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A Sectarian Spy Duel In Baghdad

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON -- Iraq's internal conflict is on the verge of claiming a new victim -- the country's fledging intelligence service. Pressure to abolish the spy agency is coming from pro-Iranian Shiite politicians who have created a rival organization.

The duel between the Iraqi spy agencies is one more sign of the sectarian rage that is destroying the country, as in Wednesday's macabre repeat bombing of the Samarra mosque revered by Shiites. Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's Shiite prime minister, is said to vacillate between supporting the official spy service and its Iranian-backed challenger. U.S. officials, who strongly back the official service, are upset about the bickering but seem unable to resolve it.

The official Iraqi National Intelligence Service, or INIS, was established in February 2004 as a nonsectarian force that would recruit its officers and agents from all of Iraq's religious communities. Its chief, Gen. Mohammed Shahwani, is a Sunni from Mosul. He is married to a Shiite and his deputy is a Kurd. Shahwani, a commander of Iraqi special forces during the Iran-Iraq War, has worked closely with the CIA for more than a decade -- first in trying to topple Saddam Hussein, then in trying to build an effective intelligence organization.

The rival spy agency, called the "Ministry of Security," was created last year under the direction of Sheerwan al-Waeli. He is a former colonel in the Iraqi army who served in Nasiriyah under the old regime. He is said to have received training in Iran and to maintain regular liaison with Iranian and Syrian intelligence officers in Baghdad. His service, like Shahwani's organization, has about 5,000 officers.

Shahwani is now in the United States. Unless he receives ssurances of support from Maliki's government, he is likely to resign, which would plunge the INIS into turmoil and could bring its collapse.

The CIA had hoped that Shahwani's INIS could be an effective national force and a deterrent to Iranian meddling. To mount effective operations against the Iranians, Shahwani recruited the chief of the Iran branch of the Saddam-era Mukhabarat. That made the Iranians and their Shiite allies nervous.

Shahwani's operatives discovered in 2004 that the Iranians had a hit list, drawn from an old Ministry of Defense payroll document that identified the names and home addresses of senior officers who served under the former regime. Shahwani himself was among those targeted for assassination by the Iranians. To date, about 140 officers in the INIS have been killed.

Though many in Maliki's government regard Shahwani with suspicion, his supporters say he has tried to remain independent of the sectarian battles in Iraq. He has provided intelligence that has led to the capture of several senior al-Qaeda operatives, according to U.S. sources, as well as regular intelligence about the Sunni insurgency. Several months ago, Shahwani informed Maliki of an assassination plot by a bodyguard who secretly worked for Shiite militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr. Shahwani's service uncovered a similar plot to assassinate Iraq's deputy prime minister, Barham Salih, a Kurd.

Shahwani's saga illustrates a little-understood part of the Iraq story -- the CIA's attempt to mobilize Iraqi officers. At the center was Shahwani, a charismatic commander who made his reputation in 1984 with a helicopter assault on Iranian troops atop a mountain in Iraqi Kurdistan. His popularity made him dangerous to Saddam, and he was arrested and interrogated in 1989. He fled the country in May 1990, just before Iraq invaded Kuwait. In 1991, he began efforts to organize a military coup utilizing former members of the special forces, which had been disbanded by Saddam.

Shahwani's coup plans suffered a setback in June 1996, when the Mukhabarat killed 85 of his operatives, including three of his sons. But he continued plotting over the next seven years, and on the eve of the American invasion in March 2003, Shahwani and his CIA supporters were still hoping to organize an uprising among the Iraqi military. Shahwani's secret Iraqi network was known as "77 Alpha," and later as "the Scorpions."

The Pentagon was wary of the Iraqi uprising plan, so it was shelved, but Shahwani encouraged his network in the Iraqi military not to fight -- in the expectation that the soldiers would be well treated after the American victory. Then came the disastrous decision in May 2003 by Jerry Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority to disband the Iraqi military and cut off its pay. The rest, as they say, is history.

Instead of the one good intelligence service it needs, Iraq today has two -- one pro-Iranian, the other anti-Iranian. That's a measure of where the country is: caught between feuding sects and feuding neighbors, with a superpower ally that can't seem to help its friends or stop its enemies.

davidignatius@washpost.com

(c) 2007, Washington Post Writers Group


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