Iraq strengthens the Counter Terrorism Bureau

Iraqi Special Operations Force and Emergency Response Unit Battalions as of August 31, 2008.

Unity of command is stressed by militaries because, divided command structures have cost battles and wars throughout history. So why are militaries, especially ground forces, not unified? There is a rarely discussed factor about military organization and why it is almost always divided. “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Concentration of power, especially ground forces, invites military coups and dictatorships. The catch is that overly divided militaries leave a country weak and dysfunctional in the face of foreign attack.

The ground forces and communications are the key elements for military coups. The most common compromise made to reduce the possibility of a coup is to divide the ground forces into three separate components with the better-trained component being smaller to balance them. This forces any potential dictator to gain control at least two of the three ground forces. Rivalry between these forces is usually encouraged, even to the detriment of coordinating combat operations.

In Iraq, the Ministry of Interior (MoI) controls the largest ground forces in personnel size, at approximately 365,000. The Iraqi MoI commands the Iraqi Police, Iraqi National Police, Iraqi Department of Border Enforcement, and Iraqi Customs Police. The Iraqi MoI has almost twice as many personnel as the Ministry of Defense (MoD). However, the MoI forces are dispersed and relatively lightly armed compared to the MoD forces.The MoD controls the Iraqi Army, Iraqi Air Force, Iraqi Navy, and Iraqi Marines for a little more than 200,000 total troops. Conventional MoD and MoI forces have been addressed extensively elsewhere. What has not been adequately addressed is the evolving third leg of this troika: The Iraqi Counter Terrorism Bureau, which operates directly under the prime minister’s National Operational Command.

Counter Terrorism Bureau (CTB).

The laws to form the Counter Terrorism Bureau are being debated with recent events fresh in the minds of Iraqi parliamentarians. In August, the National Police Emergency Response Unit was used for a raid in Diyala that was claimed to be “rogue” by Prime Minister Maliki and counter-claimed to be politically motivated intimidation by the opposition members of parliament. Some elements of parliament have publicly demanded the disbanding of the Counter Terrorism Bureau and all Iraqi Special Operations Forces.

Despite this factor, surprisingly little public discussion exists concerning the details of new legislation that would make the Counter Terrorism Bureau a separate ministry. The Minister of National Security is to be the head of this new ministry and, so far, only one component command has been subordinated. Until the legislation is settled determining the size, budget, and duties, the probable organization is speculative. One detail that is known is that this ministry commands the coalition-trained Iraqi Special Operations Forces and probably will gain a MoI component command as well. Currently the CTB has approximately 4,500 personnel.

Counter Terrorism Command (CTC) and Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF).

The Counter Terrorism Command, a seperate subordinate staff to the CTB, is the de facto divisional headquarters command staff of the Iraqi Army Special Operations Forces. The ISOF is composed of only six battalions plus support components at this time. The organization, distribution of forces, and support structure indicate a planned growth to five brigades. This force includes the high-end special operations battalion of the Iraqi Army, the 2nd Counter Terrorism Battalion. To apply for the opportunity to take the 90-day course required to join the 2nd CT Battalion, Iraqi troops must already be commando qualified (US Ranger equivalent). The Operator Training Course has a 3 percent graduation rate. The remaining five current battalions are commando battalions. There is also an Iraqi Air Force Squadron in training for support of ISOF. The 15th Special Operations Squadron has been receiving night flying instruction in US Army helicopters pending receipt of their ordered Mi-17v5 special operations-configured helicopters. These forces and their support components are organized as follows:

Iraqi Army Counter-Terrorism Command

– Headquarters Staff (HQ battalion)

– Special Forces Counter-Terrorism Training Center (includes Operator Training Course)

– ISOF Garrison Support Unit (GSU) (Planned support battalion)

1st Special Operations Brigade – Baghdad

– 1st Special Operations Brigade Special Troops Battalion (HQ battalion)

– 2nd Counter-Terrorism Battalion

– 36th Commando Battalion

– 15th Special Operations Squadron (training and equipping in progress)

– 1st Special Operations Brigade Support Battalion

Regional Battalions

– Basrah Commando Battalion*

– Mosul Commando Battalion*

– Balad Commando Battalion*

– Al Asad Commando Battalion*

* Each of the four regional commando battalions has two attachments. Those are the Regional Counter Terrorism Centers and ISOF Garrison Support Unit detachments. These attachments represent the cadre of future brigade headquarters battalions and brigade support battalions. With the addition of four commando battalions, four Air Force Special operations squadrons, and the fill-out of those cadre elements, those four separate battalions become four brigades. This builds the ISOF to an eventual five-brigade force, regionally based throughout Iraq at Baghdad, Basrah, Mosul, Balad, and Al Asad.

Ministry of Interior (MoI) Components probably joining the Counter Terrorism Bureau (CTB).

There has not been a MoI component publicly assigned to the CTB. However, the National Police’s Emergency Response Unit and provincial Emergency Response Units have been referred to as MoI Special Operations Forces. This provides an indication as to what MoI forces are likely to be transferred to CTB command under the new legislation.

The National Police’s Emergency Response Unit (ERU) is the equivalent of a battalion of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Teams and was trained by US Special Operations Forces. It is supported by the MoI, but, like the CTB operates independently directly under the Prime Minister’s National Operational Command.

MoI also has been shopping for helicopters for a squadron based in Baghdad. The types of helicopters under review indicate that a potential MoI Special Operations Squadron is intended. This indicates that the MoI is planning to form a mirror brigade to the ISOF’s 1st Special Operations Brigade based on the National Police ERU, probably one or two of the Baghdad based provincial ERUs, and the MoI Aviation Squadron. This represents the high end of an MoI contribution.

The MoI also has 30 province-based Emergency Response Units (ERU). These battalions are composed of three police companies and a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) company. They represent the low end of Iraqi Special Operations units. Recently, the US has started to provide US Special Operations Forces Training Teams to the SWAT Companies under the CSWAT program.

These forces, along with the Emergency Response Brigades are in the process of being placed under national command vice their current provincial command. They remain based in the provinces. One or more of the Baghdad ERUs probably will be partnered with the National Police ERU and the proposed MoI Aviation Squadron as part of the formation of MoI’s version of the 1st Special Operations Brigade. The remaining 29 will remain based in the provinces, but under unified command. At least one ERU will be in each province plus there may be “mirror” brigades of ERUs located near the regional ISOF brigades. These numbers do not include the Kurdish battalions that are under negotiation for transfer to MoI.


The forces in and planned for the Counter Terrorism Bureau have responsibilities for internal and external security, are being networked, and provide a credible four division sized counter-coup force against either Ministry of Defense or Interior forces. Its probable organization provides a three tier joint MoD/MoI special operations force under a separate third ministry level command.

– Tier one: 1st Special Operations Brigade and the National Police “mirror” brigade with helicopter support. (4 battalions/2 squadrons)

– Tier two: Four ISOF regional brigades with their helicopter support. (8 battalions/4 squadrons)

– Tier three: 29-plus province-based Emergency Response Units. (29+ battalions)

The possibility of improper use of this force exists, as illustrated by the INP ERU Diyala raid. The Iraqi parliament will have to be very careful in the details of the legislation for this force. With those factors in mind, the Counter Terrorism Bureau provides a credible and necessary deterrence to potential coup plotters, insurrectionists, and terrorists.


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