Qods Force, Karbala and the Language of War
US Soldiers Executed After Karbala Abduction: Chizari's Revenge and Suleimani's Test?
By Steve Schippert
There are strong indications and surrounding circumstances that point to the January 20 attack on soldiers from an American Civil Affairs Unit in Karbala, Iraq, was an operation planned and carried out by members of the Iranian Qods Force extraterritorial unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Four captured US soldiers were later executed by the attackers. If Iranian Qods Force operators carried out the attack and executions, the US response can be seen as a barometer indicating how the US will deal with the state sponsor of terrorism on the Iraqi battlefields and elsewhere in the world.
The attack on the Karbala Provincial Joint Coordination Center (PJCC) occurred while members of an American civil affairs unit, Iraqi security forces and local civilian leaders were in a meeting “to ensure the security of Shiite pilgrims participating in the Ashura commemorations,” according to Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, Deputy Commander for Multi-National Division-Baghdad. The small civil affairs unit was embedded within Iraqi forces in Karbala.
In the attack, five American soldiers were killed and three were wounded. Four American soldiers were executed after they were captured and spirited away in the attackers’ vehicles, found later 25 miles from the attack site by Iraqi police.
If confirmed to be a Qods Force operation, this is an act of war by the State of Iran upon the United States of America that can scarcely be swept away as have similar acts, including the 1983 bombing of the United States Embassy and the Marine Barracks in Beirut, the bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, or even the supply of explosives, weapons, training and cash to various enemy combatants in Iraq since 2003.
Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, spokesman for Multi-National Division-Baghdad said, "The precision of the attack, the equipment used and the possible use of explosives to destroy the military vehicles in the compound suggests that the attack was well rehearsed prior to execution. The attackers went straight to where Americans were located in the provincial government facility, by-passing the Iraqi police in the compound."
It is therefore important to consider what is known and what is not known regarding the details of the Karbala attack of January 20, 2007. While there is much to be learned from the details provided thus far, there is also much that can be learned from what has not been made public or is unknown. To most effectively do this, details should be considered in a chronological order.
The Approach: Professional Preparedness
There is little publicly known about the attackers’ convoy before it reached the Karbala perimeter security checkpoint. The investigation almost certainly began to probe the area for witnesses in order to best track its origins outside of Karbala. These details, if any, remain tightly held by US and Iraqi forces. But the mission commenced from somewhere outside of Karbala.
Known events began to unfold near dusk in Karbala, around 5PM as stated by a Multi-National Forces – Iraq release. Early press accounts reported Iraqi security forces at a checkpoint at the outskirts of Karbala stating that about seven SUV’s approached the checkpoint, filled with men wearing American camouflage uniforms and Iraqi uniforms, complete with appropriate equipment and identification. The MNF-I release later stated that it was approximately five vehicles and made no mention of Iraqi uniforms among the occupants.
The black GMC Suburban vehicles, the same style as seen in US convoys for diplomatic and security personnel, stopped at the checkpoint. While this is never overtly stated, it can be derived from the checkpoint guards’ statements that the occupants spoke English and had American military identification cards. The guards were convinced the men in the American uniforms were American, as they reportedly called ahead to the Provincial Joint Coordination Center, where a meeting was taking place between the US Army civil affairs unit and local Iraqi security.Several important factors can be gleaned from this face-to-face encounter:
- The American uniforms and equipment were authentic.
- The attackers spoke English without accent discernable to the native Iraqi guards.
- Appearance played a role in the 12-man team, as one of the ‘Americans’ was described by an Iraqi guard as even having blonde hair.
- The identification cards were authentic enough to convince checkpoint personnel upon inspection.
The SUV’s left the checkpoint and made their way rapidly to the Provincial Joint Coordination Center. An initial report quoted a man identified as Capt. Muthana Ahmed, a police spokesman from neighboring Babel province, stating that the vehicles stopped first at an Iraqi police station in Karbala and picked up weapons and ammunition, though this has not persisted in subsequent reports.
Karbala governor, Akeel al-Khazaali, said a call was made by the initial checkpoint to the PJCC to inform them of an approaching American convoy. It was a message, he said, that never reached the American soldiers in their meeting. The amount of time between the reported call and the attackers’ arrival is unclear. As will be seen, the individual on the receiving end of the call may be another potential point of compromise.
The Attack: Precision Indicating Enemy’s Good Intelligence
There are fewer details available to consider about the actual attack on the PJCC. For obvious and understandable operational security reasons, access to those involved who may shed light on details is limited at best. Even still, what has been shared has not been without detail.
The SUV’s arrived at the PJCC building and split into two groups, approaching the building from both the front and the rear. The armed men exited their vehicles and performed two tactical tasks. The building was entered and at least one grenade was thrown into the center of the open-area first floor, killing one soldier and wounding three others.
