent weeks to share details about the conflict. They voiced their growing frustration with a war that they feel was not properly anticipated by the Bush Administration, a war fought with insufficient resources, a war that almost all of them now believe is not winnable militarily. "We're good at fighting armies, but we don't know how to do this," says a recently retired four-star general with Middle East experience. "We don't have enough intelligence analysts working on this problem. The Defense Intelligence Agency [DIA] puts most of its emphasis and its assets on Iran, North Korea and China. The Iraqi insurgency is simply not top priority, and that's a damn shame."
The intelligence officers stressed these points:
â€¢ They believe that Saddam's inner circle--especially those from the Military Bureau--initially organized the insurgency's support structure and that networks led by former Saddam associates like al-Ahmed and al-Duri still provide money and logistical help.
â€¢ The Bush Administration's fixation on finding weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in 2003 diverted precious intelligence resources that could have helped thwart the fledgling insurgency.
â€¢ From the beginning of the insurgency, U.S. military officers have tried to contact and negotiate with rebel leaders, including, as a senior Iraq expert puts it, "some of the people with blood on their hands."
â€¢ The frequent replacement of U.S. military and administrative teams in Baghdad has made it difficult to develop a counterinsurgency strategy.
The accumulation of blunders has led a Pentagon guerrilla-warfare expert to conclude, "We are repeating every mistake we made in Vietnam."
THE WRONG FOCUS
It is no secret that General Tommy Franks didn't want to hang around Iraq very long. As Franks led the U.S. assault on Baghdad in April 2003, his goal--and that of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld--was to get to the capital as quickly as possible with a minimal number of troops. Franks succeeded brilliantly at that task. But military-intelligence officers contend that he did not seem interested in what would come next. "He never once asked us for a briefing about what happened once we got to Baghdad," says a former Army intelligence officer attached to the invasion force. "He said, 'It's not my job.' We figured all he wanted to do was get in, get out and write his book." (Franks, through a spokesman, declined to comment for this article.)
The rush to Baghdad, critics say, laid the groundwork for trouble to come. In one prewar briefing, for example, Lieut. General David McKiernan--who commanded the land component of the coalition forces--asked Franks what should be done if his troops found Iraqi arms caches on the way to Baghdad. "Just put a lock on 'em and go, Dave," Franks replied, according to a former U.S. Central Command (Centcom) officer. Of course, you couldn't simply put a lock on ammunition dumps that stretched for several square miles--dumps that would soon be stripped and provide a steady source of weaponry for the insurgency.
U.S. troops entered Baghdad on April 5. There was euphoria in the Pentagon. The looting in the streets of Baghdad and the continuing attacks on coalition troops were considered temporary phenomena that would soon subside. On May 1, President George W. Bush announced, "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended," on the deck of an aircraft carrier, near a banner that read MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. Shortly thereafter, Franks moved his headquarters from Qatar back to Florida. He was followed there in June by McKiernan, whose Baghdad operation included several hundred intelligence officers who had been keeping track of the situation on the ground. "Allowing McKiernan to leave was the worst decision of the war," says one of his superiors. (The decision, he says, was Franks'.) "We replaced an operational force with a tactical force, which meant generals were replaced by colonels." Major General Ricardo Sanchez, a relatively junior commander and a recent arrival in Iraq, was put in charge. "After McKiernan left, we had fewer than 30 intelligence officers trying to figure who the enemy was," says a top-ranking military official who was in Iraq at the time. "We were starting from scratch, with practically no resources."
On May 23, the U.S. made what is generally regarded as a colossal mistake. L. Paul Bremer--the newly arrived administrator of the U.S. government presence, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA)--disbanded the Iraqi army and civil service on Rumsfeld's orders. "We made hundreds of thousands of people very angry at us," says a Western diplomat attached to the CPA, "and they happened to be the people in the country best acquainted with the use of arms." Thousands moved directly into the insurgency--not just soldiers but also civil servants who took with them useful knowledge of Iraq's electrical grid and water and sewage systems. Bremer says he doesn't regret that decision, according to his spokesman Dan Senor. "The Kurds and Shi'ites didn't want Saddam's army in business," says Senor, "and the army had gone home. We had bombed their barracks. How were we supposed to bring them back and separate out the bad guys? We didn't even have enough troops to stop the looting in Baghdad."
