Cracking An Insurgent Cell
Finding--and breaking--the ruthless killers of Iraq is not a pretty business. An exclusive inside look at how it's done
OSUL, IRAQ--It is 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, December 10, five days before Iraq's national elections. A red four-door sedan carrying four men cruises through the western half of this freewheeling oil town. The old beater of a car doesn't attract any particular attention before the driver, an 18-year-old called Nashwan, pulls over near a gaggle of campaign workers hanging political posters. A man known as Abu Mahmoud steps out of the car. He draws a handgun. Two other men with guns follow quickly. The campaign workers step back, then begin shouting angrily. Abu Mahmoud points his gun at one of the workers. He fires. The man falls to the ground, dead.
A hundred feet in the air, atop a mosque's minaret, an Iraqi police sniper hears the shots. The sniper draws a bead on one of the gunmen. He pulls the trigger, his bullet dropping the man to the ground. The gunfire alerts the police officers inside Four West, one of Mosul's heavily fortified police stations. They race to the scene. Abu Mahmoud hustles his men back into the car, and it takes off. But the streets are jammed, and Nashwan is forced to stop. Abu Mahmoud and a man called Adel jump out of the car and vanish into the crowd. For some reason, Nashwan does not run. The man shot by the sniper is taken to Mosul's main hospital. The police apprehend Nashwan and bring him to Four West.
Mosul is Iraq's second- or third-largest city, depending on who's counting. It is populated predominantly by Kurds and Sunni Arabs, with the west side almost entirely Sunni. A little more than a year ago, the police force in Mosul collapsed in the face of an insurgent uprising. Dozens of police officers were killed. The rest of the force quit. In the months that followed, the American battalions then overseeing the city struggled to regain control, drive off the insurgents, bring in stronger Iraqi Army units, and build an entirely new police force. More recently, since the latest American battalions arrived four months ago, the violence has begun to subside. But insurgent cells still operate here. Attacks against American forces by improvised explosive devices occur daily. Suicide bombers remain a threat, and gunmen roam the city looking for Iraqi security forces and American soldiers to pick off at random.
Barely two hours after the assassination of the campaign worker, Maj. Jonathan Fox, a 43-year-old officer with the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, the American unit that oversees security operations in western Mosul, arrives at Four West to meet with the police station chief, Col. Eid al-Jabouri, about the attack. Nashwan, says al-Jabouri, has started talking to the Iraqi police. The police interrogator's questions focus on the afternoon attack. Nashwan confesses to having driven the getaway car, but he insists he did not shoot the party member.
What catches Fox's attention, though, is an admission by Nashwan that, six weeks earlier, he had joined an insurgent cell called the Mujahideen Army. The cell members, Nashwan tells the police, have been bringing explosives to Mosul in order to make roadside bombs to attack American patrols. Nashwan's capture, Fox believes, could be critical, an important opportunity to crack open and eliminate an insurgent cell. If the Iraqis and Americans act quickly, they may be able not just to find the triggerman in the attack on the campaign workers but to cut off a key source of the roadside munitions maiming and killing American troops. Fox tells al-Jabouri he will return with his interrogation team. Before leaving, however, he asks if Nashwan has been roughed up by his Iraqi interrogators. "A little," says al-Jabouri. The answer will severely complicate the rest of Fox's week.
The next morning, as an American interrogator questions Nashwan in an office at Four West, Fox approaches the steel bars of the station's holding cell. With a ruddy face and a wad of tobacco jammed behind his lip, Fox is a guy who just can't sit still. The police have captured another suspect in the shooting attack on the poll workers. He goes by the name Adel and sits disconsolately on the cell floor, his foot wrapped in a filthy bandage. Fox begins questioning him: "Are you attacking Americans?" Fox's interpreter, Mushtag Alleathe, who goes by the nickname "Mitch," translates.
"Yes," Adel responds, "I kill Americans."
"Why?" Fox asks.
Adel stands up and walks to the bars of his cell. "Because you attack Iraq."
"We are in Iraq to make it a free country," Fox says. Adel glares. "What is your end state?" Fox asks.
"Let America leave," Adel says, "and I will solve the problems of Iraq."