Meanwhile, explosives were used outside the PJCC building to destroy or disable the American HMMWV’s. In the process, two US soldiers were extracted from one of the vehicles and transferred to the attackers’ black SUV’s. Inside the PJCC, two more American soldiers were captured and put into the SUV’s outside as well. Also taken was an unclassified US computer, perhaps the personal laptop of one of the soldiers.
At this point, it is important to recall Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl’s words. "The precision of the attack, the equipment used and the possible use of explosives to destroy the military vehicles in the compound suggests that the attack was well rehearsed prior to execution.” With the US making special note of “the use of explosives,” it indicates that military-grade plastic explosives likely were involved, a relatively uncommon resource for militias and insurgents.Lt. Col. Bleichweil added another critical detail when he added that "The attackers went straight to where Americans were located in the provincial government facility, by-passing the Iraqi police in the compound."
- The attackers knew of the meeting’s time, place and participants.
- The attackers knew precisely where within the building the Americans were.
- Care was initially taken to capture rather than kill the American soldiers.
- There were no Iraqi casualties in the storming of the PJCC compound.
- Inside and outside attack teams, with two objectives.
- Potential pursuit vehicles disabled or destroyed.
- No pursuit from Karbala took place.
There was nothing in the reporting that indicated an ongoing gunfight after the initial grenade and ensuing small arms bursts during the breech. The reporting and military statements seem to indicate that the injuries and one fatality were caused only by the initiating grenade attack into the center of the first floor area. While this does not necessarily mean that an ongoing firefight did not ensue, it is entirely plausible to assume that the attackers’ convincing American appearance may have caused the soldiers in the civil affairs unit to initially pause in response, perhaps even laying down their weapons on command, encouraging the ‘American’ attackers to ‘relax’ or ‘take it easy.’
Whatever the specific events that transpired within the PJCC building, that there were no more deaths or injuries lends credence to the convincing quality of the appearance and equipment supplied to the attackers and may also indicate further their command of the English language without rapidly discernable accent. Bill Roggio quotes an intelligence source who said, "The Karbala Government Center raid the other day was a little too professional for JAM [Jaish al-Mahdi, or the Mahdi Army]."
Language skills at this potential level are highly unlikely to have been sought or achieved by the Arab militias of the Mahdi Army or the Badr Brigades, to say nothing of the various equipment and other resources employed in the attack. The same can also be presumed of the Sunni insurgency and al-Qaeda in Iraq, though it would not be impossible for the latter to acquire such resources through its parent global al-Qaeda organization. However, should al-Qaeda have done so, trekking down to predominantly Shi’a Karbala to carry out such a mission would be an additional and unnecessary risk that a skilled commander such as al-Masri would be unlikely to authorize, to say nothing of the attackers’ easterly egress deeper into Shi’a territory.
The Egress: Americans Executed After Iraqi Pursuit
Following the attack, the group mounted their vehicles with the four captured American soldiers and sped out of Karbala, reportedly “in the direction of al-Hillah,” indicating that they most likely fled barreling down the main southeasterly road out of the city. Just over ten miles away, the convoy will have gone through al-Hindiyah and crossed the Euphrates River.
Soon after crossing the Euphrates, they entered Babil province and encountered and passed through an Iraqi police checkpoint. The convoy of GMC Suburbans passed without stopping, causing the Iraqi police at the checkpoint to pursue in suspicion. No details are publicly provided regarding the nature of the pursuit to indicate whether it was simply trailing, at least initially, or a chase. The location of the checkpoint and the length of the chase is also not publicly available.
After the checkpoint encounter, the vehicles began traveling northward, perhaps by plan or perhaps in an effort to divert the trailing Iraqi police from their planned destination or to lose them altogether. The Iraqi police following the vehicles eventually found them abandoned near the Babil province town of al-Mahawil, approximately 15 miles north of al-Hillah and 30 miles east of Karbala.
There found were the four captured American soldiers. Two were bound together and executed in the back of one of the SUV’s. One lie on the ground outside the vehicles, also executed, and the fourth survived a shot in the head but died enroute to a hospital. The positioning of the bodies indicates that they were executed only after the attackers decided to abandon their vehicles.
This may indicate that the turn northward diverted them from their planned escape route, likely to a point where the US soldiers could be transferred to a secure location for captivity and interrogation by others. If the plan was to kill them, their egress would have been far less risky by killing them in Karbala. Carrying captured American soldiers through Iraqi checkpoints elevates the risk that they may tip off security guards or other personnel and risk the attackers’ own capture or death. This may be precisely what happened to cause them to turn northward and eventually abandon their vehicles. Extracting them from the KJCC and from Karbala clearly indicates that their execution at the abandoned vehicles was an alternate course of action.
Found in the abandoned vehicles were the American camouflage uniforms, flak jackets, boots, one non-US-made rifle and, importantly, American radio equipment used by the attackers. While the radios are another indication of a sophistication beyond that seen with Iraqi militias, they also may have been used to gain intelligence on the Americans’ position by monitoring radio traffic before and during the approach to the Karbala PJCC compound. If so, the equipment almost certainly would have assisted their escape by monitoring for the nature, locations and direction of any MNF-I Coalition pursuit.
