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Disputed Iraq Raids Blamed on Bad Intelligence

Two Sunni Arab political groups that were targeted in sweeps had been wrongly tied to insurgents, a U.S. military official says

June 10, 2005|Patrick J. McDonnell and Ashraf Khalil | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Erroneous U.S. raids targeting Sunni Arab political organizations were the result of bad intelligence mistakenly linking the groups to insurgent activity, a senior U.S. military official said Thursday.

Raids on the two Sunni offices last month inflamed sectarian tensions and sullied the U.S. image as the Bush administration and Iraqi officials try to reach out to the disenfranchised Sunni Arab minority, which forms the core of the insurgency.

The raids have also raised questions about the quality of U.S. intelligence in a fast-moving guerrilla war in which U.S. forces are regularly accused of sweeping up innocent Iraqis and acting on questionable or tainted evidence.

U.S. commanders have acknowledged that cultural, language and other barriers have impeded the gathering of accurate intelligence. Commanders must often rely on the word of Iraqis whose motivations are unclear. But U.S. authorities have said recently that the quality of intelligence was improving.

However, Sunni Arabs who say they reject violence charge that the U.S. military has allowed itself to be manipulated by unreliable informants who are deliberately planting misinformation. Some trusted sources may even be guerrilla moles who have gained the confidence of U.S. forces, critics say.

The raids have sown further distrust in an already alienated population, Sunni Arab leaders add, bolstering the perception that there is no room for them in the new Iraq.

"The main goal is to keep the Arab Sunnis far away from the political process," said Mishaan Jaburi, one of the few Sunni Arabs in Iraq's new parliament.

Sunni Arabs are demanding increased representation on the parliamentary committee working on a new constitution. No deal has yet been struck, officials said Thursday.

The senior U.S. military official, who spoke with reporters on condition of anonymity, described the mistaken raids as innocent missteps, not a conscious strategy to marginalize Sunni Arabs, who had been favored by Saddam Hussein's regime.

"We had bad intelligence. We made a mistake," said the official, speaking in the capital's Green Zone. "We believed we had good information. And we acted on that information."

However, the official said the raids were not a case of mistaken identity, as some earlier reports indicated. Rather, the suspects detained had been targeted -- wrongly, it turned out.

The senior official defended the overall quality of U.S. military intelligence.

"I would say mistakes were made and that we're confident of our intelligence information," the official said.

The official's comments provided the most detail on the raids from the U.S. side to date.

For the first time, the senior military official acknowledged that it was U.S. forces who on May 9, swooped down on the offices of the National Dialogue Council, a moderate Sunni group then involved in sensitive discussions with the transitional government dominated by rival Shiites and ethnic Kurds.

The council espouses engagement with the U.S.-backed government, a position at odds with the insurgency.

At the time of the raid, U.S. officials in Baghdad either denied that the incident was a U.S. operation or declined to comment on it.

But National Dialogue Council representatives insisted that uniformed U.S. soldiers arrested several council officials and guards and took them away in armored vehicles.

One detainee, Sheik Abdel Karim Janabi, a Sunni cleric who runs a religious school, said he was flown in a helicopter for nearly half an hour and told he was being taken to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, site of a U.S. detention facility that has become notorious in the Muslim world. He said he was stripped naked, photographed and questioned through a translator about purported insurgent connections and an Australian hostage being held in Iraq.

The senior U.S. official said that at the time of the raid he didn't know what the National Dialogue Council was. The group, formed in the aftermath of the Jan. 30 election, had frequently been mentioned in news accounts about the new government and had been the target of a heavily publicized car-bomb attack nine days before the U.S. raid.

The other major raid, in which a prominent moderate was arrested, has been widely reported. U.S. authorities had already labeled the May 30 operation a mistake and issued an apology after releasing Mohsen Abdel Hamid, who heads the Iraqi Islamic Party, three of his sons and several guards.

Hamid called the experience humiliating and said the "extremely aggressive" soldiers placed a hood over his head, a practice generally banned by the U.S. military here because of complaints that it was humiliating. Hamid said he too was taken away in a helicopter.

Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, a Shiite, was among those who condemned the arrest of Hamid.

The U.S. official said the military believed it had good information that weapons and insurgents were to be found in the home of Hamid, who sat on the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council and once acted as its president. Hamid is widely regarded as among Iraq's most moderate Sunni Arab voices.

"We went to Dr. Mohsen's home and apologized for the mistake," the U.S. military official said, recounting events after Hamid's release. "He accepted our apology and he recognized that mistakes will happen, especially in a place that's trying to grow a democracy."

The U.S. official said the matter was closed and no further investigation of the raids was warranted.

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