This started as a comment to Pat Lang’s “Allawi: Iraq Abuses As Bad As Under Saddam”. Even though it’s but a patchwork of quotes, it should be able to stand on its own. Circumstantial evidence emerges to suggest that death squads may be operating as instruments of official covert policy.

Robert Dreyfuss, Jan 1, 2004, Phoenix Rising:

To those familiar with the CIA’s Phoenix assassination program in Vietnam, Latin America’s death squads or Israel’s official policy of targeted murders of Palestinian activists, the results are likely to look chillingly familiar.

The Prospect has learned that part of a secret $3 billion in new funds—tucked away in the $87 billion Iraq appropriation that Congress approved in early November—will go toward the creation of a paramilitary unit manned by militiamen associated with former Iraqi exile groups. Experts say it could lead to a wave of extrajudicial killings, not only of armed rebels but of nationalists, other opponents of the U.S. occupation and thousands of civilian Baathists—up to 120,000 of the estimated 2.5 million former Baath Party members in Iraq.

“They’re clearly cooking up joint teams to do Phoenix-like things, like they did in Vietnam,” says Vincent Cannistraro, former CIA chief of counterterrorism. Ironically, he says, the U.S. forces in Iraq are working with key members of Saddam Hussein’s now-defunct intelligence agency to set the program in motion. “They’re setting up little teams of Seals and Special Forces with teams of Iraqis, working with people who were former senior Iraqi intelligence people, to do these things,” Cannistraro says.


So, going for broke, they’ve decided to launch an intensified military effort combined with a radical new counterinsurgency program . . . the bulk of the covert money will support U.S. efforts to create a lethal, and revenge-minded, Iraqi security force. “The big money would be for standing up an Iraqi secret police to liquidate the resistance,” says Pike [an expert on classified military budgets at “And it has to be politically loyal to the United States.” . . . Chalabi’s INC is promising to use its own intelligence teams to act forcefully against opponents of the United States. Chalabi, the darling of U.S. neoconservatives and the Pentagon’s choice to be Iraq’s first prime minister, is leading the charge for the “de-Baathification” of Iraq.


More explicitly citing similar U.S. operations during the Vietnam War were Tom Donnelly, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and Gary Schmitt, executive director of the Project for a New American Century. Schmitt wrote a paper calling for a counterinsurgency effort modeled on the so-called COORDS program in Vietnam, an umbrella effort that included the notorious Phoenix assassinations. And, over lunch at a Washington eatery, I asked a neoconservative strategist how to deal with Iraq. “It’s time for ‘no more Mr. Nice Guy,'” he said. “All those people shouting, ‘Down with America!’ and dancing in the street when Americans are attacked? We have to kill them.”

Seymour Hersh, 24-31 January 2005 New Yorker, The Coming Wars: What the Pentagon Can Now Do in Secret:

The President has signed a series of findings and executive orders authorizing secret commando groups and other Special Forces units to conduct covert operations against suspected terrorist targets in as many as ten nations in the Middle East and South Asia.

    The President’s decision enables Rumsfeld to run the operations off the books-free from legal restrictions imposed on the C.I.A. Under current law, all C.I.A. covert activities overseas must be authorized by a Presidential finding and reported to the Senate and House intelligence committees. (The laws were enacted after a series of scandals in the nineteen-seventies involving C.I.A. domestic spying and attempted assassinations of foreign leaders.) “The Pentagon doesn’t feel obligated to report any of this to Congress,” the former high-level intelligence official said. “They don’t even call it ‘covert ops’-it’s too close to the C.I.A. phrase. In their view, it’s ‘black reconnaissance.’ They’re not even going to tell the cincs”-the regional American military commanders-in-chief. (The Defense Department and the White House did not respond to requests for comment on this story.)

“Do you remember the right-wing execution squads in El Salvador?” the former high-level intelligence official asked me, referring to the military-led gangs that committed atrocities in the early nineteen-eighties. “We founded them and we financed them,” he said. “The objective now is to recruit locals in any area we want. And we aren’t going to tell Congress about it.” A former military officer, who has knowledge of the Pentagon’s commando capabilities, said, “We’re going to be riding with the bad boys.”

Newsweek, Jan 14, 2005, The Salvador Option:

Now, NEWSWEEK has learned, the Pentagon is intensively debating an option that dates back to a still-secret strategy in the Reagan administration’s battle against the leftist guerrilla insurgency in El Salvador in the early 1980s. Then, faced with a losing war against Salvadoran rebels, the U.S. government funded or supported “nationalist” forces that allegedly included so-called death squads directed to hunt down and kill rebel leaders and sympathizers. Eventually the insurgency was quelled, and many U.S. conservatives consider the policy to have been a success—despite the deaths of innocent civilians and the subsequent Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal.