"If you keep fighting," Fox responds, "we will kill you, and we will stay longer."
"I will kill you," Adel says defiantly.
"If you want to fight, let's fight one on one, mano a mano ," Fox replies.
As Alleathe translates, 1st Lt. David Musick steps up, eases Fox back, and pushes forward a sergeant, one of the battalion interrogators. Musick respects Fox but thinks interrogation should be left to the professionals.
On the move. Major Fox, known in military parlance as the S-3, serves as the operations officer and a planner for the 1-17 battalion. But he hates being behind a computer or conference table and so spends much of his day driving around Mosul, checking on the Iraqi police and Army units. His admirers call him the Arctic Fox--a nod to his wily thinking and the fact that the battalion is based in Alaska. His detractors refer to him as the Arctic Squirrel--because of his habit of dashing hither and yon on impromptu missions.
Still, Fox has a clear perception of the larger mission for his battalion--and that of all the American forces in Iraq: getting rid of insurgents by building the effectiveness of the Iraqi Army and police. The 1-17 battalion's senior officers all share that vision. But they are divided on how best to achieve the goal. The battalion's top leaders, the commander and the executive officer, are by-the-book soldiers who believe that bending the rules could cause the American Army to lose its way in Iraq. Fox, on the other hand, is a get-it-done guy. He began his career invading Grenada as an enlisted grunt. And today, he is the kind of officer who chafes at rules when they seem to stand in the way of taking down a terrorist cell. Although he believes America must teach Iraqis, he also believes in letting the Iraqis carry out missions in their own way.
It is an important debate about the way ahead in Iraq. How should America balance winning the war against the insurgency with maintaining its image and values? And how should American soldiers balance letting the indigenous police and Army do things their way while making sure they comply with western standards? These are questions the military has not faced since Vietnam. The arguments in the 1-17 battalion also show how the American mistreatment of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison--and fear of another scandal--continue to loom over everything the military does, further complicating a mission rich in complication.
In the courtyard of Four West, Fox and Musick begin talking about whether they should take the detainees from the police. "If it is a high-value guy," Fox says, "I will gladly grab him." But the Americans must consider whether there is really enough evidence to hold the detainees. If the evidence doesn't meet American standards, military lawyers will release the detainees--angering the Iraqi forces who originally captured them. The American interrogators come up to Fox. The detainees know more than they have told the police, says a sergeant. The police are not pressing for names of the insurgent cell's members or the location of the group's weapons. Fox steps into al-Jabouri's office. "We want to take these guys," he says. Al-Jabouri looks reluctant, but finally he agrees to let Fox pick up the prisoners, at 8 p.m.
Custody. There is a problem, though. The American military's regulations say that an Army unit can hold and question a detainee for only three days before he must go to a regional detention center, since battalion jails are not meant to be long-term holding facilities. After 2 1/2 years of occupation, many insurgents know the policy--and so keep their mouths shut while getting the "three hots and a cot" provided by the Americans.
This time, however, Fox thinks he can get around the rule. A little after 8 p.m., Fox arrives at western Mosul's main police detention facility, the One West police station, to pick up the two detainees. Some of the officers are reluctant to let the Americans take the prisoners, but Fox heads over to the jail to see Col. Abed Hamid Hassan, the Iraqi Police Department's intelligence officer. A few minutes later, Fox returns with Nashwan and Adel. They look nervous as their wrists and ankles are cuffed together and they're led off to one of the battalion's Stryker armored vehicles.
But Fox has no intention of actually taking custody of the two detainees. Rather, his plan is to turn them over to a man waiting in the courtyard: Maj. Sabah Majeed, the intelligence officer for the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Brigade of the Iraqi Army 2nd Division--and a former interrogator in Saddam Hussein's army. Fox has been coy with the police about this because there is a good deal of bad blood between the police and the Iraqi Army in Mosul, as is the case throughout most of the country.
For the past year, Iraqi Army units have received intense training in Mosul. American Special Forces units have drilled Iraqi Army companies on tactics. Military training teams have focused on teaching Iraqi staff officers mission planning. And the infantry battalions in Mosul conduct joint operations daily. The strong interest and focus have made the Iraqi Army units in Mosul quite effective. On raids the Iraqi soldiers often still swarm the buildings, rather than moving deliberately like an American infantry squad, but they know how to hunt insurgents.
