With U.S. forces set to go soon, Iraqi police stepping up

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 20, 2011 

BAGHDAD — The Iraqi police operation this fall that cracked the terrorist cell responsible for some of the worst attacks of 2010 was one of the most successful counter-terrorism efforts Iraq's young security forces have conducted, U.S. military officials say. It also gave new insight into the workings of the country's most feared terrorist group, the Islamic State of Iraq.

Iraqi investigators in late November captured the men who they suspect plotted an October assault on Our Lady of Salvation Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad, which left 58 people dead, as well as a stunning June raid on the heavily guarded central bank headquarters. While American troops provided some help, Iraqis led the investigation and arrests, suggesting substantial improvements in the forces on whom Iraq's future stability depends.

Police said the confessions of dozens of the militants who were arrested revealed fresh details about the Islamic State of Iraq, a regimented, media-savvy al Qaida affiliate that's fashioned itself as a quasi-state, complete with a "wali," or governor, in Baghdad, who was among those captured.

Though it's still capable of suicide bombings and spectacular massacres, the Sunni Muslim-led organization, which formed to challenge the legitimacy of Iraq's U.S.-backed elected government, has devolved into a criminal enterprise whose main ideology is self-promotion, according to Iraqi police.

For example, the wali, a fourth-year dental student with thinning hair and a hangdog expression, coldbloodedly told police that the goal of the church attack was to generate publicity.

The police operation and the overall decrease in violence in Iraq — last year saw the fewest deaths since 2003, the year of the U.S.-led invasion — may mean that the $24 billion that Congress has spent training and equipping Iraqi forces is finally paying dividends.

The timing is none too soon. U.S. forces provided aerial surveillance and help with forensics collection the night of the church attack and assisted in some of the arrests, but that help won't be available after next December, when U.S. forces are due to withdraw completely from Iraq.

"This has been an undertaking entirely driven by the Iraqi security forces, and it appears that they have done a very good job in rolling up individuals associated with the attack," said Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, the chief spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq.

In a four-hour news program that aired late last month on state-owned Iraqiya television, a senior Iraqi police official gave often-riveting details of the arrests of 56 terrorism suspects and the discovery of 19 militant hideouts that stored 25 vests rigged with explosives. Though rambling and disjointed at times, the program was a clever piece of public relations by the police, showing how investigators used old-fashioned detective work and capitalized on lucky breaks to track down a terrorist safe house, which broke open the case.

The plotters of the church attack, which occurred as worshippers had gathered for a Sunday evening Mass, told police they'd organized training sessions in hideouts close to their target and methodically selected their operatives, who moved brazenly through a busy commercial section of central Baghdad moments before the raid.

The news program about the police operation, dubbed "The Fist of Righteousness" by Iraqi police, had a plot worthy of a Hollywood thriller. In the show's dramatic culmination, one of the priests at the church confronted the plotters and asked: "How could those who entered here call us unbelievers?"

A ROUTINE TRAFFIC STOP

The program features Gen. Ahmed Abu Ragheef, the director of internal affairs and security in the Iraqi Interior Ministry, as he reconstructs the church attack and others, and offers previously unknown details about the investigation.

In his retelling, the operation was jump-started in mid-November, when police officers at a checkpoint routinely halted a Proton, a Malaysian-made sedan that witnesses had placed at the site of previous attacks. Police became suspicious when a passenger asked to use the restroom, and officers later found she'd destroyed documents and identity papers there.

A search of the car turned up CDs that contained videos of attacks by al Qaida in Iraq, and police took the driver and passenger into custody.

Interrogations and tips from other arrested suspects suggested that police had stumbled onto the personal chauffeur of the Baghdad leader of al Qaida in Iraq, known simply as the "wali," a 27-year-old whose name is Huthaifa Sattar al Battawi.

"We realized this is the beginning of a true path to the leadership of the terrorist organization," Abu Ragheef said on the program, "Iraqiya Exclusive."

Investigators moved quickly to set an ambush at the driver's house in the Dawoodi section of west Baghdad, a mixed neighborhood of Sunni and Shiite Muslim families. When they arrived in the predawn hours they found evidence that indicated they'd found the planners' safe house: a video of the attack and documents showing their preparations. Rather than stage a massive raid, they stayed inside the house and waited.

Within hours, two men showed up. After a young girl who was living at the house with her family identified them as suspects, police apprehended the two men. It wasn't clear whether the family members also were held as suspects.

Around midday, a third man arrived, who was more wary. He drew a pistol and shot at police, but they subdued him. The girl said he was called Abu Hussein, which police knew to be the nickname of the wali himself.

The cops had landed their big fish.

At police headquarters, investigators confronted Battawi and his comrades with a massive trove of evidence collected over seven months. Abu Ragheef, the police general, said the men confessed and began to cooperate.

