Iraq's Future: The Iranian Impact US House of Representatives Tuesday, May 10, 2005 -- Gembara
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. Said Abdullah Al-Jabouri, Former Iraqi Governor of Diyala Province (2004-2005) Dr. Kenneth Katzman, specialist in Middle East affairs for the Congressional Research Service.
Captain Vivian Gembara:
Thank you for having me. I'd like to state that I'm here on a personal basis. My comments and thoughts and opinions do not reflect those of the government or the U.S. army.
Beginning in April 2003 I served for a year in Iraq with the third brigade combat team of the fourth infantry division. I served as the brigade lawyer and the trial counsel. I was with the brigade from the start of the war when we left Kuwait then moved over ground into Iraq. From there we moved about six times throughout the country depending on the operation and the needs. During that time we were tasked with all sorts of things, not only just doing regular raids and patrols but also rebuilding the justice system for me, and rebuilding the governments in certain regions. During this time as well our division was tasked to meet with PMOI, MEK forces and negotiate the surrender agreement, disarmament agreement. I tracked what was happening from a brigade level when this was happening and I was tasked with reviewing drafts of the proposed agreement. Recommending any changes and trying to learn as much as I could about the mission in general in the event that my commander needed additional input.
I had no prior knowledge of the MEK and quite frankly, when you're out in the field there was no Internet access so that you can do quick research or anything like that. We went with what we got through orders. I learned from speaking with those around me that Special Forces soldiers had met with the MEK initially and by all accounts, they were impressed with their abilities and their willingness to cooperate with us. They recommended possibly using MEK forces in some capacity later. Washington strongly disagreed because they were designated a terrorist organization and in the end I gather our mission was to go out there and clear up any confusion.
The original plan was to go there and secure their surrender in a one day meeting and it certainly didn't go as planned. The MEK apparently received our proposed agreement and what they had done was meticulously dissected it, line by line. They cited their objections and the need for further discussion, similar to how a lawyer might object, and it took us all by surprise. It pushed the talks to a second day and at that time I was called forward from the brigade area to attend that second day. I was there to provide additional legal advice when needed, to expedite the process.
The day was definitely full of surprises. The first of which, when I arrived was that I had learned from my superiors we were to attend the meeting without any weapons and without any body armor. I found this disconcerting due to the fact that we were asking a group that I knew little about to disarm entirely and apparently, from my understanding, they were not agreeing with it. Second the MEK were extremely skilled in oral argument, many schooled in the U.S. and they were lawyers themselves. We went through several additional drabs of the agreement that day before finally raging a consensus.
They were equally skilled with military training and tactics to include information operations and had erected several radio towers throughout the country. I can't tell you how surprised we really were. They knew the terrain. Throughout the day and they referenced border areas that they knew were unsecured and cited locations we had not yet discovered. And finally they were always up front about their own mission, that being to remove the mullahs and bring a democratic government to Iran.
During breaks throughout the day it was hard not to marvel at their own resourcefulness there. We had been Iraq for a little over a month. The MEK's headquarters building was the first place I had seen with electricity, food, running water, toilets and air conditioning that I had seen. All of their camps functioned independently and they chose to design and build their own electrical sewer and water supply systems to maintain control and limit interference by Saddam. This was above and beyond anything we had seen so far in the entire country. It astounded me personally.
After signing the agreement the mood was understandably somber for the remainder of the day. They had just agreed to completely disarm and consolidate all their forces with out any promises or guarantees from us about their future and yet again and to my surprise they insisted that we stay for a meal and motioned us to join them in the dining room. When we walked in and there were tables that had already been set, fit for a Persian feast.
As a junior officer I sat at the far end of the table but I couldn't help noticing how upset some of the MEK members were. It was a bit awkward but rather than simply ignoring the emotion, some of the more senior members of the MEK made at a point to assure us that the emotions we were witnessing would not in any way interfere with their full cooperation in compliance with the agreement.
Soldiers began disarming and consolidating the MEK the following day. The experience stuck with me but I still had eleven more months and country so I essentially filed it away in my memory. The reason why I'm here today is because of the continuing violence in Iraq.
I've taught the rules of engagement countless times to soldiers before they go on missions, that for deploying, before patrols, before going on special assignments just to refresh them in one of the fundamentals that I like to start with is that you need to be able to identify your enemy. Intelligence is key to finding that enemy, the enemy that hits us with a roadside bomb or the enemy that essentially impedes our entire mission, trying to undermine any chance of stability and democracy to take root there in Iraq.
Next of course is identifying your allies. Over two years have past now since I met with the MEK but my question is still the same, why can't we take maximum use of the potential and assets of this ally here? Today they have been fully cooperative and shown us that they respect and honor agreements that they have entered into.
It's been two years now and as a soldier and a lawyer I believe it's time to change their designation as a terrorist organization. Before two years ago we can safely argue it is in all of our best interests to maintain this label even despite the Special Forces recommendations out of natural weariness. Two years have passed and I think it's crucial that we recognize that the situation has changed. The potential benefits of working together definitely overshadow previous concerns and hesitations that we had.
So the question that really remains is, how important is it for us to succeed in Iraq, to secure it as a democratic country? The soldiers are out there trying to make it happen every day. We can sit around here talking about what's best, but they are the ones out there risking their lives and I think it's our duty to do everything we can to help them succeed.