BAGHDAD, Iraq — The CIA has so far refused to hand over control of Iraq's intelligence service to the newly elected Iraqi government in a turf war that exposes serious doubts the Bush administration has over the ability of Iraqi leaders to fight the insurgency and worries about the new government's close ties to Iran.
The director of Iraq's secret police, a general who took part in a failed coup attempt against Saddam Hussein, was handpicked and funded by the U.S. government, and he still reports directly to the CIA, Iraqi politicians and intelligence officials in Baghdad said last week. Immediately after the elections in January, several Iraqi officials said, U.S. forces stashed the sensitive national intelligence archives of the past year inside American headquarters in Baghdad in order to keep them off-limits to the new government.
Iraqi leaders complain that the arrangement violates their sovereignty, freezes them out of the war on insurgents and could lead to the formation of a rival, Iraqi-led spy agency. American officials counter that the new leaders' connections to Iran have forced them to take measures that protect Iraq's secrets from the neighboring Tehran regime.
The dispute also highlights the failure of the Bush administration to establish a Western-leaning, secular government in Baghdad following the 2003 invasion.
The Iraqi intelligence service "is not working for the Iraqi government—it's working for the CIA," said Hadi al Ameri, an Iraqi lawmaker and commander of the Badr Brigade, formerly the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. SCIRI is the driving force behind the powerful Shiite coalition that swept the parliamentary elections.
"I prefer to call it the American Intelligence of Iraq, not the Iraqi Intelligence Service," al Ameri continued during an interview last week at his heavily guarded home in Baghdad. "If they insist on keeping it to themselves, we'll have to form another one."
Many of the Shiite Muslims now in power seem beholden to Iran for the neighboring regime's gifts of refuge and funding for their opposition parties during Saddam's reign. Handing the files to an Iran-friendly Baghdad administration would be tantamount to passing the intelligence to Tehran, said three U.S. officials in Washington, who all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss sensitive intelligence matters.
The CIA declined to comment on the record about the Iraqi intelligence agency or its files.
While the CIA hasn't ruled out handing over the agency, an administration official involved in Iraq policy confirmed that the U.S. government has strong concerns about releasing the classified archives to the new government. The main worry is that Iran could score an intelligence coup by learning what the United States knows about Tehran's covert operations in Iraq. The official said the United States has evidence of aggressive Iranian attempts to penetrate Iraqi intelligence via the two strongest Shiite parties: SCIRI and Dawa, the party led by Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
Senior members of those parties, however, suspect the real reason behind U.S. reluctance to hand over the archives is that Americans don't want them to know the extent of U.S.-led spying on the Shiite politicians Iraqis risked their lives to vote into office.
Laith Kubba, Jaafari's adviser and spokesman, said the prime minister wants to take on a bigger role in anti-terrorism efforts, but he's impaired by the lack of a reliable, skilled Iraqi police force and military. Kubba said it would take time for al-Jaafari to decide what he wants to do with the national intelligence service, but it's evident he doesn't want it to remain in American hands.
"The prime minister is very clear in his philosophy on governmental sovereignty and the will of the Iraqi people," Kubba said. "He knows all these institutions must be brought under Iraqi law and the Iraqi parliament ... But he's a realist and he is also aware that Iraq today faces a huge challenge with these attacks ... In the interim period, he has to make do with whatever he has at his disposal."
Right after Saddam's ouster, the U.S.-led coalition took the top intelligence agents from each of the main opposition parties and trained them in how to turn raw intelligence into targets that could be used in operations, said an Iraqi intelligence expert who participated in the program. He consented to an hour-long interview about the inner workings of Iraqi intelligence on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from Iraqi and U.S. forces for discussing classified information.
The Iraqi official said the CIA recruited agents from SCIRI, Dawa, the two main Kurdish factions, and two secular Arab parties: the Iraqi National Congress led by Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Accord led by Ayad Allawi, who later became the interim prime minister. This group, the prototype for an Iraqi intelligence group that represented Iraq's diversity, became CMAD: the Collection, Management and Analysis Directorate.
When the U.S.-led occupation authority ceded power to the semi-sovereign interim government last June, the official said, CMAD was split, with roughly half the agents going to the new interior ministry and the rest to work on military intelligence in the defense ministry. Both ministries' intelligence departments are led by Kurds, the most consistently U.S.-friendly group in Iraq, and report to the Iraqi prime minister.
But an elite corps of CMAD operatives was recruited into the third and most important Iraqi intelligence agency, the secret police force known by its Arabic name: the Mukhabarat. Its Iraqi director is Mohammed Abdullah Shahwani, a Sunni general whose three sons were executed by Saddam in retaliation for his involvement in a botched, CIA-backed coup attempt in the mid-1990s. Shahwani's top deputy in charge of daily operations is said to be a Kurd; Shiites are believed to comprise just 12 percent of the force.
Unlike the defense and interior ministries, there is no provision in the Iraqi government's budget for the secret police. The Mukhabarat's money comes straight from the CIA.
Several Shiite politicians in the new government want Shahwani out, saying the Mukhabarat's ranks are filled with Saddam's former officers seeking revenge against the Shiite militias they fought in the 1980s. The Iraqi intelligence official said agents have complained the ex-Baathists use the word "resistance" instead of "terrorists" when describing Sunni insurgents in internal memos, raising serious doubts about the agents' loyalties.
U.S. intelligence officers in Baghdad refused to comment on Iraq's secret police. Through his aides, Shahwani declined several written and phone requests for comment. The aides privately said Shahwani is firmly in place and that al-Jaafari doesn't have the power to remove him.
Even if the nascent Shiite government takes over national intelligence and removes Shahwani, there remains the problem of the missing archives. Without a history of joint U.S.-Iraqi intelligence efforts of the past year, the Iraqi intelligence expert said, al-Jaafari's government would be "starting from zero."
"It's not about the guy. It's about the set-up," the Iraqi official said. "It's about a whole department. If (the CIA has) conditions, OK, let's discuss conditions, what you're afraid of and we won't allow it to happen. You help us, we'll help you."
Al Ameri, the Badr Brigade commander, said the Bush administration's Iran "phobia" is unreasonable. Like it or not, he said, it's time for the Bush administration to accept the fact that Iraq's first democratically elected government comes with a longstanding friendship with the anti-American mullahs next door.
"We are now in the streets. We are the reality, the real thing," al Ameri said. "The Americans must realize this and get over their fears."
One of the Washington officials said Iraqi demands for complete sovereignty over its own government is a powerful argument, particularly since Washington has repeatedly promised such independence in the past. Turning over the intelligence portfolio is a risky—but seemingly inevitable—prospect.
"There's not an awful lot of strong arguments we can make" to exempt intelligence, the official said.
(Allam reported from Baghdad, Strobel from Washington. Knight Ridder correspondent John Walcott contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.