U.S. Exacerbates Iraqi Civil War With Indiscriminate Commando Training

"Starting the month with a bang, the boys from Baghdad executed two baited ambushes … and further confirmed the [Emergency Response Unit's] ability to conduct operations with stealth and violence of action," writes an unofficial historian for the ERU, in Unit History of 1st Battalion, a report obtained by CorpWatch.

The "boys" that the report praises are members of one of dozens of elite Iraqi commandos units that function as a "third force" to augment the Iraqi police and army, both of which are widely considered to be failures. On this mission in early July 2005, the Emergency Response Unit, backed by the First Battalion of the Fifth Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army, had detained "anti-Iraqi forces" and intercepted roadside bombs.

Their tactics owed much to a secretive U.S. private contractor, U.S. Investigations Services (USIS), which conducted ERU trainings on U.S. military bases in Iraq -- including at Camp Dublin and Camp Solidarity. The trainings began under Gen. David Petreaus as an effort to bolster security in Iraq, and soon evolved into a system for providing support to the deeply sectarian Ministry of the Interior.

Beginning in May 2004, U.S. authorities contracted with USIS to create the first ERU. The nonsectarian force is supposed "to respond to national-level law enforcement emergencies. The four-week training runs recruits through SWAT-type emergency-response training focusing on terrorist incidents, kidnappings, hostage negotiations, explosive ordnance, high-risk searches, high-risk assets, weapons of mass destruction, and other national-level law enforcement emergencies" according to the Pentagon.

By April 2006, the ERUs had conducted 117 "close target reconnaissance" missions in Baghdad alone, completing 104 of them and capturing 236 "suspects," according to estimates by Lt. Col. Jeffrey Voss, military advisor in charge of the ERU program.

The ERUs are now officially controlled and paid by the Iraqi Ministry of Interior and are accompanied by U.S. trainers or soldiers throughout their training. But a high-level State Department report issued in 2005 explains that the Iraqi commandos were initially rejected by the very Ministry of the Interior that they were intended to support when they were created more than three years ago. Instead, U.S. officials and contractors controlled the ERUs, which became an unofficial Iraqi face to provide local cover for U.S. operations. With no support from the Iraqi government at the time, the ERU had to rely on USIS for salaries, thereby becoming a privately financed militia.

Michael John, a spokesperson for USIS, told CorpWatch that the company is still under contract with the Pentagon for ERU training, but says that the support is provided strictly as part of training. "We are in a training and not in an operational capacity. The National Police Support Team (NPST) operates under the jurisdiction of Iraq's Ministry of Interior and the U.S. Department of Defense."

Dozens of interviews conducted by CorpWatch with high-ranking military and government officials over the past 12 months suggest that even at the level of Petraeus' staff, few appeared to know the specific role and scope of ERU activity. What is clear is that the ERU is just one of at least six different U.S. "security" training programs worth over $20 billion that a variety of U.S. agencies have provided to the many factions in Iraq. (See accompanying boxes for examples of other programs.)

It is becoming increasingly clear that such training programs may be causing or at least exacerbating civil war. Part of the blame lies within the complex failures of the U.S. occupation and part with the loyalties and skills of the forces recruited into the myriad security training programs that are associated with different ministries and thus with different, and often rival, political factions.

"Of course, they are fucking things up," Robert Young Pelton, author of Licensed to Kill, Hired Guns in the War on Terror told CorpWatch. "Because the U.S. is arbitrarily putting weapons and power in the hands of those who choose to fight, rather than those who are in the moral right," explaining that few who sign up have any previous law enforcement credentials.

The third force

The fact that neither the Iraqi army nor the police were able to tackle the growing insurgency became glaringly obvious in April 2004 when violent uprisings exploded across the country. Iraqi soldiers assigned to fight in Fallujah fled the field. A group of Baghdad police, sent to assist U.S. soldiers battling the Mahdi army in Najaf at the same time, also refused to fight.

U.S. planners in Iraq were suddenly forced to admit that the country was on the verge of spreading insurrections and looming civil war. Officials at the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), headed by Paul Bremer, began earnest discussions about creating a "third force" of highly trained commando units that would be able to deal with hostage situations and unforeseen criminal or political violence. (In a monograph on the evolution of Iraq's security forces, Andrew Rathmell of the Rand Corp., a think tank closely affiliated with the Pentagon, defined the third force as "constabulary forces that lie somewhere between civilian police and armed forces.")

