TIME: Exclusive: Iraqi Commander Says, "We Didn't Find a Mosque" (& reaction)

After a bloody raid against anti-U.S. militias in Baghdad, the war of words rages on

When is a mosque not a mosque? Under US military rules of engagement it's when it's used to house weapons, hostages and gunmen firing on American-backed Iraqi special forces. So it was in Sunday's explosive raid in a Baghdad quarter controlled by a Shi'ite, anti-American militia. Primed to bust up a vicious kidnapping cell linked to an insurgent group, Iraqi commandos and elite counterterrorism force members, with their US counterparts in a supporting role, swooped on a target building they insist was bristling with armed fighters. By the time they'd left a hostage had been rescued, 16 men were dead, three wounded, and 18 taken prisoner. But what followed took everyone by surprise.

In the 30 minutes it took the soldiers to drive back to their heavily-fortified compound their raid was in the spotlight, splashing across television with claims that the 16 men had been butchered as they gathered prayerfully in a mosque. Soon pictures showed bloodied bodies broken and prone over prayer mats, without a weapon in sight (US army photos showed the exact opposite; dead men, weapons draped, not a prayer mat to be seen). Any military success the men of the 1st and 2nd Battalions, 1st Iraqi Special Operations Forces Brigade had was quickly swamped by a political and propaganda firestorm.

While Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and a line of US generals hit the airwaves to deny the allegations and counter that the images had been staged, no-one had heard from the men on the ground who'd stormed the complex, nor from the man the world was being told had been freed. That is until today. In a palace complex deep within a US base the Iraqi commander who led the raid and the liberated hostage both spoke to TIME, giving their first public accounts of that day's fateful events and largely confirming the U.S. claims.

"We didn't find a mosque," says the Iraqi special forces commander, striking deep at the heart of the allegations against his men. "We only killed men who were armed and firing at us." Though the building has been through several incarnations in past years -- from political party branch under Saddam, to an office space to what is said to have been a school -- local leaders claim it is now a hussaniyah, a Shi'ite mosque, and should have had protected status.

The young officer says his men didn't find prayer mats or books or any of the usual elements of an Islamic house of worship. Instead, he says, they found the instruments of torture; drills, electrical wires, and other 'tools.' "It is a place used by a political party," he says, having sustained intense, unrelenting fire from houses facing the building on three sides as his men entered. "Other rooms were offices." Based on the evidence his men retrieved -- including weapons caches and bombmaking materials -- it's clear the site was used by an armed militia, he maintains, with some of its members linked to security forces, and others to a notorious kidnapping ring.

For the still-shaken hostage, a mouse of a man unable to look a western female television interviewer in the eyes nor shake her hand, there was no sense of a holy place. Grabbed at a Baghdad hospital while visiting a brother being treated for gunshot wounds, he said his captors initially told him they were intelligence officers from the Ministry of Interior, a department western officials privately claim is stacked with Iranian-backed militia forces.

They beat him in the car as they barreled off. When they arrived he was blindfolded and beaten some more, his pockets emptied, and a picture of his young daughter rifled from his wallet. "Who is this?" a captor quizzed. "This is my daughter," he says he replied, "Can I ask you a favour? Can I kiss that picture before you kill me?" The price for his release, he was warned, was $20,000 by morning -- or he would never see his daughter again. To drive home the point they lifted his blindfold just enough to let him see bare electrical wires, with a promise that's what awaited him come nightfall. "They said they would take drugs and begin torturing me, that they'd go crazy," he told TIME.

Twelve hours into his ordeal the attack on the hideout began. The man is currently hard of hearing, thanks to a gunman he could never see because of the blindfold who opened fire next to his head with a PKC machine gun. Once the firing close to him stopped he could tell the special forces had breached the perimeter. "I'm the guy kidnapped, I'm the guy kidnapped," he hollered. He was urged to come out, and a soldier put his hand on his shoulder. "We've come to rescue you," he was told.

The freed man, the marks of his bondage still on his wrists, tells the same story as his rescuers. "It's not a prayer place," he says. Well, who controlled it then, was it a militia? "I can't answer because I'm scared. It's not just me, all Iraqis are scared [of the militia]," he timidly replies.

If nothing else this incident, which has seized the public and political focus in Iraq, shows that in a war of perception reality is not always the clincher. Both sides continue to contradict each other; and though a number of investigations have been launched, evincing the truth may no longer matter quite so much as it should. As an American officer conceded, echoing many before over the past three years, in the propaganda game "the enemy information operations machine is very sophisticated, they're constantly beating us to the punch." An American soldier who advised on the scene during the raid pressed the same point. "We could have come out with our side straight away too, but first it has to go up the chain and then come back down," he says. Such a careful, drawn-out process, it seems, may be a luxury the military can ill afford.