The police have received far less training. Many of the American patrol leaders in western Mosul believe the police commanders in their neighborhoods are corrupt. And both the Americans and the Iraqi Army fear the police force could collapse again if challenged by insurgents. For their part, the police complain that the Iraqi Army soldiers shoot at them without cause. The all-Sunni police force in western Mosul also regards the Kurdish battalion in that part of the city as an occupying force. The reason is that when the Americans created the new Iraqi Army, they allowed Kurdish militia units, known as peshmerga, to join en masse. Though the Kurdish force is technically part of the Army, the Kurds, the Iraqi police--everyone, it seems, but Fox--still call its members peshmerga. Fox views repairing the police-Army relationship as one of his most important missions. "If you look at history," Fox says, "no counterinsurgency effort has been successful in any war without the police and army working toward a common goal."
Beatings. In the One West courtyard, Fox and Alleathe walk up to Majeed. The Iraqi Army is not bound by the three-day limit the Americans have imposed on themselves. Majeed, Fox believes, will be able to get the detainees to talk about IED s, weapons, and other cell members. There's just one catch, though. The Iraqi Army has a reputation for beating prisoners. And Fox knows that if the detainees are hurt, he'll be held accountable. "It is very important," he tells Majeed, "that these guys not be harmed."
Majeed stares back at Fox. "These guys," he says, "got hit hard by the police."
Fox moves on. "If you get any actionable intelligence, let us know, and we will do a joint op."
A shaking Nashwan and Adel are loaded onto the Stryker. As they are placed in the back, one of the American soldiers whispers to the detainees in English: "We are taking you to the peshmerga."
Actually, Majeed's battalion, a former Iraqi National Guard unit, is mostly Sunni Arab, not Kurdish. But as they are ushered off the Stryker and toward Majeed's office, Nashwan and Adel don't know that. As far as they can tell, they're at a Kurdish base. Perhaps as a result, a transformation has come over Adel. The defiant young man who said he wanted to kill the Americans is now sobbing uncontrollably. As he passes Fox, Adel whispers something in Arabic. Later, Alleathe translates: "He said, 'I am sorry about today. I didn't mean it.' "
Inside Majeed's office, Nashwan holds his hands together in prayer. Adel looks nervous. The American officers suspect that Adel had thought relatives might persuade the police to release him. Now he expects to be beaten. "I thought we were staying with the Americans," Adel says.
Fox turns to Majeed: "Find out the information."
As the clock approaches midnight, Fox's gamble pays off. Majeed calls. Nashwan has begun talking, giving his real name, Ahmed Mohammed Ali, and revealing the location of a cache of weapons. Within minutes, Fox arrives at Majeed's base with four Strykers. Majeed outlines his plan. Three of the Strykers--equipped with thermal imaging gear that allows soldiers to see at night--will form an outer cordon. Then one of the Iraqi platoons will form an inner cordon, while the other searches for the suspect vehicle in a parking lot. Fox nods: The plan sounds good. Gently, he suggests that Majeed take a squad of Americans into the parking lot with him. Majeed agrees.
The Iraqis bring along Nashwan, his eyes blindfolded with blacked-out goggles and his hands bound. The parking lot, it turns out, is less than 200 yards from a polling site. It's so close, in fact, that the raiding party passes a group of American engineers installing protective barriers around the voting area. With Nashwan's help, the Iraqis quickly locate a van with weapons concealed in a roof compartment--three rocket-propelled grenade launchers, two sniper rifles, an antitank rocket launcher, and a stash of ammunition, grenades, and rockets. It is, Nashwan says, all of the cell's weapons. Fox turns to Majeed. Both men grin broadly. "This is a major win for the IA [Iraqi Army]," Fox tells him. "This is the best combined operation we've had." Fox is ecstatic. It is his greatest victory yet in his four months in Iraq. This is what the Americans ought to be doing, he thinks: helping the Iraqis help themselves.
