Iraq's Future: The Iranian Impact US House of Representatives Tuesday, May 10, 2005 -- Cantwell
Lt. Colonel Thomas Cantwell (TRANSCRIPTION AVAILABLE), was the commander of the United States Military Police 324th Battalion that served in Iraq for more than a year. (2003) Captain Vivian Gembara (TRANSCRIPTION AVAILABLE), JAG forces attorney for the U.S. military for 4 years, deployed in Iraq for 12 months, beginning in April 2003. The Honorable Dr. Sad Abdullah Al-Jabouri, Former Iraqi Governor of Diyala Province (2004-2005) Dr. Kenneth Katzman, specialist in Middle East affairs for the Congressional Research Service.
Lt. Colonel Thomas Cantwell:
Thank you for the invitation. I would like to thank [organizers] and also I would like to welcome Dr. Abdula. The last time we saw each other was in 2003 in a looted building with no electricity so we have come quite some way I would say. One correction to my bio, I am currently serving as an army reserve officer but I want to be clear, I am here on a personal basis and my views in no way represent the views of the department of defense.
As it was mentioned by Ms. Miller, I commanded the 324th military police battalion in 2003. We were directed to move up to Bakuba which is the provincial capital of Diyala province which is the province of which Abdullah is the governor and we performed area security operations in the city of Bakuba and some of the outlying areas and then we transitioned into police reconstruction operations to try and get the police back on the streets, to vet the police force, to eliminate the possibility of previous abusers under the old regime were still on the police force and to restore security to the province.
After a few months I was given a fragmentary order and moved up to assume command at camp Ashraf which is the camp of the Peoples Mojahedin of Iran, so Im kind of a tactical commander, so Im going to limit my comments to my observations on the ground as a tactical commander and really I am going to talk about two areas which is my early on observations of working with the Iraqi police and the Iraqi interim government on the ground dealing with provincial issues in the Diyala province and then later my experiences as the commander of Ashraf. And just to place Diyala province, if you imagine Baghdad, the borders of the province essentially run due east to the Iranian border and then due north along the line of the Tigris river, about 100 miles, hundred 50km to the Kurdish green line. Its the northeast quadrant above Baghdad over to the Iranian border.
When we first got there we started working police reconstruction. In that capacity we worked very closely with the Iraqi police. To echo Dr Katzmans remarks in a little more practical fashion, my very first tactical operation and Bakuba was to go into the main police station and shut down the police operations. In fact a member of, we call them the Badr Corp, a fairly senior member of the Badr Corp was functioning as the chief of police, and he install themselves as the chief of police in Diyala province. Just so you understand, Diyala province is north of Baghdad so its not in a traditionally heavy Shia area. Its made up of a mix of Sunni, Shia and some Kurds because it borders of the Kurdish homeland.
My second operation was to go and remove the SCIRI party from a government building where they had moved into the government building and were setting up a political headquarters. So very early on we saw this dynamic going on and as I developed relationships with Iraqi police and also through my interpreters, most of my interpreters were Shia, and outside the old regime government, whereas many of my police counterparts were Sunni and had been lower ranking functionaries of the old regime so I got both voices, and appears as though, there was a pretty aggressive plan to move into the province and tried to assume some of the reins of government.
And the other things that I think we saw that has been under reported is the looting part of it. As soon as the bombing started and the government fell apart, large scale looting went on. Its beyond the scale that I think we Americans can imagine. Literally buildings would be, first everything that was worth money would be removed, buildings would then be burned, when the shell was left they would come in and chisel out the windows, the doors, and then it literally dismantle the structure brick by brick.
Much of this material, cars were being stolen, government property was being stolen and it was being trucked off. My Iraqi friends told me that much of it was going across the border into Iran.
To give you an example of an early joint Iraqi an American patrol in Bakuba we were driving down the road, I was in my Humvee and right behind me was one of the ubiquitous white and blue Nissan trucks with IPF (Iraqi Police Force) on the side. They suddenly stopped and I pulled over to see why they had stopped. There was a small old car with oxy-acetylene welding tanks strapped to the roof and they were literally cutting down the electrical poles. They were cutting them off at the base and they were throwing the polls in the back of the truck. The poles would then go right across the [Iranian] border. So this is the kind of looting that was going on in the early period, the early days there.
My Iraqi colleagues who were the source of much of my intelligence; they were the best source of human intelligence within the province, told me that there was a large scale infiltration into the area and certainly we saw some signs of that coming from across the border. And it was easy to do right after the bombing started because all the Iraqi border guards fled. Im also told that in 1991 something very similar had happened in the wake of the first war so in some ways this had been rehearsed.
This Sunni and Shia residents of Diyala province that I met were Iraqi first. In fact in many tribes there were Sunni and Shia in the same tribe. I didnt have the sense that within the local populace there was a great deal of animosity along religious lines. Certainly there was a feeling of disenfranchisement on the part of the Shia who were locked out of some of the jobs and some of the better opportunities.
