A Fool’s Errand: The ‘Force Strategic Engagement Cell’ Engages the Islamic Army of Iraq
The Sunday Telegraph profiled the co-chief of the ‘Force Strategic Engagement Cell’ (FSEC) Maj. Gen. Paul Newton yesterday. He’s the British general who has been tasked by Gen. David Petraeus to engage Sunni and Shiite militants in Iraq and to coax them into joining the political process. In the Telegraph report, an unnamed “senior official from the US state department” is identified as the other leading figure of the FSEC; this could be an Arabic-speaking CIA officer of Mediterranean heritage whose name Talisman Gate cannot reveal because it is uncertain whether he’s operating under diplomatic cover or not.
The team also includes two Iraqi-born Sunni advisors who live in the United Kingdom and an Egyptian translator.
The FSEC is touting its engagement of the Islamic Army of Iraq, a terrorist group responsible for thousands of murders, as its chief success. This is what Gen. Newton had to say:
In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, he insisted that such talks were necessary if the troop surge was to achieve any kind of lasting peace. “Do we talk to people with blood on their hands? I certainly hope so,” he said. “There is no point in us talking to people who haven’t.”
…The door is open to all except those who have carried out “atrocities”, such as beheadings and torture, although Gen. Newton admits that nobody asks too many questions.
Well, according to my reporting, the FSEC is clearly not asking too many questions—including any smart questions—of its interlocutors; they are talking to people who can no longer deliver a ceasefire (…one would assume that this is the goal behind these talks, right?) because they’ve already been smashed.
Gen. Newton— who’s been in Iraq since Gen. Graeme Lamb passed on the torch last June—is the media darling du jour, and he’s quoted extensively in today’s Washington Post on a story of why the Iraqi government is balking at the prospect of hiring the 70,000 Sunni militants that the Americans and the British have co-opted. In the Post’s report, Gen. Newton is identified as “the British counter-insurgency expert tapped by Petraeus to lead the effort”. Gen. Newton’s so-called ‘expertise’ derives from his stint as an officer involved in the reconciliation efforts that to put an end to the conflict in Northern Ireland, a sectarian war that claimed 3,500 lives over the span of three decades—a much milder affair than what had been going on in Iraq.
70,000? The best way to understand this number is to read through last week’s Guardian article about Abu al-Abed (…BTW, is he Brig. Gen. Hamza al-Zoba’i?); he started with 13 fighters, but when matters started going his way and the Americans began paying a stipend of $300 a month to whoever Abu al-Abed vouched for, then his band of fighters mushroomed to over six hundred men strong. There is no way to corroborate whether most or half or a few of these 70,000 were indeed “ex-militants” who’ve been successfully co-opted away from insurgent activity since it seems that much of this new venture is just another welfare scam—I’ll bet that thousands of those names already on the payroll are ‘ghosts’.
The FSEC claims to be working “in close partnership with the Iraqi government” and by that they mean National Security Adviser Mouwaffaq al-Ruba’i, who is widely perceived among the Iraqi political class as a long-time asset of British intelligence, so one’s got to wonder: who’s been yanking whose chain? When it comes to Diyala Province, the FSEC has been coordinating with another Da’awa Party official, Muayyad al-‘Ubeidi.
But let’s get back to Gen. Newton and to the Islamic Army of Iraq: the FSEC’s chief ‘envoy’ to the insurgents is a former Iraqi Air Force Maj. Gen. Abdel-Basit Ibrahim Yaseen al-Zoba’i, also known as ‘Abu Samad’.
‘Abu Samad’ has sold Gen. Newton and the FSEC on the notion that the Islamic Army of Iraq is divided into ‘moderate’ and ‘radical’ wings. The ‘moderate’ wing is represented by Lt. Gen. Ali Abid Mahmoud al-Luheibi (former commander of the Saddam Feddayeen, lives in Istanbul, and his brother Brig . Gen. Muhammad, ‘Abu Usama’, is identified by some as the military emir of the IAI) and Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz al-Falahi (a former Director General in Saddam’s intelligence service, the mukhaberat, who, like ‘Abu Samad’, currently resides in Damascus). This wing is allegedly dominant in most of Diyala Province and within Baghdad.