Senior U.S. advisors at the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, notably State Department official Steve Casteel, supported the creation of this third force. A former senior U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration official, Casteel previously helped train government forces in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia, where he was involved in the hunt for Pablo Escobar, head of the Medellin cocaine cartel.

Ministry of Interior advisors drew up plans for an emergency response unit consisting of three companies of 60 men each, plus a headquarters unit to do high-risk search, arrest, hostage rescue and crisis-response operations. Once trained, these units were to be integrated into the regular Iraqi Police Service. The advisors also planned similar elite units, Bureau of Dignitary Protection (BDP), to protect high-ranking Iraqi officials who were under threat of kidnapping. A total of 370 ERU and 395 BDU personnel were trained in the initial phase and deployed in counterinsurgency operations in Baghdad.

This early ERU training was conducted under a $64.5 million no-bid contract issued in May 2004(10) to U.S. Investigations Services (USIS), a former federal agency that  started out conducting background investigations for civil service personnel. At first, the CPA officials who controlled the purse strings of the Iraqi Ministry of Finance, used oil revenues to finance the contract. Today, the USIS contract, which has been renewed twice, is paid for with Pentagon (and thus U.S. taxpayer) funds. Most of the trainers are retired military personnel plus a few police officers and federal agents.

U.S. control was further enhanced by conducting the trainings at U.S. military bases. At Camp Dublin, near the Baghdad International Airport, new ERU recruits were expected to live alongside their USIS trainers. The four- to eight-week trainings took place at a special facility inside Dublin that was built on a bare plot of land by First Kuwaiti, a contractor that later won the bid to build the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

USIS also trains ERUs at Camp Solidarity (originally dubbed Camp Gunslinger) in the Sunni neighborhood of Aadhamiya.

Greg (not his real name) worked in a team of 45 USIS trainers based at Camp Dublin  to teach ERU recruits skills such as weapons use, close-quarter battle tactics, and forced entry into buildings through doors and windows. "We want to develop a unit of the Iraqi military that can take care of their own problems internally. It's not publicized a lot for whatever reason, but it is true that we are doing that," he told the Detroit Metro Times newspaper.

Once trained, the ERUs were quickly dispatched to "lead" counterinsurgency operations beside U.S. forces, often in combat zones. "They conduct their missions with us on the sidelines," Lt. Voss, the ERU program head, told The Advisor, a newspaper published by the U.S. military security training program in Baghdad.


U.S. Investigations Services traces its origins back to 1883 as a part of the federal government's Civil Service Commission (CSC). Tasked with checking backgrounds of prospective government employees, CSC evolved into the Investigations Service arm of the Office of Personnel Management. In 1996, the Clinton administration privatized this office, purportedly to save money, and sold it for $545 million to the Carlyle Group and the New York investment firm of Welsh, Carson, Anderson and Stowe. Ten years after the sale, USIS, a private company, has a near monopoly on "screening transactions," conducting some 20 million a year, roughly 90 percent of the total.

The contract to provide commando training in Iraq was a departure for USIS, which had no previous involvement in security training. And it was just the first of several government projects that USIS took over from federal agencies. In September 2006, USIS won a contract to provide the staffing for around-the-clock watch operations at towers erected by Boeing in the Arizona desert to monitor the Mexican border for the U.S. government. Its task is "to detect, identify, classify, and respond to and resolve illegal entry attempts at our land borders with Mexico and Canada." Although USIS will not take the place of the Border Patrol agents, who are federal employees, the Virginia-based company plays a role in the selection of agents through its contract to do background checks on them.

(See "Fencing the Border: Boeing's High-Tech Plan Falters.")

A year later, in July 2007, USIS won a contract to provide the data, software and analysts to track the estimated 550,000 "fugitive aliens" in the United States.

Disowned and criticized

USIS's ERU training program ran into problems from its first days in Iraq during the caretaker government of Ayad Allawi, who took charge in July 2004. Iraqi government officials refused to recognize the ERU graduates or to pay them salaries on a regular basis. This stance led to conflicts with U.S. government officials, who believed ERU trainees should be integrated into the police force, according to a critical July 2005 report from the inspector general of the U.S. State Department.

Rejected by Baghdad, the ERU became an adjunct of the U.S. military, relying on the U.S. Special Forces for operational intelligence. At one point, when the ERU salaries were five months in arrears, USIS started to pay its recruits a $75 monthly salary.