A third decision in the spring of 2003--to make the search for WMD the highest intelligence priority--also hampered the U.S. ability to fight the insurgents. In June, former weapons inspector David Kay arrived in Baghdad to lead the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), which had 1,200 intelligence officers and support staff members assigned to search for WMD. They had exclusive access to literally tons of documents collected from Saddam's office, intelligence services and ministries after the regime fell. Kay clashed repeatedly with U.S. military leaders who wanted access not only to the documents but also to some of the resources--analysts, translators, field agents--at his disposal. "I was in meetings where [General John] Abizaid was pounding on the table trying to get some help," says a senior military officer. "But Kay wouldn't budge."
Indeed, a covert-intelligence officer working for the ISG told TIME correspondent Brian Bennett that he had been ordered in August 2003 to "terminate" contact with Iraqi sources not working on WMD. As a result, the officer says, he stopped meeting with a dozen Iraqis who were providing information--maps, photographs and addresses of former Baathist militants, safe houses and stockpiles of explosives--about the insurgency in the Mosul area. "The President's priority--and my mission--was to focus on WMD," Kay told TIME. "Abizaid needed help with the counterinsurgency. He said, 'You have the only organization in this country that's working.' But military guys are not used to people telling them no, and so, yes, there was friction."
Sanchez learned that autumn that there were 38 boxes of documents specifically related to the city of Fallujah, a hotbed of Sunni rebellion. Months later, when military-intelligence officers finally were able to review some of the documents, many of which had been marked NO INTELLIGENCE VALUE, the officers found information that they now say could have helped the U.S. stop the insurgency's spread. Among the papers were detailed civil-defense plans for cities like Fallujah, Samarra and Ramadi and rosters of leaders and local Baathist militia who would later prove to be the backbone of the insurgency in those cities.
U.S. military-intelligence sources say many of the documents still have not been translated or thoroughly analyzed. "You should see the warehouse in Qatar where we have this stuff," said a high-ranking former U.S. intelligence official. "We'll never be able to get through it all. Who knows?" he added, with a laugh. "We may even find the VX [nerve gas] in one of those boxes."
MISJUDGING THE ENEMY
As early as JuneÂ 2003, the CIA told Bush in a briefing that he faced a "classic insurgency" in Iraq. But the White House didn't fully trust the CIA, and on June 30, Rumsfeld told reporters, "I guess the reason I don't use the term guerrilla war is that it isn't ... anything like a guerrilla war or an organized resistance." The opposition, he claimed, was composed of "looters, criminals, remnants of the Baathist regime" and a few foreign fighters. Indeed, Rumsfeld could claim progress in finding and capturing most of the 55 top members of Saddam's regime--the famous Iraqi deck of cards. (To date, 44 of the 55 have been captured or killed.) Two weeks after Rumsfeld's comment, the Secretary of Defense was publicly contradicted by Centcom commander Abizaid, who said the U.S. indeed faced "a classical guerrilla-type campaign" in Iraq.
In a sense, both Rumsfeld and Abizaid were right. The backbone of the insurgency was thousands of Baathist remnants organizing a guerrilla war against the Americans. According to documents later seized by the U.S. military, Saddam--who had been changing locations frequently until his capture in December 2003--tried to stay in charge of the rebellion. He fired off frequent letters filled with instructions for his subordinates. Some were pathetic. In one, he explained guerrilla tradecraft to his inner circle--how to keep in touch with one another, how to establish new contacts, how to remain clandestine. Of course, the people doing the actual fighting needed no such advice, and decisions about whom to attack when and where were made by the cells. Saddam's minions, including al-Duri and al-Ahmed, were away from the front lines, providing money, arms and logistical support for the cells.
