Ranks Plagued by Infiltrators

Weak controls allow rebels to inflict harm in security forces' midst. Officials say improving screening is essential.

By Patrick J. McDonnell

Los Angeles Times

June 29, 2005

BAGHDAD — One bomber penetrated the secure compound of Iraq's most celebrated police commando unit. Another slipped into a mess hall where scores of Iraqi soldiers were sitting down for a meal.

Neither suicide attacker aroused suspicion for a very good reason: Both were Iraqi security officers.

Nearly 30 soldiers and police officers were killed and dozens were injured in the two bombings this month. The attacks at the headquarters of the elite Wolf Brigade in Baghdad and at an army base north of the capital highlighted the grave challenge Iraq is facing from infiltration by insurgents.

In his address to the nation Tuesday, President Bush again emphasized the role of the Iraqi army and police forces, which he said are progressing "in both the number and quality."

Amid dwindling U.S. public support for the war, the ultimate success of Iraqi security forces is a linchpin of the administration's hopes. "A major part of our mission is to train them so they can do the fighting, and then our troops can come home," Bush said.

But it is feared that rebels have a stealthy presence among those forces. Infiltration was a specialty of Saddam Hussein's security apparatus, and officials say many recent cases were directed by so-called former regime elements — FRE in military parlance.

"We believe part of the FRE strategy is to infiltrate the security forces with elements under their control and to get them into positions of influence," Army Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, commander of the Multinational Corps, said in an interview here.

Authorities also suspect that insiders are providing insurgents with the identities of police and military commanders, who are being gunned down on an almost daily basis, typically on their way to or from work. Interior Minister Bayan Jabr has alleged that the names and addresses of police are even being sold on the streets, the motive often profit rather than politics.

The pool of possible infiltrators is large. About 1,600 "ghost names" have been discovered on interior's payroll, Iraqi officials said, and the search is continuing. Not all are suspected infiltrators, but many have access to bases and sensitive installations.

Most Iraqi soldiers and police have shown strong courage and commitment, particularly considering that they are generally poorly equipped compared to U.S. troops and more of them have been killed. But Iraqi officials and high-ranking U.S. commanders concede that Iraqis' ultimate effectiveness in a grueling counterinsurgency campaign hinges in no small part on eradicating rampant infiltration of the security forces.

"I think it is the greatest long-term threat to the security of the country," said a senior U.S. military officer, who, like several others interviewed about the sensitive topic, declined to be named. "How do you make sure that your security forces have not been infiltrated and compromised and they're not tipping off operations?"

It is especially disquieting, officials say, that the attackers at both Iraqi bases were themselves Iraqis — not foreign jihadists, as most suicide bombers are thought to be.

On June 15, an Iraqi soldier sat down with about 100 colleagues in a cafeteria on a base in Khalis, northeast of Baghdad, witnesses said. He apparently was wearing a belt rigged with explosives.

"The next thing we heard was a loud explosion," recalled one of the survivors, who declined to be named. "It was like a tornado that swept the place."

The bombing killed 26 Iraqi soldiers and injured 38. Some later accounts indicated that the infiltrator may have been a contract worker dressed as an army man. But several fellow soldiers said he was one of their own.

In the Wolf Brigade attack, three commandos were killed when the infiltrator detonated his bomb inside their compound.

Infiltrators also pose a very real danger for U.S. troops who, more and more, work alongside their Iraqi counterparts. The Pentagon has yet to release its findings in the Dec. 21 suicide bombing at a U.S. Army mess hall in northern Iraq that left 22 American troops and contractors dead. The attacker was wearing an Iraqi military uniform, officials say, but Arab media reports indicated that the assailant may have been a Saudi impostor who circumvented tight security.

The risks posed by moles in security posts extend well beyond bombings. There is great concern here about insiders, acting for money or ideology, tipping insurgents to operations. U.S. commanders often wonder whether someone was alerted in advance in the frequent cases in which they and Iraqi allies arrive for raids to find that the targeted suspects have vanished.

In many cases, security officers' kin are told by insurgents that family members will be kidnapped or killed if they do not provide information, authorities say.

"There has to be a security violation with all the officers and policemen who are being assassinated," said Nori Jabir Nori, who was recently appointed inspector general of the Interior Ministry, which oversees internal security. "They know when they leave, and they know when they come. This has to be an inside job."

Part of the problem, officials say, is a rushed, inconsistent hiring process that has allowed questionable applicants to join the police and military, sometimes outside normal recruiting and vetting procedures. The previous interior minister added tens of thousands of employees, officials say, and hundreds have disappeared from their posts — taking their security clearances with them.

The commander of the Wolf Brigade, Brig. Gen. Mohammed Qureishi, the apparent target of the June 11 attack, said the bomber was an "outsider" whom the Interior Ministry had attached to the unit 15 days before the attack.

"This will not happen again," vowed Qureishi, who is widely known as Abu Walid and is the host of a popular television program featuring "confessions" from captured suspects.

Infiltrators threaten Iraq's reconstruction as well as security. Officials link some of the success of the sabotage campaign against electrical, oil and water infrastructure to insurgent penetration. Last week, U.S. forces detained two guards in the bombings of pipes that recently left hundreds of thousands of Baghdad residents without running water in the summer heat.

To better defend themselves, Iraqi and U.S. security officials say they are improving the screening of new lawmen and troops through fingerprint checks, database examinations and even interviews with some recruits' friends.

"To be a soldier, it has to be clear who you are," Babaker Shawkat Zebari, chief of staff of the Iraqi military, said at the heavily fortified Defense Ministry headquarters in Baghdad. "We send researchers to their neighborhoods to make sure they are who they say they are."

Four recruits lining up to join the security services in the southern city of Hilla were recently found to be on a wanted list and arrested, said Brig. Gen. Don Alston, a military spokesman here.

But making matters tougher is the insurgency's fragmented nature, encompassing tribal and sectarian rivalries and Islamic holy warriors as well as Baathists unwilling to accept Hussein's overthrow.

The bombings and shootings demonstrate that the updated security procedures are far from foolproof. Relatively few records are computerized, and infiltrators may have no criminal record anyway, just a willingness to fight in a country where allegiance to tribe or family often trumps all other commitments.

"The concept of loyalty to the central government is not the norm," a U.S. military official noted. "Family and tribe have an enormously influential role…. It is a challenge."

On Tuesday, grieving relatives mourned Col. Riyadh Abdul Karim, gunned down Sunday as he drove to the east Baghdad police station he commanded. Five police cars and at least 20 officers guarded the street where, in the Arab tradition, loved ones erected a tent to greet mourners. Such scenes play out almost daily in the capital, where security men loyal to the new government are slain with alarming frequency.

Relatives and friends described the commander as a dedicated man who eschewed bodyguards. The family has no doubt: He was betrayed.

"We think there are people from inside the ministry who are giving the information to others, who then carry out the assassinations," said his son, Ali Abdul Karim.

"They are killing any decent man trying to help the people and serve his country. They want to keep the country in chaos."


Times staff writers Borzou Daragahi, Ashraf Khalil and Saif Rasheed of The Times' Baghdad Bureau and a special correspondent in Baqubah contributed to this report.