Phantom Force

The terrorists trying to drive Iraq toward full-scale civil war have put sacred shrines at the top of their target list. So who, then, is protecting Iraq's most revered holy sites these days? The answer might tell us something about where real power lies in Iraq--or at least how it's divvied up by rival factions competing for power and authority. With that aim in mind, Iraqi reporters for NEWSWEEK set off last week to visit some of the country's most sacred sites. They didn't get far. At the first stop on their list--the 10th-century Kadhimiya shrine in Baghdad--two reporters were detained and questioned. The armed men who held them were from an obscure security force called the Facilities Protection Services, which now apparently numbers a staggering 146,000 men.

The visit began at about 11 a.m. on Wednesday. The two reporters, who do not want to be named for personal security reasons, first passed through a checkpoint manned by Iraqis clad in police uniforms. Each of the guards carried an AK-47 over his shoulder and a Glock 9mm pistol on his hip. Some wore body armor. They frisked the two reporters, who then proceeded through one of four towering gates that led to a marble courtyard. Inside the shrine's offices, the reporters sat down with Sayeed Abdul Zarrah, a Shia religious administrator. A brown-bearded man dressed in civilian clothes hovered nearby. When the reporters asked about who was guarding the site, the plainclothes guy stepped in. He told them all the armed men at the shrine were members of the FPS. Then one of his commanders entered the room.

First he demanded to listen to the recorded interview. "This is not journalism," he fumed. "This is intelligence research." He wore the blue shirt and dark trousers typically worn by the police, but with no badge on his arm. He told them he was a colonel in military intelligence under Saddam Hussein, and had "participated in training programs in countries like Egypt, so I have good experience in these things." More questions followed, punctuated by long waits as the commander left and re-entered the room. "I just want to know whom you work for," he insisted, ignoring the reporters' press cards and repeated statements that they worked for NEWSWEEK. Finally, the commander allowed them to leave. Two plainclothesmen followed them through the crowds of Kadhimiya market until the reporters jumped in a taxi and sped away.

The incident--part "Sopranos," part Keystone Cops--reveals the murky nature of security in Iraq these days. Iraqis don't know whom to trust. Men who say they are journalists could be insurgents. Yet people dressed as security officers could be just about anyone. Insurgents and militiamen have disguised themselves as soldiers, police and, probably, fighters from rival militia groups. Some security units are fronts for specific militia organizations, and it's widely believed that cops have banded together to form death squads.

Even as American officials trumpet 2006 as the "Year of the Police," a more problematic force with multiple agendas is emerging. The FPS, as it turns out, is a mutant security agency that has grown from a 4,000-man group of "night watchmen"--the description given to them last year by Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who is in charge of training all Iraqi security forces--into a large, amorphous force that seems to lack any centralized control. Not one ministry contacted by NEWSWEEK would accept overall responsibility for the FPS. The Americans don't oversee them either: "We really don't get anywhere near them," says Tim Keefe, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad.

Facility Protection cops are suspected of committing at least some of the sectarian killings that have plagued the country in recent months. "The FPS have the same uniforms, weapons and vehicles [as regular police], and they are not controlled by either the Ministry of Interior or Defense," Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabr told NEWSWEEK recently. "And they are doing some bad." According to Jabr, one element of FPS guards called Battalion 16 has been "involved in sectarian killings, explosions and mortar attacks." Jabr alleged that U.S. forces recently arrested "tens" of FPS members who had slaughtered "over 100 persons" in the Baghdad neighborhood of Doura.

Jabr and others say the FPS began as a force to protect public buildings and facilities. But as time passed, individual units became beholden to the institutions they protected. New ministers would bring in their own loyalists to fill the ranks of their FPS contingents and fund them separately. The forces then grew. Yet even the commander of FPS forces under the Ministry of Interior, Gen. Jalal Mohammed Ameen, says the FPS has gotten out of control. "Killers, thieves, people who claimed to be former officers became officers," he complained to NEWSWEEK. A U.S. official involved in political and military planning in Baghdad (who did not want to be named because he has to deal with Iraqi leaders) says, "The FPS has basically become a private army for the ministers. They have no accountability."

U.S. officials tell NEWSWEEK that the Ministry of Transportation, which is run by an openly anti-American ally of Moqtada al-Sadr, employs large numbers of FPS soldiers. Thousands of them have been issued AK-47s or pistols, and they wear the sky-blue shirts and blue trousers of the Iraqi police. The thousands of police vehicles that are available to the Transportation Ministry are now also available to the FPS--and perhaps to Sadr's militia.

Interior Minister Jabr says the FPS problem needs "radical solutions." He has suggested that the movement of security forces must be monitored, and he wants new forgery-proof badges to be issued. But U.S. officials--while conceding that the FPS is a big problem--also suspect that Jabr is trying to deflect blame from the misdeeds of his own ministry. "What you have now is no transparency," says Matthew Sherman, a U.S. official who advised four Iraqi ministers before he left the country late last year. The militias, he adds, "are slowly gaining control of the [state security] apparatus."

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