Ignatius on Shahwani and Iranian Influence in Iraq
David Ignatius published a column in the Washington Post today under the title ‘Behind the Carnage in Baghdad’. It is so rife with disinformation and error that one is at a loss as to where to begin.
The premise of the column is that Gen. Mohammed Abdullah al-Shahwani, who was appointed by Amb. Jerry Bremer as head of the newly resurrected Iraqi National Intelligence Service (INIS) in 2003 while the Coalition Provisional Authority was still in place and who has recently submitted his resignation, was one of the last remaining bulwarks against Iranian hegemony in Iraq and that his absence from power is a grave setback for Iraq’s sovereignty. Missing from Ignatius’ narrative is the fact that Shahwani’s contract expired in May 2009; the CPA had included him among several security and financial officials who were guaranteed a five year contract to stay in their positions when sovereignty was handed over in 2004, and these appointments could only be annulled by a parliamentary majority.
Also missing from the narrative is that the dismantling of anti-Iranian intelligence bulwarks in Iraq was the doing of the Americans. First reported in a column here, the intelligence unit whose job it was to monitor Iranian movements inside Iraq and to conduct counter-espionage operations inside Iran and elsewhere against Iranian interests was disbanded in November 2008 by a decision taken by the Central Intelligence Agency. The unit was established even before the new INIS was cobbled together under Shahwani, and consisted of 25 former Iraqi intelligence officers with experience on Iranian issues, who were paired up with a like-number of CIA officers. The unit never grew beyond this size and was housed in a building separate (but adjacent) to the new INIS headquarters. Shahwani had absolutely no jurisdiction over this unit and was barred from reviewing its product. Whatever anti-Iranian successes can be attributed to this unit have nothing to do with Shahwani’s tenure as head of the INIS; it was fully independent and secretive, and the decision to dismantle it was not one taken by the Iraqi government.
This information hasn’t been reported on previously, and no reporters have looked into it.
Furthermore, the leadership and rank and file of the chief Iranian terrorist outfit in Iraq, the so-called ‘League of the Righteous’, are now being released as part of a deal brokered by the Americans and the Brits. Again, this decision had very little input from the Iraqi government.
Shahwani, a native of Mosul with Afghan heritage, was a former pilot with the Iraqi Army who had very little background in intelligence work. His 1996 coup attempt in conjunction with the CIA, as reviewed in the documents of Saddam’s mukhaberat of which I have copies and had a hand in locating, reads like amateur hour. As his conduit to fellow conspirators in Baghdad, he chose an Egyptian national of dubious mental stability who went off and volunteered his services to Saddam’s spies after Shahwani recruited him. Tens of officers, including Shahwani’s three sons, were executed because of this foolish mistake. The 1996 fiasco should have gone down in history as one of the agency biggest f*ck-ups, but the CIA found no one more qualified to appoint as nominal figurehead of the INIS than Shahwani in 2003. Shahwani had left the Iraqi military in 1984 and left Iraq in 1990. From 2003 through to 2007, the CIA provided the annual budget of the INIS, which peaked at 80 million dollars a year.
Even when supposedly running the new IIS, Shahwani was mostly on leave for treatment in Amman, Jordan. Day to day management of the IIS was left to his chief aide, Zuheir al-Ghreibawi (identified as Zuheir Fadel in the Ignatius piece), another former pilot that Shahwani had recruited and likewise lacking in an intelligence background. In recent years, Ghreibawi has ingratiated himself with Maliki in order to secure Shahwani’s job when the latter’s contract was up. It is still far from certain that Ghreibawi will get the top job. Other serious contenders are Nouri al-Badran (estranged brother-in-law to Ayad Allawi and former Minister of Interior), Qasim Daoud (Gulf-backed MP who is now part of the new UIA), Najib al-Salihi (former Iraqi officer and opposition figure), Gen. Abdel-Aziz al-Kubaisi (current head of personnel at the Ministry of Defense) and Gen. Farouq al-Araji (Maliki’s chief military advisor). Maliki has discussed these names, and none of them can be pegged as Iranian acolytes.
Shahwani was primarily useful for the CIA in conducting political black-ops and rumor campaigns against Iraqi politicians that the agency found to be a nuisance. Shahwani was sighted arriving in London a couple of days ago, and at this time may be back in the US where his family resides.
As for the threats against the officers of the INIS, which number 2,400 and not 6,000as Ignatius claims, some are really emanating from Iran but most of the hits they have gotten came from the jihadists or from internal score-settling, as certain networks of the INIS got involved in organized crime cartels. The cases involving Ayad al-Ubeidi, Rejeb al-Mashhadani and Amer al-Hashimi (VP Tareq al-Hashimi’s brother) come to mind.
As for the claim that Maliki travels around in an Iranian jet with an Iranian crew, attributed by Ignatius to an “Iraqi intelligence source who is close to Shahwani,” well, that is blatantly untrue and can be easily checked. The source also claims the Iranians promised Maliki a near-parliamentary majority, which can only be chalked up to bombast.
There is Iranian influence in Iraq, just as there are U.S. and other regional actors who have a say. But over-stating Iranian influence is an exercise in malicious myth-making, geared towards papering over mistakes, policy failures and casting doubt on Iraq’s sovereignty, a thing that many of Iraq’s Sunni neighbors, with close ties to the CIA, would like to underline for a variety of purposes. I’d like Iraq to be completely devoid of regional influence, but that is a fantasy at this stage. Truth is, the general trajectory of foreign influence in Iraq in on the wane, which is great. Hey, I’ve always argued that the reverse should be true: a democratic Iraq should be actively meddling, through its security agencies, in the internal affairs of its neighbors, empowering dissidents and doing, y’know, other stuff. Let’s see what the future has in store in this regard; I’m optimistic that it will happen.
In the vein of myth-making, the same source tells Ignatius that, in five years, “Iraq will be a colony of Iran” absent American help. But only briefly, for the Martian landing is expected soon that will put an end to the human species.
Mr. Ignatius is sourced-up at Langley, and it may be a stretch, as some claim, that he has been used by the agency for its own myth-making purposes over the years. Be that as it is, Ignatius should call up his sources and ask them why was the anti-Iran unit shut down in November 2008? Did that count as the absence of “American help”? The CIA spin would likely be another round of “Iranian influence” and that would be yet another serving of hogwash: Maliki never envisioned having the authority to shut down the outfit. In 2007, when he toured the INIS building, he was only allowed to see the first three floors and barred from touring the rest of the facility. Even Shahwani wasn’t allowed to set foot in the anti-Iran unit building. That team was seen as untouchable, even though the paramilitary arm associated with the unit, the so-called ‘Dirty Brigade’ then under Gen. Fadhel Jamil Barwari, was involved in all sorts of ‘extracurricular’ crime and political score-settling against Iraqi politicians and was the subject of angry recriminations (Note: the ‘Dirty Brigade’ is now under Maliki’s control). But no one dared to go after the unit, and everyone was surprised when the Americans suddenly pulled the plug on it.
Irrespective of the excesses of the INIS, I liked the idea that Iraq had a bad-ass unit dedicated to stamping down on Iranian toes. But it was an American decision to disable it, not an Iraqi one. I’d like to hear some answers that attempt to make sense of that stupid decision. Getting those answers, rather than splattering spin across the WaPo’s editorial pages, should be the job of someone like Mr. Ignatius.