Three days after the attack, MNF-I reported on January 23 that four suspected of links to the Karbala attack were captured in a house near where the vehicles were abandoned. Curiously, the tip came not from the al-Mahawil area where the house was, but via a tip from someone in Karbala. Karbala has a Mahdi Army headquarters in the city, the commander of which denied any involvement immediately after the attack.
No further information about the captured four has been released, raising suspicions that they are Iranian rather than Iraqi.
Conclusion: Probable Qods Force Attack, Executions and an Act of War
While al-Qaeda in Iraq and Sunni insurgents have captured and executed US military personnel during operations in Iraq, among other factors that also can be applied to Shi’a militias, the location of this attack minimizes the likelihood of this operation being conducted by al-Masri’s terrorist organization.
The level of coordination, precision, and sophistication – including appearance, language skills, and equipment – suggest resources and capability beyond that found within the Mahdi Army or Badr Brigades Shi’a militias of Iraq. Tangible equipment such as radios, weapons, new-style US camouflage uniforms and GMC Suburbans can be transferred to or otherwise acquired by the Iraqi militias. However, precise and organized squad-level tactics and skills with a proficiency to the degree displayed in the Karbala attack require more specialized training and time than can reasonably be expected to be delivered to the groups, at least within Iraq.
But the trump card is the level of English language skills – absent accents discernable by native Iraqi security personnel at the Karbala checkpoint and perhaps even the American soldiers in the Karbala JPCC. Speaking fluent English is difficult enough and requires a significant focus and time investment in training. Speaking it without native accent is exponentially more difficult.
While the Shi’a militias and the Sunni insurgency and al-Qaeda have sufficient motivation to attack American forces and do so daily, the specific objective of capture presents a motivation uniquely amplified for Iran and its Qods Force leadership. The recent American raids in Baghdad and Irbil have resulted in several Qods Force operators taken into US custody, including significant individuals within Qods Force leadership. From these captures, the United States has also gained hard evidence of Iranian support for both Sunni and Shi'a groups involved in killing Iraqi civilians and US and Iraqi troops.
Among the captured was the #3 commander of Qods Force, initially identified simply as ‘Chizari,’ who was later released because the Iranian government had given him internationally recognized diplomatic credentialing paperwork. Recently, Chizari was reported as being the Qods Force Operations Director, now back in Tehran reporting to Qods Force commander, Brigadier General Qassem Suleimani.
The United States still holds the captured Qods Force officers from the Irbil raid, whom Iran demands be released.
Further, an Iranian kidnapping operation would not be unique in nature, as Bill Roggio also notes, when the July 2006 Hizballah attack that opened the Israeli-Hizballah confrontation included the abduction of two IDF soldiers. This operation was itself preceded one month earlier by another abduction operation by Iranian-supported Hamas and its affiliated Popular Resistance Committees, in which IDF Corporal Gilad Shalit was captured. It is not a coincidence that Iranian-supplied AT14 Kornet anti-tank rockets were first used by Palestinian terrorists in this attack, nor that they were used by Hizballah in Lebanon little more than one month later. It should not be forgotten that Iran’s international operations have a longer history of abduction and murder, going back to the 1980s kidnapping, torture and murder in Lebanon of CIA Beirut station chief William Buckley and Marine Colonel Richard Higgins.
When considering the whole of what is known of the Karbala attack, some of the details may fit or partially fit either al-Qaeda in Iraq or the Shi’a militia groups. However, each detail known thus far supports – or at minimum, fits - the conclusion that the attack was a Qods Force operation carried out directly by Iranians. None of the details serves diminish that likelihood.
While some may await official and explicit word from US intelligence that the attack was carried out by Iranians in the IRGC’s Qods Force, most familiar with both Qods Force and the operating environment in Iraq are looking for any US intelligence information that would indicate it was a group other than Iran’s Qods Force.
Considering US military intelligence has significantly more detailed information regarding the attack and the attackers than is publicly available, it would not be unreasonable to conclude that no such indication exists. This intelligence conclusion would explain the change in military policy put into effect nearly one week after the Karbala attack and executions to capture or kill Iranian operators in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere when actionable intelligence exists. This order was issued after the four suspects were captured in the al-Mahawil area, which is not an insignificant detail.
Discerning Qods Force involvement is critical, as the abduction and summary execution of American soldiers is an act of war. In the past, the United States has left largely unaddressed other acts of war committed by Iran, including the 1983 bombings of the US Embassy and then the Marine Barracks in Beirut, the kidnapping, torture and murder of Marine Colonel Richard Higgins and William Buckley, the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia and other acts, including the supply of arms and munitions to both Shi’a and Sunni groups in Iraq used to kill American military personnel.
How the United States reacts to this incident can be seen as a barometer for how the Bush Administration intends to deal with the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism in both the short and intermediate term. This – a test - may have been a significant part of the probable Iranian decision to go forth with the operation, Chizari’s personal satisfaction aside.