Iraq's Counterterrorism Forces

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," May 3, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Iraq's new prime minister vowing to fight terrorism in his country; his pledge coming the same day as a deadly gun battle erupted between coalition forces and insurgents in Ramadi (search).

Joining me now is contributing writer for The New York Times magazine, Peter Maass. He spent time traveling with Iraq's counterterrorism forces, the special police commandos.

Now, this group is led by a general who was a Baathist, who is a Sunni, and he is going after the Sunni insurgency. What is different about him than anybody else?

PETER MAASS, THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE: Well, there are several things that are somewhat different.

First off, in addition to be a general for Saddam (search), he was actually thrown in jail by Saddam as well for being involved in a coup. On top of which, unlike other Sunnis who have joined the insurgency, he's decided to put his lot in with the government against the insurgents. There's a division among Sunnis. I mean, they're not all in favor of the insurgency. And there are some who think they should start working with the government. And he's one.

GIBSON: We see these pictures. These are the counterinsurgency forces training. And it all looks nice, Peter. You didn't see them acting so nice. A lot of Americans would take some heart in that. Are these guys using tactics Americans would not?

MAASS: Well, in general, war isn't as nice as sometimes it might look on these nice videos that you see from the cockpits of bombers or in target ranges of that sort.

The tactics that are used by these commandos are very brutal. I mean, they are beating up prisoners. They did that in front of me. They're threatening to execute prisoners. They did that in front of me. These are things, of course, however, that even First World armies and some Americans in Iraq have been accused of doing.

The thing is, with these commandos, I think they're doing it quite a bit and it's pretty much standard operating procedure for them.

GIBSON: Are they effective?

MAASS: They are. And their brutality actually might be part of their effectiveness. I mean, fighting an insurgency in any country is a very dirty business, very hard, and there's really no record of a clean counterinsurgency that's been waged by any Third World government.

And these guys, they are getting out there. They are arresting people. They are not kind of arresting everybody they need to arrest, but they're actually fighting. And a lot of Iraqi forces that have been trained by Americans are not.

GIBSON: This is that group of 5,000 that's been referred to sometimes in Senate hearings as if it's not much. Is this 5,000 group of special forces effective enough that we should think they are doing a good job?

MAASS: They're not enough on their own to defeat the insurgency. That's not possible. It would take a lot more.

But they really are carrying a disproportionate share of the burden of fighting the insurgency, because this is a very mobile force. I mean, they don't have tanks. They don't have Humvees. They kind of travel around in these Dodge pickups and they just fly up and down the highways, going to wherever there is trouble. They're like a strike force. And this is something that has worked in other Third World countries for counterinsurgencies. In El Salvador, there were a couple of battalions that were trained by Americans that really did the burden of the fighting.

GIBSON: Are we going to hear from Amnesty International (search) next that we are sponsoring essentially a death squad, running around imposing a kind of arbitrary punishment, collective punishment on Iraqis?

MAASS: Well, there certainly have been a lot of complaints, not only from Amnesty International, but even from the State Department, about Iraqi forces not following all human rights rules that they should.

Death squads, I think, are something that really, although some people have talked about it, I saw no evidence of quite that. And, in fact, they would not, I think, have allowed me to be with them if that indeed is what they were. That doesn't, however, exclude the possibility of rough tactics that sometimes lead to the deaths of prisoners or people being detained.

GIBSON: Now, General Adnan, who leads this group, he is also the creator behind this hit television show in Iraq, which is terrorism in the grip of the new government, I guess.

Why does he think this and is this program so effective, showing these terrorists, once they're caught, sort of crying and, you know, confessing their sins?

MAASS: Well, counterinsurgency isn't just military stuff. It's also, actually, psychological operations. And this has probably been the most successful one of the war, because what it's done is, it's taken the insurgency, which everybody thought was fearless and mythical, almost, in its powers, and it's unmasked it. It's humiliated it by putting these insurgents on TV and they're crying and they're confessing to sins and they don't seem to be very powerful guys at all, actually.

And this has really done a lot to kind of make people less fearful of the insurgency. And that helps the government quite a bit.

GIBSON: Does General Adnan think the insurgents are Iraqis and that this is an indigenous, sort of organic rebellion rising from the streets of Iraq or that it's a bunch of foreign fighters waging jihad?

MAASS: I think that General Adnan, like pretty much everyone who is in Iraq fighting this war, realizes that the main threat is from Iraqis.

There is a foreign element. It is troublesome. It is responsible for some of the most vicious violence. But the targets that they were after when I was with them in Samarra, they were all pretty much Iraqi targets.

GIBSON: You heard this report about a letter being captured purportedly to Zarqawi from insurgents saying, "We're demoralized. We're not doing as well as we should. We've got too many incompetents in our group." Does that sound legit to you?

MAASS: It kind of does, actually, because, while I was there, I was beginning to get a lot of information about ordinary Iraqis turning against these foreigners that some of them were killed by ordinary Iraqis who were upset about what they had been doing. The foreign fighters are not terribly popular in Iraq.

GIBSON: Peter Maass, a great story in The New York Times magazine this weekend about the counterinsurgency force at work in Iraq trying to defeat the insurgency. Peter, thank you very much.

MAASS: Thank you, John.

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