Wolf Brigade the most loved and feared of Iraqi security forces

 

McClatchy Washington Bureau

Abul Waleed rifled through a pile of papers, considering the latest accusations against the elite brigade of Iraqi police commandos he leads from a dusty fortress.

The complaints against the Wolf Brigade were the usual: excessive force, renegade patrols, kidnapping, murder. The charges came from Iraq's most powerful Sunni Muslim leaders, and Abul Waleed clearly relished reading them. It's precisely this take-no-prisoners reputation that's made his Wolf Brigade the most feared and revered of all of Iraq's nascent security forces.

"The Muslim Scholars Association? They're infidels," Abul Waleed said, tossing his detractors' complaints into the wastebasket. "The Islamic Party? Humph. More like the Fascist Party."

No matter how many complaints about heavy-handedness pile up on Abul Waleed's desk, there's no changing the fact that the Wolf Brigade rules public opinion in a country desperate for Iraqi heroes. With their televised humiliation of terror suspects and their dapper uniforms, the Wolf Brigade restores some of the national pride stripped away by war and foreign occupation.

While the nation's fledgling police and armed forces are derided as corrupt or incompetent, the Wolf Brigade is the exception. Their logo is a snarling wolf, and their TV show, "Terrorists in the Grip of Justice," is the most watched program in the country. Harassed parents silence noisy children with threats to call the Wolves. Housewives swoon over their "broad shoulders" and "toughness."

"Every time I see them in the street, I feel safe," said Ahmed Kanan, 25, who works at a menswear shop in Baghdad. "I feel that we have a country with a government."

The Wolf Brigade was formed in October 2004 as the brainchild of Abul Waleed, a 41-year-old three-star general from the old regime who goes only by his nom de guerre. He's a Shiite, complete with a photo of Imam Ali and religious chants programmed into his constantly ringing cell phone. Part of his appeal is his familiar, Saddam-era look: shoe-polish black hair, wide mustache and an olive drab uniform topped with a red beret. Abul Waleed said the Wolf Brigade learned from the cultural missteps of U.S. forces and takes care to portray an all-Iraqi squad, even when American armored vehicles accompany them on operations.

"When we raid a house, we respect the house," Abul Waleed said in an interview at his heavily guarded, incense-scented office. "We respect the women of the house. We don't take a father in front of his child. We are Iraqis. We know what is expected of us."

There are about 2,000 commandos in the Wolf Brigade, Abul Waleed said. Nine have died and 18 have been wounded in the line of duty. Many of the highest-ranking officers in the brigade are Sunnis and, when asked about other minorities, Abul Waleed promptly summoned a Kurd and even a Yazidi, a member of a tiny ancient sect in northern Iraq.

The brigade trained with U.S. forces for nearly two months before making its debut in Mosul, the flashpoint Sunni city northwest of Baghdad where the commandos hunted Sunni Muslim extremists. Confident in his men's performance, Abul Waleed allowed the videotaping of interrogations and turned it into a primetime TV show.

As the cameras rolled, suspects, some with black eyes and bruises, confessed to offenses ranging from massive bombings to sexual assaults. The interior ministry has praised the Wolf Brigade's success in Iraq's counterinsurgency war. Critics say the commandos routinely beat suspects and coerce confessions. Sunnis, especially, complain about a sectarian-driven abuse of power because of the commandos' frequent collaboration with Shiite militias.

Abul Waleed denied his men beat the suspects they find after kicking in doors and storming houses. When confronted with a photo of a bruised offender, the unfazed commander explained that the man had "tripped and fallen on his face." The rank and file of the Wolf Brigade was more up front about the way they treat the men suspected of causing mayhem in Iraq.

"We were full of rage and hate. We were ready," said a commando named Khyri Khuder, describing the day the brigade seized men suspected of raping and killing a girl in Mosul.

"Human rights (workers) used to come and complain about how we treat the prisoners, but they never ask about how the terrorists treated the people they killed," added Yasser al-Qureishi, a Sunni who serves as Abul Waleed's personal assistant. "If it was your sister who was raped and killed, how would you deal with it?"

Standing outside their ramshackle barracks one recent day, members of the Wolf Brigade preferred to focus on their adoring public. With pride, they described the reaction they get when they don ski masks and zip through Baghdad streets with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and machine guns in the backs of their trademark blue-and-white pickups.

One time, an old woman came over and started to kiss us," said Mustafa Mohsin, a cherub-faced 18-year-old commando.

"Yeah, he was mad because she wasn't younger," cracked one his commanders.

Even when Iraqis first shrink in fear at the sight of armed men tooling around the city, there is a palpable change when they notice the unique logo of the Wolf Brigade. Drivers honk, children cheer and street vendors ply them with falafel and bottles of water.

A 35-year-old commando named Majed Bilal put it simply: "Because we love them, they love us." ___

(special correspondents Huda Ahmed and Mohammed al Awsy contributed to this report.) ___

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