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[This is a blog entry posted in response to the above article. I'm including it here because the writer -- whose bio reads "I've been an enlisted airborne infantryman, infantry platoon leader, cavalry scout platoon leader, infantry company commander, and mobile public affairs detachment commander. I served in Iraq in 2004..." -- has seen Mick in action and describes his respect for his work. --Cyn]

SUNDAY, APRIL 02, 2006

Fratricide - Why PAO's are taking friendly fire

An article on Time.com,
Iraqi Commander Says, 'We Didn't Find a Mosque' by Mick Ware provides good insight on why the U.S. is losing the war against insurgent and terrorist propaganda in Iraq. The last paragraph says it all: "We could have come out with our side straight away too, but first it has to go up the chain and then come back down," he says. Such a careful, drawn out process, it seems, may be a luxury the military can ill afford.

This comes just 45 days or so after Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld raked public affairs officers (PAO) over the coals for having a "nine to five" mentality in a 24 hour media cycle. His comments did not play well with PAOs, who have worked their behinds off all over the word to stay ahead of their media-cautious bosses and insurgent/terrorist propagandists. At a conference in Washington D.C., the Deputy Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Army, and Chief of Public Affairs all had to answer questions from PAOs about why the Secretary was calling them out. Not one gave a viable answer why. The reason: they know Rumsfeld says what's on his mind, and doesn't normally backtrack. And to my knowledge, he hasn't.

Leave it to Mick Ware to place the blame into proper perspective - it's with the chain of command, not the PAOs. Mick is arguably the smartest journalist operating in Iraq. He knows how the insurgents and terrorists think. I once watched him make a G2 [an Army intelligence officer assigned to a General] squirm with his spot-on analysis of what was going on in Mosul - before it was overrun by insurgents in November 04. He writes extraordinary stories about Soldiers in battle, some of the best, if not the best, written about U.S. Soldiers in battle. He'll be the first to ask tough, insightful questions. He's respectful, but not afraid to press the issue.

But Mick also tells it like it is, and he's right on in this case. If you are sitting here in America, all you heard about this "event" was how outraged the Iraqi government was, how this was slowing down the political process, and how American Special Forces Soldiers had shot up of this "mosque" as evidenced by their 5.6 shell casings. Coming out with an exclusive from Time 3-4 days AFTER you've already been drawn and quartered in the international press to get your side out is not the way to do business in Iraq. But somehow, somewhere, someone in the chain kept this story from getting out. No PAO in their right mind sat on this one, unless the SF community got in the way and botched this one, as they are apt to do when it comes to public affairs. It wouldn't take long for some PAO to put two and two together after the video started running on network TV and start to fire counter-battery.

The Information Operations "counter-battery" exercise is a tried and true method exercised by the 1st Infantry Division during Operation Iraqi Freedom II. In MG (ret.) John R.S. Batiste's excellent article "The Fight for Samarra: Full-Spectrum Operations in Modern Warfare," Batiste outlines how the 1st ID PAO and IO officer quickly attacked propaganda and unsubstantiated media reports. With this kind of support, the 1st ID PAO could quickly counter insurgent/terrorist propaganda with truthful information, without the bureaucracy of the chain of command. The PAO was "empowered" to do his job, and had the support of the staff to do so. With this kind of backing, working within the chain of command is not burdensome. Rather, it ensures everyone in the chain is on the same page.

We live in a media age where message deliverance is key. It must happen immediately and be seamless. The insurgents/terrorists know that in our flash minute society, their message of U.S. troops attacking a mosque was received, and the image burned in the mind of the viewer. By the time a coherent response was developed, and backed with the kind of facts that Mick Ware puts in his article, it's too late.

I recently spoke with a PAO who lamented the fact that when an prominent news organization wanted to get an Iraqi general of their program, the chain of command took so long to come to a decision that the outlet backed out. In the end, so did the Army. But the message was clear - it just wasn't important enough.

It seemed that in OIF III a conscious decision was made to cut division level PAOs out of the media business, and to refer all media calls to Iraq's JCCs. A good move no doubt - it put an Iraqi face/spokesperson out front. But it took the information initiative out of the hands of some outstanding PAOs, pushing them to the sidelines. It's time to get back out in front, and stay in front. It took too long to get the message out about the alleged mosque attack, giving the insurgents/terrorists ample time to concoct their own version, and get it out as truth. Let PAOs do their jobs. A BCT or battalion commander has incredible latitude on the battlefield. Our PAOs should have the same latitude to get their job done. They're qualified professionals, at the pinnacle of the career in the information fight.

It's great to hear from you Mick. From the "sickest PAO" in all Iraq, and on behalf of our PAOs on the front line, we thank you.