Another source of conflict between Baghdad and Washington centered around how to define the pool of potential trainees. The State Department report recommended that trainers should draw recruits from within the existing police force, in order to make the ERUs more palatable to the Iraqi government. When the first elected government took over in May 2005, al-Jafaari's administration agreed to integrate the ERU and BDP units into the Ministry of the Interior. However the training continued to be conducted separately from the regular police program contracted to Virginia-based DynCorp (see box).

The ERU initial training also came under fire for alleged human rights abuses. In the spring of 2005, Col. Ted Westhusing, a military ethics expert from Oklahoma who was in charge of the USIS contract, received an anonymous four-page letter accusing USIS of deliberately reducing the number of trainers to increase its profit margin. Westhusing was supervising the ERU program at the time. The letter, which was eventually released to Texas journalist Robert Bryce earlier this year under the Freedom of Information Act, detailed two incidents in which USIS contractors allegedly witnessed or participated in killing Iraqis during the assault on Fallujah in 2004. "ERU Mentors [USIS contractors] are conducting real world ops [operations]. They shot their weapons and killed Iraqis," wrote the whistle-blower. "(Name deleted) was telling me how many Iraqis he had killed until I told him to shut the hell up. I was appalled by this. I have talked to the Mentors and am told that if they don't go with the Iraqis, the Iraqis won't fight."

Worried that "it would put his contract at risk," an unnamed USIS manager did not report the accusations to the U.S. military supervisors, according to a November 2005 investigative article by T. Christian Miller in the Los Angeles Times.

On receipt of the letter, Westhusing reported the allegations to his superiors, but told them that he believed USIS was complying with the terms of its contract. U.S. officials investigated and found "no contractual violations" and "these allegations to be unfounded."

But over the next few months Westhusing became increasingly dissatisfied with the company. In June 2005, he attended a meeting in Iraq in which he angrily complained of "his dislike of the contractors, [who] were paid too much money by the government," according to Miller's sources.

Shortly after Westhusing had left the meeting, a USIS employee discovered the colonel lying on the floor in a trailer in a pool of blood, a single gunshot wound to the head. A note discovered by the body, in Westhusing's handwriting, pointed to suicide: "I cannot support a msn [mission] that leads to corruption, human rights abuse and liars. I am sullied," it says. "I came to serve honorably and feel dishonored. Death before being dishonored any more."

"Equipping Iraqis for civil war"

USIS training continues today under a new contract issued earlier this year, although few details have been made public. Occasionally the Pentagon's public affairs office publishes short descriptions of ERU missions. A July 21, 2007, press release, for example, describes one group, accompanied the previous day by U.S. military advisors, that "detained three suspected members of a rogue Jaysh al-Mahdi militia group." Also known as the Mahdi Army, the militia is led by the powerful and popular Shia leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, and is based in Sadr City, the poor Shia neighborhood in northwestern Baghdad.

Such raids are fraught with problems: The perception that the U.S. or the Iraqi government is backing raids on groups with popular support and parliamentary representation, such as the Mahdi Army, could fuel civil war.

Indeed some fear that U.S.-trained militias, rather than adding security, are already exacerbating sectarian strife. "We have been going about pumping out so many individuals with weapons, with uniforms, that my greatest fear is that in our effort to train and equip the Iraqi security forces, what we have been doing is equipping Iraqis for civil war," Matt Sherman, a civilian advisor to Iraq's Interior ministry, told Frontline.

"It is like raising a crocodile," Saad Yousef al-Muttalibi, told the Washington Times when asked about the various "third force" training schemes. The Al-Maliki cabinet member, who is in charge of negotiating reconciliation agreements, continued: "It is fine when it is a baby, but when it is big, you can't keep it in the house."

Others point out that these trainings are a throwback to colonial divide-and-conquer techniques. "The ERUs represent a return to not only the old Special Forces/CIA counterinsurgency model [fighting fire with fire], but the older British model of sepoys or local fighters paid strictly to bolster foreign forces with little if any concern about the local power balance. The same recipe was used in Afghanistan, Latin America and other proxy wars," Robert Young Pelton told CorpWatch.

This article was made possible by a generous grant from the Hurd Foundation. It is the third in a series on the failure of reconstruction in Iraq. The first article, on healthcare in Iraq, may be read here: http://www.corpwatch.org/article.php?id=14290, and the second, on oil metering, may be read at http://www.corpwatch.org/article.php?id=14427.


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