By the next morning, however, his euphoria has disappeared. Fox paces around the S-3 office. Instead of praise, his bosses have come down on him--hard. The battalion's executive officer, Lt. Col. Craig Triscari, questions Fox's decision to transfer the prisoners from police to military custody. And now the executive officer, the XO in military jargon, and the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Alan Kelly, tell Fox to take the prisoners back from Majeed and return them to the police. Fox reacts sarcastically, telling Kelly, "We'll put back the weapons." As he paces, Fox brings Alleathe and the others in the S-3 office up to speed on what has happened. "The XO is a by-the-book guy, and he's got the colonel all wound up," Fox tells them. "I am not a by-the-book guy. I am a retire-in-'07 man. If we give them back, we will lose all the intelligence value. Major Sabah [Majeed] is going to flip out."
Kelly and Triscari are worried not just that Fox has transferred prisoners from civilian authorities to military authorities but that he is enabling the mistreatment of the prisoners by giving them to an interrogator with a reputation for tough tactics."I am not about mistreating anyone," Fox says. "But the lives that the 2-2-2 may have saved . . . " Fox trails off. He stops moving. "Somehow, it's a negative thing."
Fox resumes pacing. The others in the S-3 shop are burying their heads in their computers, but Alleathe stares at Fox. Alleathe lives in Dearborn, Mich., but he was born in southern Iraq. Although technically just a "terp," the shorthand for interpreter, Alleathe has become Fox's trusted adviser on the psychology of Iraqis. It would be a grave mistake, he tells Fox, to take the detainees from Majeed and give them to the police. "This situation," he says, "is bigger than the IP s [Iraqi police] understand."
"Major Sabah is going to say, 'What are you guys thinking?' " Fox answers. "From the height of ecstasy to the agony of defeat."
That evening, at the 1-17's operations center, the mood remains tense. After the daily battle update brief, called the BUB, Kelly sits down in the battalion conference room and explains why he has ordered Fox to return the prisoners to the police. "We as an Army would never accept a citizen prisoner from the police," Kelly says. "And as we try to establish a government here, we are modeling it after ours." Kelly's lined face bears a hard, world-weary look. Like Fox, he spends much of his day on the streets of Mosul. But where Fox haunts the police station and combat outposts, Kelly prefers to take the city's pulse by engaging ordinary residents.
The larger plan for Mosul is to get both the American and Iraqi military out of the city, leaving the police responsible for urban security. Therefore, the Americans need to help the police improve their counterinsurgency operations. Kelly doesn't doubt that Majeed is a better interrogator than either the police or the Americans. But, he says, it was wrong to hand the prisoners over to him: "My biggest concern was the potential for detainee abuse. We are trying to teach them to get information the right way." It may be impossible to teach the Iraqi interrogators not to use force, Kelly knows, but his battalion is going to try anyway. "You will never totally eliminate it--it is in this culture," he says. "You have a country here that has lived by fear. But you have to hope that people can learn to trust the courts."
High ground. Some of the rules U.S. soldiers must follow in Iraq complicate the fight against the insurgency, many there believe. "Our hands have been tied for a long time," Kelly says. Nevertheless, he argues, the rules ensure that America does not lose its values. "It is more difficult for us to do things," he says. "But the world has its eye on us. We have to hold the moral high ground."
As Kelly talks, Fox leaves the battalion Tactical Operations Center to meet Majeed. He is no longer going to take the prisoners back to the police. Instead, the Iraqis plan to raid four different buildings. The target is cell leader Abu Mahmoud, a man wanted badly by the Iraqi police and Army. Adel, whose real name is Imad Shaeb, has not broken under Army interrogation. "There is no way you will catch Abu Mahmoud" is all he has to say. But Nashwan has begun telling everything he knows, including the location of Abu Mahmoud's home. Inside Fox's Stryker, Capt. Lawson Bell, who works in the S-3 office, expresses surprise that Nashwan has given up so much information. "They must have really [sodomized] that guy," Bell says.
The Mujahideen Army cell was begun in Tal Afar, according to Nashwan, but after the American and Iraqi military attack on that city in September, the members escaped to Mosul, where they began bringing in IED s and accumulating weapons. Abu Mahmoud, who assumed leadership of the cell in June, when the previous leader was captured, is suspected of masterminding an attack on the Iraqi Army that left 14 soldiers dead.