But Saddam did make one strategic decision that helped alter the course of the insurgency. In early autumn he sent a letter to associates ordering them to change the target focus from coalition forces to Iraqi "collaborators"--that is, to attack Iraqi police stations. The insurgency had already announced its seriousness and lethal intent with a summer bombing campaign. On Aug. 7, a bomb went off outside the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad, killing 19 people. Far more ominous was the Aug. 19 blast that destroyed the U.N.'s headquarters in Baghdad, killing U.N. representative Sergio Vieira de Mello and 22 others. Although al-Qaeda leader Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for the attack, U.S. intelligence officials believe that remnants of Saddam's Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) carried it out. "It was a pure Baathist operation," says a senior U.S. intelligence official. "The Iraqis who served as U.N. security guards simply didn't show up for work that day. It wasn't a suicide bomb. The truck driver left the scene. Our [explosives] team found that the bomb had the distinctive forensics of Saddam's IIS."
On Oct. 27, 2003, the assaults on "collaborators" that Saddam had requested began with attacks on four Iraqi police stations--and on International Red Cross headquarters--in Baghdad, killing 40 people. The assaults revealed a deadly new alliance between the Baathists and the jihadi insurgents. U.S. intelligence agents later concluded, after interviewing one of the suicide bombers, a Sudanese who failed in his attempt, that the operation had been a collaboration between former Baathists and al-Zarqawi. The Baathists had helped move the suicide bombers into the country, according to the U.S. sources, and then provided shelter, support (including automobiles) and coordination for the attacks.
MISHANDLING THE TRIBES
By almost every account, Sanchez andÂ Bremer didÂ not get along. The conflict was predictable--the soldiers tended to be realists fighting a nasty war; the civilians, idealists trying to create a new Iraq--but it was troubling nonetheless. The soldiers wanted to try diplomacy and began reaching out to the less extreme elements of the insurgency to bring them into negotiations over Iraq's political future. The diplomats took a harder line, refusing to negotiate with the enemy.
Military-intelligence officers presented the CPA with a plan to make a deal with 19 subtribes of the enormous Dulaimi clan, located in al-Anbar province, the heart of the Sunni triangle. The tribes "had agreed to disarm and keep us informed of traffic going through their territories," says a former Army intelligence officer. "All it would have required from the CPA was formal recognition that the tribes existed--and $3 million." The money would go toward establishing tribal security forces. "It was a foot in the door, but we couldn't get the CPA to move." Bremer's spokesman Senor says a significant effort was made to reach out to the tribes. But several military officials dispute that. "The standard answer we got from Bremer's people was that tribes are a vestige of the past, that they have no place in the new democratic Iraq," says the former intelligence officer. "Eventually they paid some lip service and set up a tribal office, but it was grudging."
The Baathists, on the other hand, were more active in courting the tribes. Starting in November 2003, tribal sheiks and Baathist expatriates held a series of monthly meetings at the Cham Palace hotel in Damascus. They were public events, supposedly meetings to express solidarity with the Iraqi opposition to the U.S. occupation. (The January 2004 gathering was attended by Syrian President Bashar Assad.) Behind the scenes, however, the meetings provided a convenient cover for leaders of the insurgency, including Muhammad Yunis al-Ahmed, the former Military Bureau director, to meet, plan and distribute money. A senior military officer told TIME that U.S. intelligence had an informant--a mid-level Baathist official who belonged to the Dulaimi tribe--attending the meetings and keeping the Americans informed about the insurgents' growing cohesion. But the increased flow of information did not produce a coherent strategy for fighting the growing rebellion.