The ‘radical’ wing is represented by Lt. Gen. Tali’ Khalil Riheim al-Douri, a former Iraqi Army Corps commander accused of wide scale killings during the suppression of the 1991 uprising, who is also residing in Damascus. The radical wing is allegedly composed of the ‘ultra-Ba’athists’, who still keep a working relationship with Saddam’s former Vice-President Izzet al-Douri (he leads his own splinter wing of the Ba’ath Party), and the Salafists, or Islamic fundamentalists, within the IAI who have set the tone for the IAI's propaganda. Another leader of this wing is Maj. Gen. Khalil Ibrahim al-Douri who is believed to have brokered the Islamic Army’s alliance with Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda. Also involved but at a middling level are the two sons of Sunni MP Khalaf Al-Alayan, Muhammad and Muhanned.
The ‘moderate’ wing accuses the ‘radical’ wing of adopting al-Qaeda’s anti-Shiite rhetoric and of being responsible for most of the atrocities against civilians that were conducted by the Islamic Army.
However, it is not as if the ‘moderate’ wing was the pioneering element of the IAI that turned on al-Qaeda; in fact, it seems that the aforementioned Abu al-Abed was considered a Salafist member of the radical wing, as is Sheikh Abdel-Jabbar Abdel-Sattar al-Janabi and his son Brig. Gen. Ikram of the Dogemeh village in Diyala Province, whose allies were the targets of a recent al-Qaeda suicide bomber. Al-Janabi hid Izzet al-Douri for many months in his house after the Saddam regime fell.
‘Abu Samad’ is promising that he’ll be able to ‘turn’ two wild cards—important operational leaders for the IAI—from being ‘radicals’ over to the ‘moderate’ camp:
-Col. Watban Turki al-Rashid: former division commander of the Iraqi Army, and military commander of the IAI in Anbar Province and parts of Salahuddin Province. One of his aides (...could be Brig. Gen. Talal al-Mihimiddi) is currently leading the IAI’s clashes with al-Qaeda in the Jallam area near Samarra.
-Air Force Maj. Gen. Ra’ad Zaid al-Sa’adoun: military commander of the IAI in most of Diyala Province and a nephew of the sheikh of the Bani Zaid tribe there.
This all looks good on paper: fancy military titles and hard-core insurgents. But these ex-insurgents who’ve been forced to lay down or re-orient their arms are doing so not because they’re engaged in serious and sincere negotiations but rather because they’ve been defeated and they have a rabid al-Qaeda gnawing at their asses.
The reason they want to talk to you, Gen. Newton, is because you’re the only one gullible enough to do so. Everyone has realized that the Islamic Army has been defeated, and their only concern is how to stay alive now that their crazed ex-‘lovers’ in al-Qaeda are prowling for revenge; the IAI is short of funds and fighters, and they’re on the run. Setting ‘moderate’ and ‘radical’ wings against each other is a fool’s errand when both wings have already been clipped: this half-pigeon, half-eagle mutant won’t fly.
The IAI didn’t turn on al-Qaeda because they had a moral ‘awakening’; no, they turned on al-Qaeda because al-Qaeda turned on them by establishing the Islamic State of Iraq—a crazy, ill-timed venture that was doomed from the very beginning, and you would have know that had you been reading Talisman Gate!
These ex-officers are drowning men, and Gen. Newton is being so accommodating that instead of throwing them a rubber life preserver, he’s tossed in the keys to Queen Elizabeth’s Royal Yacht Britannia!
Instead of allowing them to starve for funds, the IAI, who claim to have killed hundreds of US soldiers, are being kept in business by US taxpayers. Thanks General Petraeus, oh bankroller of broken insurgents!
Iraqis still cling to the myth that the British are wily and clever conspirators, much smarter than those boneheaded and excitable Americans. Iraqis are still measuring up these officers that they’re meeting and talking to nowadays against the standards set by the British graduates of Empire who first came to Iraq in World War One and whose yellowed and archived intelligence and administrative reports from that period still reflect the fine training that they came equipped with. Not so with today’s crop, unfortunately the imperial sun had set and whatever grew in its dank and dark wake has come up anemic and stunted.
Talk all you want Gen. Newton and get tainted to your heart’s desire as you shake those blood-soaked hands, but the FSEC’s tea-times with killers will change nothing on the battlefield. Sure, the useful idiots of the media will glam you up as the ‘reconciler’, but you didn’t counter this insurgency and the historians will set that record straight.
[Disclaimer: what are presented as facts in this post, such as names and duties, are simply claims made by Iraqi sources that I have found to be very reliable in the past. Any corrections from knowledgeable people are welcome.]