Nashwan, his face obscured with a ski mask, first leads Majeed and Fox to a street lined by dilapidated apartment buildings. The Americans hang back, allowing the Iraqis to search for Abu Mahmoud. From the street, they hear Arabic yells. There is the sound of breaking glass and of doors being forced open. In the first building, Nashwan identifies one member of the cell, but Abu Mahmoud isn't there. When the Iraqi soldiers move across the street to raid more houses, Nashwan is left with the Americans. "Please tell them to give me one more chance with my life," Nashwan pleads to Alleathe. "I promise never to do anything like this again."
The Iraqi soldiers detain two men in the second building. In two more stops, they detain two more men, rounding up all cell members but one--the leader, Abu Mahmoud. "The big fish," Majeed tells Fox, "got away."
"Yeah," Fox responds, "but now he is scared."
The Americans and the Iraqis part company, but for Majeed, the night isn't quite over. A few hours later, Nashwan comes up with another possible location for Abu Mahmoud. Majeed calls Alleathe. But after a long day and night, he sleeps through the cellphone ring. Majeed goes out with a platoon of 20 Iraqi soldiers and arrests Abu Mahmoud without American help. Triumphantly, Majeed returns with the insurgent leader to his battalion headquarters; within hours, Abu Mahmoud reveals key details of his cell's operations.
The next morning, Tuesday, Fox heads over to meet with Majeed and his boss, Lt. Col. Ammare Abdullah. "Great job going out and getting Mahmoud," Fox says. "I think we have the whole cell now." Abdullah agrees. Abu Mahmoud, he tells Fox, conceded the night before that his group "is done."
Fox has been told to complete the task he was supposed to do the previous day: bring the two original detainees back to the Iraqi police. Fox tells Abdullah and Majeed: "My commander is worried about the two guys the IP s took."
"Mahmoud is the killer," Majeed says. "These two guys are nothing. . . . If you want to take the two, take them."
But Fox wants more than just the first two detainees. Bringing the actual triggerman to the police, Fox thinks, will help show them the benefits of cooperation. "I think the best thing would be to take them all to One West," he says.
Majeed is skeptical. He does not want to release them just yet. Abu Mahmoud has not yet revealed who supplies the IED materials. With more time, Majeed believes, he can break Abu Mahmoud. But Majeed remains silent.
Outside, eight detainees, their hands bound behind their backs, are being literally stuffed into the back of a pickup truck. "Make sure they have their seat belts on," Fox jokes. Several have empty sandbags on their heads; the rest are blindfolded. After the Abu Ghraib scandal, the Americans stopped permitting bags to be placed over the heads of detainees. Fox asks the Iraqis to take them off. He has to ask several times before the Iraqis begrudgingly remove the bags and replace them with blacked-out goggles provided by the Americans.
At the One West police station, a junior officer runs into the office of Colonel Hassan, the chief intelligence officer, to tell him that the Iraqi Army has brought Abu Mahmoud. "Mahmoud? No," Hassan says. Majeed smiles. "Yes, we got Mahmoud," he says in Arabic.
Fox looks at both Hassan and Majeed. "This is a great example of cooperation between the Iraqi police and Army," he says.
"God willing," Hassan says, "we will always be supporting each other. If we work together, we will get all the terrorists in Mosul."
The police begin to bring in the detainees, starting with Nashwan. He is dressed in the same blue striped shirt, spotted with dried blood, that he was wearing on Saturday. Thin and boyish, he looks younger than his 18 years. "I have six younger brothers," Nashwan tells Hassan. "I have to support my family--that is why I did what I did. But I will work with the police or the Iraqi Army." Hassan nods. Majeed has told Hassan that he thinks Nashwan has been helpful. "Tomorrow, we will take you to the judge," Hassan tells Nashwan. "I want you to tell him the whole story. If you want leniency, you must tell him the same thing."
Next, the police bring in Adel, the young man who told Fox he wanted to kill all of the Americans. He is quieter now, his defiance gone. "Why, when I first saw you at the police station, did you say you wanted to kill me?" Fox asks. "We are trying to help make Iraq a better place."