Later I was redirected and moved north to camp Ashraf. As you may recall going into Iraq the Mojahedin-E Khalq, the PMOI, Peoples Mojahedin of Iran had a number of bases along the Iranian border, and prior to the war they had evacuated all their bases down south and moved up north to try and get out of the way of the American army.
At the time the war started they had several bases, one in Faluja, certainly they had a compound in Baghdad, the large camp at Ashraf one along the Iranian border in Jalula. Under U.S. orders they evacuated those camps and consolidated at Ashraf. We assessed at the time the threat to coalition forces by the Mojahedin as being minimal. When they were directed to put their weapons away and store their weapons they did so. Subsequently they turned over a carefully prepared inventoried list of all their equipment. They were very disciplined, as a paramilitary force should be. When we went in and took control of all of the weapons systems and inventoried it we found that the inventories were all accurate leading me to conclude that they had substantially complied with every directive coalition forces had given them.
We were pretty busy in those days as you can probably imagine so their cooperation in complying with coalition directives was good for me personally because it enabled me to use some of my security forces to do area operations in the surrounding countryside and also engage in some civic action programs in the countryside that I would otherwise not have been able to do because we were able to secure the camp with a small number of soldiers. We were able to do some positive things for the Iraqis that we might not otherwise have been able to do, to include installing irrigation pumps along the Tigris for a number of farming communities, refurbishing schools, setting up an Internet café in Bakuba. I think its worth noting that to this day I still receive emails and phone calls from Iraqi friends that I think are attributed to those efforts.
With respect to the Mojahedin, I came in after the negotiation; I dont know how to characterize it so Ill leave that to captain Gembara. The negotiations Im referring to are between General Odierno, the commander of the 4th infantry division and Madam Parsaee, the leader of the Ashraf. So all of that had been resolved, the Mojahedin had agreed to comply with coalition directives. When I moved into to occupy that camp and assume that mission, the basis for that relationship had already been established.
My mission had several aspects to it. On the one hand we had the Geneva conventions responsibility to safeguard the Mojahedin. This was a real possibility because there was evidence that the camp had previously been attacked by the Iranian government. I saw some photographs and other evidence that the camp had been hit by a scud missiles launched from across the border, that it had been mortared by operations carried out across the border and certainly that possibility was still there during this time. So we had a very real mission of securing them which we took it very seriously. We escorted the Mojahedin On sustainment missions etc.
The Mojahedin were self sustaining and this was advantageous to coalition forces because if we were to assume that mission, we could have provided food and medicine but they certainly demonstrated that they had that capability themselves. It was to our benefit, rather than to assume that mission, facilitate their continued sustainment. So what we did to ensure that we had positive control over those operations, we would escort their teams when they would go in and conduct coordination operations. We would monitor that coordination and I think we did that very successfully. That included daily convoy runs down to Baghdad in order to sustain the camp of 4000.
I want you to remember, my soldiers were operating out of a place called camp Warhorse, Bakuba. There were a little more than 4000 troops there which is essentially the size of a brigade. Since they were able to do that and we were able to do that and maintain positive control and maintaining that ability for all of the personnel there, we felt that was the smart military decision to make.
The Mojahedin agreed to the issuance of identification cards and other biometric identification as we moved forward to establish accountability for all of the personnel there and they were cooperative in those efforts as well. Toward the end of my command I did meet the FBI team there in Baghdad and later escorted a team of counterterrorism specialist from the FBI and up to camp Ashraf where they were able to observe the camp and talk to some of the senior leadership of the Mojahedin.
In summary that is my experience and the last thing I would add to it, again we had to rely heavily on human intelligence to develop intelligence related to local threats. I was a battalion commander and I wasnt so much concerned with what was happening across the border as much as whats happening two, three or four kilometers from the perimeter of my soldiers so we talked of the sheiks and some of the members of the Mojahedin about these kinds of things. It was interesting because the Mojahedin, in hindsight it seems correctly, picked up several tactics that were being used, and later used successfully to move munitions in Red Crescent ambulances and the use of Huseiniats and other types of facilities as staging areas for activities there. Certainly some of the information that we heard turned out to be accurate. Finally I would tell you that as a local tactical commander one of the things I tried to do aggressively was get out into the local community and talk to the local sheiks. It was my feeling that our security was best guarantee if we worked in partnership the local Iraqi people.
When I moved up into northern Diyala province, the relationship the Mojahedin has with the local community helped me in that regard. Most of the local sheiks, you understand this is part of the Sunni Triangle, they werent fully trusting of coalition forces but they seemed to have some level of trust with the Mojahedin. When I sought to get them to go in and speak to them and to understand what their issues are, there security issues, their infrastructure repair issues, their life support issues and to try to help them understand what our operations were doing to ensure that they understood why were undertaking our operations. It certainly helped to have that friendly relationship with the Mojahedin because it helped me to break the ice with local sheiks which I think is very important.