The suspects led police to their hideouts, including a house in Qadissiyah, a formerly safe section of central Baghdad where the five suicide bombers had spent their final days before unleashing their assault on the church. The keeper of the safe house had installed a hidden camera at the entrance to monitor visitors and had buried weapons in the front garden.

The police found 19 hideouts altogether, and they uncovered a massive arsenal: explosives, pistols fitted with silencers, car bombs, dozens of Kalashnikovs and vests rigged with explosives.

The investigation quickly gathered pace, and police rounded up dozens more suspects, sometimes in raids that resulted in shootouts with gunmen wearing suicide vests.

GLIMPSE OF TERROR TACTICS

In the news program, Battawi didn't stop at his confession. He went on to offer unprecedented details of how his fighters were brought to Baghdad and prepared for jihad.

He explained that the plotters had recruited the five suicide bombers who participated in the church attack — including an Egyptian and some Syrians — from the volatile northern city of Mosul, close to Iraq's border with Syria. He said a weapons smuggler made the 290-mile journey between Baghdad and Mosul frequently, and evaded questioning at checkpoints by offering free rides to Iraqi military officers and soldiers, whose badges gave the driver and suicide bombers carte blanche along the way.

The weapons supplier instructed the militants to feign sleep or deafness so their non-Iraqi dialect wouldn't be detected.

Battawi said that the decision to target the large, whitewashed church building in Baghdad's central Karrada neighborhood was simple. Because it sits in a well-known section of town, surrounded by news media headquarters, it would create an instant media storm, he said.

"Most of what we need to accomplish our mission in such an operation is media attention," he said in a flat monotone.

More than a week before the attack, Battawi and his military aide, occasionally accompanied by two of the suicide bombers, began making reconnaissance trips to the area around the church. They determined that the roads that led to it were open during evening Mass and their cars could reach it.

The suicide bombers were trained to do without sleep, were given food and water to take inside the church and were equipped with three cell phones to communicate with the outside world. The plotters later said that the bombers wore the sleeveless vests that private security guards often use, to throw nearby guards off balance.

In a dramatic denouement to the program, police took the plotters, clad in orange jumpsuits, to the church and had them reconstruct the attack in front of church officials, investigating judges, prosecutors — and television cameras.

After Battawi and his two comrades entered the church, surrounded by Iraqi special forces, a priest who wasn't named asked in a quiet but angry voice, "I want to understand, if you say that Christians are people of the book, how could those who entered here call us unbelievers?"

The wali answered matter-of-factly.

"In all religions, the disagreeing are unbelievers," he said. "This is well-known."

"But this is not the truth," the priest said.

PUBLIC STILL SKEPTICAL

The five attackers stormed the church the evening of Oct. 31 and took some 120 worshippers hostage. When Iraqi soldiers tried to stage a rescue, a shootout ensued, and the suicide bombers detonated their explosives-rigged vests. When it was over, 58 people had been killed — including the five attackers — and blood stained the walls and ceilings of the church.

The assault, along with a series of other deadly incidents in Baghdad and Mosul, has prompted another exodus of Christians from Iraq. The U.N. refugee agency says that more than 1,000 Christian families have arrived in the northern Iraqi region of Kurdistan since November.

To be sure, Islamist militants continue to pose a deadly threat, and Iraqi police often are unable to protect themselves. On Tuesday, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowd of recruits outside a police station in Tikrit, about 100 miles north of Baghdad, killing some 60 people in the latest in a series of attacks on recruits. On Thursday, attackers killed more than 60 Shiite religious pilgrims in coordinated suicide attacks at the entrances to the sacred city of Karbala.

"They've demonstrated resiliency to regroup after senior leaders have been captured or killed," said Buchanan, the U.S. military spokesman. "But each arrest helps keep them in disarray and diminishes their capabilities."

It's unclear when the accused will face a trial, but if they're convicted they could face the death penalty.

The Iraqiya broadcast was widely watched, and it triggered a debate over police tactics and the sources of Iraq's ongoing violence. Haider Abdul Satar, 38, the owner of an electrical supplies shop not far from the church, cheered the investigation.

"It made us feel that we are not the only ones that are being hit, that they are getting it back," he said.

But a man sitting nearby, who'd just returned to Baghdad after searching in vain for a brother who'd been kidnapped, took a dim view of the police's public relations campaign.

"I don't want them showing me on TV. I want to see that law is enforced on the ground," said Ahmed Shiaa, 32. "I want to see peace and law in my country, not them on TV talking about it."

(Dulaimy is a special correspondent.) MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

Death toll rises to 58 in Iraqi church attack

For Christians in Iraq, a Christmas of mourning and fear

In Egypt, a film sparks debate about sexual harassment

For more news from the Middle East, visit McClatchy's blog Middle East Diary.

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