U.S. Military, Critics at Odds over 'Special Groups'

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In the ongoing conflict in Iraq, U.S. military commanders stress that their main enemies are the so-called "Special Groups," Shiite militants who receive training and equipment from Iran. U.S. officials say the special groups are loosely connected to the militia of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr. Critics, however, argue that the focus on special groups is part of a crafted political strategy that wholly exaggerates their role.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

U.S. military commanders in Iraq stress that their main enemies now are what they call special groups. They say these groups of Shiite militants receive training and equipment from Iran. The military believes they're loosely connected to the militia of Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr, but some Middle East analysts argue the U.S. military is deliberately exaggerating the role of these groups.

NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from Baghdad on how U.S. commanders and their critics view this category of Iraqi militants.

ERIC WESTERVELT: U.S. commanders here now say the biggest threat in Iraq has shifted from Sunni extremist to Shiite militants. The Sunni stronghold of (unintelligible), south of Baghdad, is part of what became infamous as the triangle of death. Major General Rick Lynch(ph) is the commander of the Third Infantry Division.

BLOCK: This was the worst, this was the place that was pure al-Qaida. Every time we built the police station it got destroyed, every time I flew in, we came under attack. This was nothing but rubble, this was a pure war zone - but it's constantly improving.

WESTERVELT: These days, General Lynch walks around the town without a bulletproof vest. The local Sunnis, he says, drove out al-Qaida in Iraq by forming American-funded self-defense forces called Sons of Iraq. Smoking a cigar in front of a newly opened town hall, General Lynch says the problem in his division's area today is Iranian trained and equipped special groups.

LYNCH: In a course of the last four weeks, we have come across 28 Shia extremists that were either trained in Iran, or they were trained by people from Iran here in Iraq. They told our interrogators that. So it's particularly troublesome. It is. It's Iranian influence on Shia extremists.

WESTERVELT: In addition to training, the military believes Iranian-linked special groups provide many of the armor-piercing roadside bombs known as explosively formed penetrators that continue to kill U.S. soldiers in Iraq. And then there are the new rockets raining down on Baghdad's Green Zone.

(SOUNDBITE OF BATTALION RADIO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All stations, it's battle stations...

WESTERVELT: At a makeshift American combat outpost in the Sadr city district, word comes over the battalion's radio that several 107-millimeter rockets have been launched at the Green Zone. The Americans respond with air power.

MAN: Be advised, that brigade will be engaging, they will be engaging a target with help fire. I'll copy over...

WESTERVELT: The militiamen who launched the rockets have fled, but an armed predator drone homes in on the launch site and the rocket tubes a dozen blocks north of the American position.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKET BOOMED)

WESTERVELT: So far this month, Shiite militants have launched nearly 30 rockets at the Green Zone. U.S. Colonel John Hork(ph) blames Iranian special groups. He commands the Fourth Infantry Division's Third Brigade, the American unit fighting in Sadr City.

BLOCK: The sophistication of the engineering of the rail systems that they have been using as well as the rockets themselves and the ability to have pretty good direction and aiming - we believe is a training that cannot be conducted internally inside Sadr City but has to be coming from a country that has a fairly sophisticated military background.

WESTERVELT: The military's use of the term special groups began to emerge about a year ago. In March of 2007, U.S. forces detained Khife Kasali(ph) and his brother Lief in Bazra. Also detained with them was Ali Mussad Abdu(ph), a Lebanese national believed linked to Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group. During interrogations by Americans, Khife Kassali claimed he was the Iraqi leader of Iranian-trained units in Moqtada al-Sadr's militia. Kassali said they aimed to emulate Hezbollah's structure, and the military says he referred to them as special groups.

BLOCK: This was his terminology, it was his characterization.

WESTERVELT: U.S. Army Major General Kevin Burdner says special groups, as described by Kaz Kasali, were created by Iranian commandos from the revolutionary guards al-Quds or Jerusalem force. The Quds force's main task is training and supporting Shiite paramilitary groups outside Iran. General Burdner says Kasali was clear about who was supporting the special groups.

BLOCK: They characterize them as such because the special groups were the ones that benefited most directly from the funding, the training, the equipping and the tactical guidance that they received from their Quds force network sources.

WESTERVELT: U.S. military commanders acknowledge that the link between special groups and Sadr's militia known as the (unintelligible) Madhi or Madhi army is murky and tenuous. General Burdner argues that these special groups are no longer under Sadr's full control.

BURDNER: These are individuals who may have been associated, certainly, had association and affiliation with the (unintelligible) al-Mahdi or other elements but have since operated outside the guidance of the Sadr trend.

WESTERVELT: Iran has consistently denied supporting Shiite militia or special groups in Iraq, but few independent analysts doubt that Iran had indeed trained and supplied some Shiite militants now operating here. However, to many the idea that there's a powerful splinter group that has abandoned Moqtada al-Sadr and become a tool of Iran simply doesn't hold up.

BURDNER: The whole idea of the special groups was essentially a creation of the U.S. military for its own political purpose.

WESTERVELT: Gareth Porter is a historian and Middle East analyst. He argues that the use of the term special groups is part of a psychological operations strategy so the military can pursue separate political and military tracks with Sadr's organization.

BLOCK: So what they did was to come up with this idea of special groups, which was the idea that there were both moderates and extremists in the Sadrist movement - the moderates wanting to cooperate with the United States, the extremists as supposedly having abandoned Sadr and become part of the Iranian special groups.

WESTERVELT: Porter and other analysts say the military's focus on special groups obscures the fact that the U.S. is currently entangled in an enormous internal power struggle within the majority Shiite community - between Sadr and the ruling U.S.-backed Shiite alliance. More broadly, they assert, the Bush administration is using the special groups designation to try to suggest that overcoming Iranian influence in Iraq is simply a matter of defeating one extremist breakaway faction.

BLOCK: When in fact you're up against a Mahdi army which is certainly tens of thousands strong. If that were to be acknowledged very straightforwardly, it would obviously be a political problem in trying to convince Congress and the public that this a doable proposition.

WESTERVELT: Moreover, the American fixation on special groups, Porter says, masks the reality that U.S.-backed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his political bloc have close ties to Iran that are in many ways deeper and more enduring than Sadr's links to the Islamic Republic. Mahdi army fighters themselves don't use the term special groups. One of Sadr's militia commanders in Baghdad known as Abu Mushtabap(ph) says he never heard of the term. The American and Iraqi armies, he says, are simply at war with us.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Baghdad.

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