U.S. sends in secret weapon: Saddam's old commandos
Twenty months after toppling Saddam Hussein, U.S. troops still battling his followers in the heartland of Iraq's old arms industry are hitting back with a new weapon -- ex-members of Saddam's special forces.
For five months, Iraqi police commandos calling themselves the Black Scorpions have been based with U.S. Marines in the region along the Euphrates south of Baghdad, which roadside bombs, ambushes and kidnaps have turned into a no-go areas and earned it the melodramatic description "triangle of death."
"All of them were previously officers in the Iraqi army or special forces," the Scorpions' commander, Colonel Salaam Trad, said at the Marines' Kalsu base near Iskandariya on Saturday.
"But Saddam was dirty and no good for Iraq."
The performance of this SWAT team, as the Americans call it, could be a critical test of how U.S. forces can hand over to Iraqis to meet their goal of withdrawing from a stable Iraq. U. S. officers in the area say they are increasingly optimistic.
"The hardest fighters we have are the former special forces from Saddam's days," Colonel Ron Johnson, commander of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, told reporters.
Praising their local knowledge and fighting skills, Johnson singled out one man who fought against him at Nassiriya, the hardest battle of last year's brief war against Saddam's army.
"If I could have an Iraqi security force guy who's honest, reliable and dependable, it's worth five Marines," he added.
Captain Tad Douglas, who leads almost daily raids with the Scorpions, said he believed it was a unique experiment that made use of the Iraqis' feel for their home province of Babylon.
"Ninety-five percent of our intelligence is from the SWAT," he said. "They can put a guy in a cafe in the way we never could ... They have a good finger on the pulse."
NO HARD FEELINGS
U.S. officers are reluctant to discuss how big the SWAT team is and Trad and Douglas brush off questions on what they may or not have done to each other in last year's war.
"It doesn't matter to me what they did. They're staunchly anti-insurgent," said Douglas, who dismissed suggestions their training under Saddam might have made them too violent.
"We just had to polish them up a bit," he said. This week, Johnson has stepped up raids against insurgents in an operation code-named Plymouth Rock, hoping to keep pressure on Sunni rebels after their rout at Falluja to the northwest.
Of Johnson's 5,000-strong force in the region, which was once the heart of Saddam's arms industry and base of the Medina armored division of the elite Republican Guard, more than 2,000 are Marines, 850 British soldiers and the rest Iraqi.
At the camp 30 miles south of Baghdad, the Scorpions are very visible, wearing the khaki jumpsuits of Marine special forces and black mustaches traditional in the Iraqi military.
Occupying powers have a long and patchy history of creating local units and Iraqi forces in other regions have had mixed success. This month, thousands of police in the northern city of Mosul fled or changed sides when Sunni insurgents took charge.
Johnson acknowledges the loyalties of some Iraqis in his force may be divided but says they "want to be on the winning side" and is confident that U.S.-led troops can end what he sees as limited and decentralized violence by at most a few thousand disgruntled Saddam supporters and local bandits.
Iraqi police here have stuck to their posts despite killings of comrades in bomb attacks and murders of off-duty officers: " They don't cut and run, despite their losses," Johnson said.
Clearly exasperated by the "triangle of death" tag, he said: "I'm getting more optimistic every day."
As for Colonel Salaam, a small, wiry man of 32, he shrugs off insurgent threats to himself and his family and says what he wants is: "Freedom, a new Iraq, peace."