"Yes," Adel answers, "I know that. But I was brainwashed. That is what we were told to do: kill Americans."
Hassan orders Abu Mahmoud brought in. He is dressed in a brown dishdasha, the traditional Arab body shirt that the American soldiers call a man-dress. His closely cut hair is receding, and he has a two-day growth of beard. He looks like Hollywood's version of a terrorist. Abu Mahmoud gives Fox, Majeed, and Hassan a hard look. Abu Mahmoud, whose real name is Hassan Mahmoud Yunes, has admitted killing the campaign worker, and the police press his thumb to a written statement of the crime. Why, Hassan asks, has Abu Mahmoud attacked the party members and laid the roadside bombs? "The reason I did this is that five from my family got killed by the Americans," Abu Mahmoud says. "That is why I took on this role."
A detainee dressed in green is brought in. The cell members call him Nutuk, but his real name is Idam Mohammed Sassan. Sassan is whining; tears well in his eyes. He is innocent, he says. Abu Mahmoud regards him with disdain. "He helped bring the IED s in," Abu Mahmoud says. "No, no," Sassan cries. Sassan reaches out toward Hassan. Whack. Hassan slaps Sassan across the face. Fox springs backward, as if he himself was hit. The slap has taken everyone by surprise. Hassan is removed from the room, and the interrogation of Abu Mahmoud continues.
Abu Mahmoud explains how he set IED s along the roads and used small hand-held Motorola radios to set them off when the American Strykers rolled past. Two were successful, he says, while "the third you found." The IED s, Abu Mahmoud says, came from a connection in the Sunni town of Halibeah. "If you tell me about the IED s on the road, I will help you," Hassan says. "This is the only way I can help you. Tell me about your connection."
"Someone met me in Halibeah and gave me the IED s," Abu Mahmoud replies. He professes not to know names, aside from those of his cell members. In the back of the room, Majeed looks skeptical. But he says nothing. The operation has been a success. A large weapons cache has been taken off the street, an entire insurgent cell rolled up. Most important, the mid-December elections go smoothly. Still, questions and tension linger in the 1-17 battalion's operation center. How did the Iraqi Army get the information out of Nashwan and Abu Mahmoud? Did the Iraqi Army torture or beat them?
Dignity. His battalion has been working hard over the past four months, Fox says, to discourage the Iraqis from hitting or beating detainees. "A big thing is to try and teach them to treat people with dignity and respect," he says. There are, unfortunately, consequences to changing the Iraqi way of doing business. "When we first got here, it was very common," he says of the beatings. "Now it is less and less. But the information is also less and less." Does that mean beating detainees works? "The Iraqi Army," Fox says, "will tell you absolutely it leads to actionable intel."
Sitting in his office in the 1-17 battalion operations center, Triscari, the executive officer, could not disagree more. "An individual who gets tortured may tell you anything," he says. "Does that mean we get actionable intelligence? It does not." Triscari is pleased with the results of the operation but remains troubled by the possibility that Majeed used force to get Nashwan and Abu Mahmoud to talk. Triscari is an accomplished officer. He has written a book about transforming Army brigades and will most likely be offered command of a new battalion when he returns stateside. He has dark hair and eyes and a lean, unlined face. The United States, Triscari says, cannot fudge the rules to have a detainee handed over to the Iraqi Army, especially if it is concerned that the suspects may be abused. "If we see someone tortured," he says, "we have an obligation to say, 'Do not do that.' We do not wink at torture." To Triscari, there are clear lines that the American Army must not cross. The rules ensure that the Americans stay within bounds.
The day after the elections, Fox drops two Army intelligence soldiers off at One West to interrogate Abu Mahmoud and Sassan, the man suspected of being the IED transporter. Later that night, Fox walks into the S-3 office to find out how the interrogators fared. Inside the office he finds Musick and Triscari.
"What did they get out of the interrogation?" Fox asks.
"They f- - - - d up: They kept them in the same cell," Musick reports. All the Mujahideen Army members, Musick says, had stopped talking except Nashwan. Abu Mahmoud had persuaded them to disavow their confessions as coerced. "The old guy was coaching everyone," Musick says. "All the others said: 'We didn't do anything. We were beaten.' "
"We should have let the Army keep them," Fox says with a scowl.
