US officials have said they see signs of an Iranian hand in the brazenness and professionalism of the January 20 attack in Karbala, in which more than a half-dozen uniformed insurgents gained entry to the Joint Coordination Center compound, killing one US soldier and kidnapping four who were later executed.
The military has also said it has in custody detainees--the Khazali brothers and Ali Musa Daqduq--who have confessed to involvement in the attack as well as implicated Iranian involvement.
But a new piece in TIME reports on an internal Army investigation into the incident, which indicates Iraqi security officials may have more complicity than any Iranians in the death of the five Americans.
Mark Kukis reports for TIME:
The Karbala attack came days after the U.S.'s Jan. 11 arrest of five alleged Iranian operatives in Irbil, in northern Iraq. Military officials have theorized that the Karbala attack was orchestrated by Tehran in retaliation. But the U.S.'s initial probe of the incident found no evidence of direct Iranian involvement. Instead, the picture that emerged cast suspicion chiefly on senior Iraqi officials known to the Americans, as well as local thugs and associates of al-Sadr. The report on the investigation, which has been released only to the families of the soldiers who were killed, found that "it is too coincidental that the attackers, already argued as outside professionals, knew and raided only the two rooms where the Americans resided and were able to isolate the barracks-area soldiers and rooftop defenders." The report adds that many Iraqi police seemed to disappear moments before the assault and that the attackers seemed to know that the Americans would initially go to the rooftops during an attack, a drill U.S. troops had practiced in front of the senior Iraqi officers.
The TIME piece gives a thorough account of the violent five-minute assault, and makes clear that while the US soldiers scrambled to repel the attackers, the Iraqi police on site did not get involved. "No one was shot," says Sergeant First Class Michael King, describing the Iraqi police immediately after the attack. "No one twisted an ankle. No one jammed a thumb. Nothing." The chief of police was apologetic, but had no explanation for why his men did not react to armed attackers breaching the compound.
Though TIME's sources say that the investigation indicated the involvement of Iraqi police officials, no charges have been brought against any. The sense seems to be that it would cause problems for the long-term American agenda to pursue justice in the deaths of the five American soldiers, but the apparent involvement of so many Iraqis brings into question what the US can actually achieve when it has to to rely on such duplicitous partnerships.
Questions also remain about whether Iraqi politicians had prior knowledge of the attack. Lieut. Colonel Robert Balcavage, ground commander of U.S. forces operating in Karbala and surrounding areas, says Khareem, the governor of Karbala, knew many details very soon after the attack that night, which made Balcavage wonder if he knew of the operation beforehand. The Army investigation cites unconfirmed reports of calls from the governor's office to the outer checkpoints as the attackers were approaching, with orders to let them pass. In an interview, Khareem denied any wrongdoing. "To accuse me of involvement in this attack is to slight me," Khareem says. "Before anybody accuses me, they should have solid evidence. No charges have been brought against me, by any Iraqi or by the American side, so there's nothing to discuss."
Two investigators who worked on the case say there is enough evidence against the governor and others at the Karbala center to fill an indictment that would pass muster in a U.S. court. A female member of the Iraqi parliament from Babil province, Majada Discher, is suspected of involvement too. One of the vehicles used by the attackers was registered to her, and investigators say forensic evidence shows that one of her bodyguards was among the killers. In Karbala, Army investigators drew up two lists of suspects. The first list, comprising about 40 names, read like a Who's Who of local Shi'ite militants, mostly from the Mahdi Army. The second list has roughly 10 names of people the investigators dubbed "untouchables." These were people thought to be involved in the plot one way or another but considered too prominent to arrest or target, investigators said. Discher made the untouchables list, as did the governor, al-Quraishy, Shaker and Hanoon.
Though Balcavage feels that arrests are in order, the case has stalled. Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, who was a senior commander for southern Iraq at the time of the attack, says several Iraqi government officials remain under suspicion. "We haven't given up on this at all," he says. But Balcavage says political calculations can sometimes override the quest for justice. Removing a suspect police chief, for instance, could undo progress made in building up security forces and destabilize the local political leadership. "There's always second- and third-order effects for every action," Balcavage says. "The challenge is that you're working with a government you want to see succeed. But our values and the values of certain members of the government are not necessarily consistent. Our idea of good and their idea of good are not always the same."