US shows concern over Iraq's mass arrest of Al Qaeda-linked suspects

The US military has raised its concerns with senior Iraqi officials about why US forces were not consulted on an operation to arrest 38 suspected members of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), an Al Qaeda affiliate.

Saad Shalash/Reuters
Detainees are displayed for the media during a news conference by Iraq's Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani in Baghdad, Dec. 2. Iraqi security forces arrested 38 al Qaeda militants in raids over the last five weeks, but the US is concerned about not being consulted on the operation.

The US military says it is concerned by a lack of coordination in the high-profile arrests of Islamic State of Iraq suspects by the Iraqi Interior Ministry, which has called the operation a major blow against the Al Qaeda-linked group.

On Thursday, Interior Minister Jawad Bolani and top Iraqi generals paraded 38 suspects they said included some of the senior leaders of the Al Qaeda affiliate.

In the news conference carried live on state-run television, a man said to be the long-sought senior leader of the group was brought in wearing a black hood, which was whipped off to show his face to the cameras.

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The US military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, said Iraqi security forces who carried out the arrests had not notified their US counterparts about the major operation against suspects sought by both the United States and Iraq.

“These were unilateral Iraqi operations, and so there’s goodness in that. There’s also some concern,” Buchanan told the Monitor in an interview Saturday.

He said although the operations showed Iraqi special forces were tapping intelligence sources and conducting raids without US help, the lack of coordination could be detrimental and potentially dangerous to security forces unaware their counterparts were running parallel operations against the same suspects.

"We’re going to great lengths to ensure that we’re sharing all information and expecting them to be doing the same sort of thing,” says Buchanan. “If we’re working on the same set of targets, and we have a different agency on it, and we haven’t coordinated, we could be working [at] cross purposes. So, at a minimum in a case like that, it would be a waste of resources.”

Why wasn't the US consulted?

He said the US had raised its concerns with senior Iraqi officials about why US forces were not consulted on the operation, which would have required extensive planning as well as validated warrants for the arrests.

A US Special Forces official briefing Western reporters recently said his forces had not been told by their Iraqi counterparts of a previous round of arrests of suspects in an Oct. 31 church attack in Baghdad.

Apart from the issue of lack of coordination, the lack of access has made it difficult for US forces to verify the identity of the suspects, whom the Iraqi interior minister called for to be quickly executed without making clear that they should be tried first.

Mr. Bolani is in the cabinet of the outgoing government. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is in the process of forming a new government and has not yet announced whether Bolani will get a post.

No US intelligence assets used?

Despite the Iraqi reliance on US intelligence and surveillance capability, Buchanan said the recent arrests appear not to have included any US intelligence or assets.

Another US Special Forces adviser briefing reporters said regulations that came into effect at the beginning of last year requiring evidence-based warrants for counterterrorism operations had had a "dampening effect" on the number of operations Iraqi forces were conducting. Counterterrorism forces had previously been allowed to arrest suspects based on unverified statements from informants.

Buchanan said the US did not yet know whether those arrested were indeed senior leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq, which has claimed responsibility for the deadliest attacks in Baghdad.

“I think you’ve got to be very, very cautious [about] leaping too far ahead for conclusions that if you arrested a bunch of guys, even if you got exactly all the right people, that this means the end of Al Qaeda or this means the end of ISI or the end of terrorism [as] we know it in whatever part of Baghdad…. One thing that we have learned over the years is that these organizations have had an ability to be very resilient, and even when they are degraded they have had an ability to come back.”

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