THE DEALMAKING GOES NOWHERE
Saddam was captured on Dec. 13, 2003, in a spiderÂ hole on a farm near Tikrit. His briefcase was filled with documents identifying many of the former Baathists running support networks for the insurgency. It was the first major victory of what the U.S. called the postcombat phase of the war: in early 2004, 188 insurgents were captured, many of whom had been mentioned in the seized documents. Although Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, Saddam's former No. 2, narrowly evaded capture, much of his Mosul and Kirkuk apparatus was rolled up. Baathist financial networks were disrupted in several provinces. The CIA, in fact, believes that Saddam's capture permanently crippled the Baathist wing of the insurgency. "A guy like al-Duri is more symbol than substance at this point," a U.S. intelligence official says. "The parade has passed him by."
Military-intelligence officers who were in Iraq at the time, however, saw evidence that the Baathists regrouped in the spring of 2004, when the U.S. was preoccupied with battling a rebellion led by Shi'ite extremist Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq's south and with the fight for the rebel-held city of Fallujah in the Sunni triangle. And the U.S. intelligence officials believe that some former regime loyalists began to be absorbed by other rebel groups, including those made up of religious extremists and Iraqi nationalists.
Al-Ahmed, say U.S. intelligence officials, is still running the support network he began building after the meeting with Saddam in the car. In May 2004 al-Ahmed set off on one of his periodic tours of the combat zone, meeting with local insurgent leaders, distributing money and passing along news--a trip later pieced together by U.S. intelligence analysts wading through the mountain of data and intelligence provided by low-level local informants. Al-Ahmed started in his hometown of Mosul, where he had been supervising--from a distance--the rebuilding of the local insurgent network disrupted after Saddam's capture. He moved on to Hawija, where he met a man thought to be a senior financier of the insurgency in north-central Iraq. After a brief stay at a farmhouse near Samarra, he met with military leaders of religious and nationalist rebel groups in Baghdad and with Rashid Taan Kazim, one of the few faces from the deck of cards (al-Duri is another) still at large, who is thought to be running a support network for the insurgency in the north and west of Iraq. Al-Ahmed's final stop was Ramadi, where he distributed $500,000 to local insurgency leaders.
What is remarkable is the extent to which the U.S. is aware of al-Ahmed's activities. "We know where Muhammad Yunis al-Ahmed lives in Damascus," says a U.S. intelligence official. "We know his phone number. He believes he has the protection of the Syrian government, and that certainly seems to be the case." But he hasn't been aggressively pursued by the U.S. either--in part because there has been a persistent and forlorn hope that al-Ahmed might be willing to help negotiate an end to the Baathist part of the insurgency. A senior U.S. intelligence officer says that al-Ahmed was called at least twice by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi--an old acquaintance--and that a representative of an "other government agency," a military euphemism that usually means the CIA, "knocked on his door in 2004 and asked if he was willing to talk. He wasn't."
STARTING OVER AGAIN
In the middle ofÂ 2004, the U.S. again changed itsÂ team in Baghdad. Bremer and Sanchez left, replaced by Ambassador John Negroponte and General George Casey. At the same time, there was a new transitional Iraqi government, led by Iyad Allawi. Negroponte set up a joint military-diplomatic team to review the situation in the country. The consensus was that things were a mess, that little had been accomplished on either the civilian or the military side and that there was no effective plan for dealing with the insurgency. The new team quickly concluded that the insurgency could not be defeated militarily--but that it might be divided. The attempts to engage potential allies like al-Ahmed became the unstated policy as U.S. and Iraqi officials sought ways to isolate foreign terrorists like al-Zarqawi.
But progress in the effort to defuse the insurgency through dealmaking has been slow--and in some cases has led the U.S. to ease pressure on individuals tied to rebel groups. Consider the careful handling of Harith al-Dhari, chairman of the Association of Muslim Scholars and one of Iraq's most important Sunni leaders. In late 2003, several insurgent groups began to meet regularly in the Umm al-Qura mosque in Baghdad, over which al-Dhari presides. According to U.S. intelligence reports, al-Dhari--who has said he might encourage his organization to take part in the democratic process--did not attend the meetings. But his son Muthanna--who is thought to be an important link between the nationalist and religious strains of the insurgency--did. In August 2004, the son was arrested after his car scanned positive for explosives residue. But he was quickly released, a retired DIA analyst says, under pressure from Iraq's government, to keep channels open to his father. "It would be difficult to lure Harith into the tent if Muthanna were in jail," says the former officer.
