BAGHDAD – Iraq's special forces, which barreled into a town east of Mosul on Thursday despite a wave of suicide attacks, are the country's most professional and least sectarian fighting force.
Officially known as the Counter Terrorism Service, the U.S. trained troops have played a key role in wresting back towns and cities from IS, and are expected to lead the charge in Mosul, their toughest battle yet.
Here is a look at Iraq's special forces:
MADE IN AMERICA
The CTS was established by the American military shortly after the 2003 invasion as an elite commando unit charged with hunting down top insurgents and carrying out complex raids. They were trained, armed and supplied by U.S. Special Forces, who fought alongside them at the height of the insurgency.
The force proved to be a more reliable partner to the Americans than the mainstream security forces, where corruption was rife and many units were tied to parties or militias. But many Iraqis saw the special forces as the shock troops of an occupying power, and took to referring to them as the "Dirty Division."
A PRAETORIAN GUARD?
The force grew in size over the years and expanded beyond its commando roots, with some taking part in conventional battles and even mundane tasks like manning checkpoints. Today they number around 12,000 men, including administrators, and up to 2,600 are taking part in the Mosul operation.
The unit was never incorporated into the Defense Ministry and answers directly to the prime minister. In the latter years of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's rule, many feared the special forces had become a praetorian guard that would cement his grip on power, but those fears were laid to rest when al-Maliki peacefully stepped down in 2014.
FROM "DIRTY" TO "GOLDEN"
When the Islamic State group swept across northern and central Iraq in 2014, Iraq's security forces crumbled. Officers fled and their soldiers beat a humiliating retreat, many stripping off their uniforms and leaving their weapons and Humvees behind.
But not the special forces, who held their ground and became a source of national pride.
The CTS "retained its organizational cohesion and structure in 2014 when many other units of the Iraqi army fell apart," said David M. Witty, a retired U.S. Army Special Forces colonel and former adviser to the CTS. "The key leaders of CTS have become central figures in the Iraqi public's perception of the campaign to destroy IS."
"Dirty" no more, the 1st Brigade is now widely known as the "Golden Division."
A NON-SECTARIAN FORCE
The CTS was designed to be a non-sectarian force, with Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish members who were strictly vetted to ensure they had no ties to political factions or militias. In the early years, the force mainly battled Sunni insurgents, but it also played a lead role in a 2008 offensive against Shiite militias. Maj. Gen. Fadhil al-Barwari, who leads the Golden Brigade, is a Kurd.
The force also has a better human rights record than most of the other participants in the Mosul Offensive. An Amnesty International report released this week documenting abuses in Anbar mainly focused on state-sanctioned Shiite militias, and included only passing mention of the CTS.
LEADING THE CHARGE INTO MOSUL
The special forces launched their first assault in the Mosul operation early Thursday, capturing the town of Bartella with the aid of attack helicopters despite stiff resistance from IS, which unleashed nine suicide truck bombs, one of which struck an armored Humvee. The rest were destroyed before hitting their targets.
"We will lead the charge into Mosul as we are specialized in the battles in urban areas and guerrilla war," said special forces Brig. Gen. Haider Fadhil. "We are trained to break into towns and cities with fewer casualties."
The special forces are expected to help drive IS out of Mosul in the coming weeks or months. But they can't police the country, and will eventually have to hand things off to Iraq's army and police, as well as Shiite militias and Sunni tribal fighters. It will be left to them to ensure that IS, which has recovered from past defeats, does not return.
Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Bartella, Iraq contributed to this report.
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