Triscari shakes his head. "We wouldn't have got much more."
Over at the 2-2-2 battalion headquarters, Majeed is not so sure of that. Dressed in a knit watch cap and camouflage jacket, he leans forward on his couch, cigarette in hand. In a corner of his office, a small television plays a racy Arabic music video channel. On the table in front of him is a cup of tea with a package of vitamin C; Majeed has a cold. Originally a pilot, Majeed became an interrogator in Saddam's army in 1996 after the U.S.-imposed no-fly zone shut down the Iraqi Air Force. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and was due to be promoted to full colonel in May 2003. But the Americans invaded. The old Iraqi Army was defeated, then dismantled. When the military was re-created, Majeed was offered the rank of major. It was the only job available.
Majeed says he does not torture people, adding that there is more to his interrogation methods than simply hitting someone. "I am like a professor of psychology," he says. "I can tell when they want to talk." Nashwan had not slept, bathed, or eaten for three days when he arrived at the battalion headquarters. Majeed gave him a shower and some food. "We gave him all that stuff," Majeed recalls, "then we told him, 'We gave you what you asked for. If you want more, you are going to have to help us.' "
At first, Nashwan gave up only the location of the cache and claimed not to know where to find Abu Mahmoud or the other cell members. "He thought that would be enough," Majeed says. "But I started to tell him that if we let him go and Mahmoud is still on the outside, [he] will get killed."
Nashwan had been roughly treated by the police and was expecting more tough treatment by the Army, Majeed said. The good-cop routine caught him off guard. "The good talker," Majeed says, "will get the snake out of the hole."
Majeed began questioning Abu Mahmoud as soon as they arrived back at the battalion headquarters, at 4 a.m. For the next 2 1/2 hours, Abu Mahmoud spoke only about the attacks he had made on the Americans. He refused to admit that he had attacked any Iraqis. At 6:30 a.m., Majeed sent Abu Mahmoud to the cell where the other detainees were being held and watched him. Though the other detainees sat down or tried to sleep on the floor, Abu Mahmoud just paced back and forth. Majeed let him pace for three hours. Then he brought him in and sat him down. His hands, Majeed says, were handcuffed very tightly to a chair. His head was covered with a bag.
"Guys like him are tough; they are not easy to question," Majeed says. "So we started being a bit rough. We forced him to admit his crimes. We didn't punch him, but we made sure the handcuffs were tight on his hands," Majeed says. "We put a cover on his head to keep him disorientated." Majeed says they did slap Abu Mahmoud a few times."The Americans help terrorists get away," Majeed says. "The reason why is Iraqis get used to their techniques. They don't talk until you force them. Until you get tough."
Closed doors. Majeed says he would never break a bone or inflict intense pain. "I don't use physical torture. Last year, I was slapping guys, and we hit them," he says. "Right now, we are using different techniques." Is Majeed telling the truth? He is a sophisticated man, and he knows Americans disapprove of torture. He is savvy enough not to admit using torture, even if he does. When asked about whether the Abu Ghraib scandal tied the hands of the Americans, his answer is telling: "There is no way if I was going to torture someone or be tough I would take pictures. If I wanted to do something like that, I would close the door and do my thing."
Majeed says he understands why Americans have their rules. But he says they often frustrate him, especially when a detainee is taken away just as he is starting to talk. Majeed says he was disappointed that he had Abu Mahmoud less than 12 hours. If he had been allowed to keep him longer, he says, he could have gotten more information. "Maybe he would have told me where he got the IED s from. Maybe he would have said the names of other cell leaders," Majeed says. "I could have gotten more information. Maybe he would have told me."
Majeed has a good relationship with the 1-17 battalion, he says, and particularly with Fox. "I can tell we think alike," Majeed says. "Major Fox is trying to understand how the locals think." But after working with Americans for the past 2 1/2 years, Majeed is beginning to understand how they operate--and to see what he regards as weaknesses when it comes to fighting insurgents. "The Americans have a line. They like to follow a straight line. They don't like to zigzag," Majeed says. "But sometimes there needs to be a special case. Sometimes," he says, "we need to go over the line."
This story appears in the January 9, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.