By April 2004, U.S. military-intelligence officers were also holding face-to-face talks with Abdullah al-Janabi, a rebel leader from Fallujah. The meetings ended after al-Zarqawi--who had taken up residence in Fallujah--threatened to kill al-Janabi if the talks continued, according to U.S. and Iraqi sources. But attempts to negotiate with other insurgents are continuing, including with Saddam's former religious adviser. So far, the effort has been futile. "We keep hoping they'll come up with a Gerry Adams," says a U.S. intelligence official, referring to the leader of the Irish Republican Army's political wing. "But it just hasn't happened."
The leadership in Baghdad changed yet again this year. Negroponte left Baghdad in March to become director of national intelligence. He was replaced by Zalmay Khalilzad. But the turnover in the Iraqi government was far more important: religious Shi'ites, led by Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, took charge, a severe irritant to many Sunnis. "The insurgents see al-Jaafari as a traitor, a man who spent the Iran-Iraq war in Iran," says a senior military officer. "And many of the best officers we have trained in the new Iraqi army--Sunnis and secular Shi'ites who served in Saddam's army--feel the same way." Al-Jaafari did not help matters by opening diplomatic ties with Iran, apologizing for Iraq's behavior in the Iran-Iraq war and cutting economic deals with the Iranians.
In fact, some Iraq experts in the U.S. intelligence community have come to the conclusion that Iraqis' courageous recent steps toward democracy--the elections in January and the writing of a constitution that empowers the religious Shi'ites and the Kurds (though it is resoundingly opposed by the Sunnis)--have left the country in a more precarious position. "The big conversation in our shop these days," says a military-intelligence officer, "is whether it would be a good thing if the new constitution is voted down [in the public referendum] next month."
Iraq experts in the intelligence community believe that the proposed constitution, which creates autonomous regions for the Kurds and Shi'ites in the oil-rich north and south, could heighten the chances of an outright civil war. "A lot of us who have followed this thing have come to the conclusion that the Sunnis are the wolves--the real warriors--and the religious Shi'ites are the sheep," says an intelligence officer. "The Sunnis have the power to maintain this violence indefinitely."
Another hot debate in the intelligence community is whether to make a major change in the counterinsurgency strategy--to stop the aggressive sweeps through insurgent-riddled areas, like the recent offensive in Tall 'Afar, and try to concentrate troops and resources with the aim of improving security and living conditions in population centers like Baghdad. "We've taken Samarra four times, and we've lost it four times," says an intelligence officer. "We need a new strategy."
But the Pentagon leadership is unlikely to support a strategy that concedes broad swaths of territory to the enemy. In fact, none of the intelligence officers who spoke with TIME or their ranking superiors could provide a plausible road map toward stability in Iraq. It is quite possible that the occupation of Iraq was an unwise proposition from the start, as many U.S. allies in the region warned before the invasion. Yet, despite their gloom, every one of the officers favors continuing--indeed, augmenting--the war effort. If the U.S. leaves, they say, the chaos in central Iraq could threaten the stability of the entire Middle East. And al-Qaeda operatives like al-Zarqawi could have a relatively safe base of operations in the Sunni triangle. "We have never taken this operation seriously enough," says a retired senior military official with experience in Iraq. "We have never provided enough troops. We have never provided enough equipment, or the right kind of equipment. We have never worked the intelligence part of the war in a serious, sustained fashion. We have failed the Iraqi people, and we have failed our troops." --With reporting by Brian Bennett/ Washington and Michael Ware/Baghdad
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