Following that model, one Pentagon proposal would send Special Forces teams to advise, support and possibly train Iraqi squads, most likely hand-picked Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shiite militiamen, to target Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers, even across the border into Syria, according to military insiders familiar with the discussions. It remains unclear, however, whether this would be a policy of assassination or so-called “snatch” operations, in which the targets are sent to secret facilities for interrogation. The current thinking is that while U.S. Special Forces would lead operations in, say, Syria, activities inside Iraq itself would be carried out by Iraqi paramilitaries, officials tell NEWSWEEK.


The interim government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi is said to be among the most forthright proponents of the Salvador option.

Human Rights Watch, Jan 25, 2005:

Iraqi security forces are committing systematic torture and other abuses against people in detention, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today . . . The people of Iraq were promised something better than this after the government of Saddam Hussein fell,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division. “The Iraqi Interim Government is not keeping its promises to honor and respect basic human rights. Sadly, the Iraqi people continue to suffer from a government that acts with impunity in its treatment of detainees.”  


The Human Rights Watch report details serious and widespread human rights violations since 2003, against both alleged national security suspects, including insurgents, and suspected common criminals. It also highlights serious violations committed by Iraq’s national intelligence service since mid-2004, principally against members of political parties deemed to constitute a threat to state security.  

Human Rights Watch said its investigations in Iraq over a four-month period between July and October 2004 found the systematic use of arbitrary arrest, prolonged pre-trial detention (up to four months in some cases) without judicial review, torture and ill-treatment of detainees, denial of access by families and lawyers to detainees, improper treatment of detained children, and abysmal conditions in pre-trial facilities. The report does not address the mistreatment of persons in the custody of U.S. or other multinational forces in Iraq.

Max Fuller, Nov 10, 2005, Crying Wolf: Media Disinformation and Death Squads in Occupied Iraq:

However, instead of placing the blame squarely on the apparatus of the new Iraqi state, the mainstream media has almost exclusively chosen to shift the emphasis away, resorting to a number of standardised literary devices. The first device is to frame extrajudicial killings in the context of a wider panoply of supposed retaliatory sectarian violence . . . The second device is to state or imply that the security forces are closely associated with largely unaccountable Shia militias, especially the Badr Brigade . . . Most importantly, reports variously stress that the government, Interior Ministry and police are under sectarian Shia control.


Other devices include mentioning the Interior Ministry’s claims of insurgents donning police or commando uniforms or implying that if the security forces are involved in torture and murder it is a reflection of the fact that it is composed of reconstituted members of the former state who know only a culture of violence and intimidation; this is clearly at odds with those reports that regard the security forces as entirely Shia dominated. Wilder devices talk about security forces’ frustration or blame Zarqawi for attempting to inflame sectarian tensions. Whilst all of these devices are employed in various combinations, notably absent from every account is any serious examination of the new Iraqi state or, assiduously avoided, the role of the occupying powers, leaving the most thoughtful of journalist to wonder with Beaumont whether the Iraqi state is ‘stumbling towards a policy of institutionalised torture’ or whether human-rights abuses are conducted by ‘rogue elements’ within the security apparatus.

Fuller’s is a carefully researched piece that goes on to examine the role of the Wolf Brigade, a special forces unit attached to the Interior Ministry, and the Special Police Commandos. He connects them with US intelligence through the figures of “James Steele, a former US Army special forces operative who cut his teeth in Vietnam before moving on to direct the US military mission in El Salvador at the height of that country’s civil war” and “Steven Casteel who as the most senior US advisor within the Interior Ministry brushed off serious and well-substantiated accusations of appalling human right violations as ‘rumor and innuendo’. . Like Steele, Casteel gained considerable experience in Latin America, in his case participating in the hunt for the cocaine baron Pablo Escobar in Colombia’s Drugs Wars of the 1990s, as well as working alongside local forces in Peru and Bolivia (Maas op. cit.).”

Casteel’s background is significant because this kind of intelligence-gathering support role and the production of death lists are characteristic of US involvement in counterinsurgency programs and constitute the underlying thread in what can appear to be random, disjointed killing sprees. Probably the best-attested example of such an operation is Indonesia during the early years of the Suharto dictatorship, when CIA officers provided the names of thousands of people, many of them members of the Indonesian Communist Party, to the army, who dutifully slaughtered them (Kathy Kadane). Similar cases can be made for the CIA supplying death lists and/or overseeing operations in Vietnam (OC Weekly), Guatemala, where death lists are known to have been compiled but were supposedly never acted upon (The Consortium), and El Salvador, where former killers have come forward to describe sharing desk space with US advisors who collected the ‘intelligence’ from ‘heavy interrogation’ but were spared details of the subsequent murders (Covert Action Quarterly). For an extensive list of countries in which the CIA has supported death squads, see the database compiled by Ralph McGehee (Serendipity).

Such centrally planned genocides are entirely consistent with what is taking place in Iraq today under the auspices of crackdowns like Operation Lightning, which make use of so-called Rapid Intrusion Brigades to make widespread, well orchestrated arrests (Financial Times). It is also consistent with what little we know about the Special Police Commandos, which was tailored to provide the Interior Ministry with a special-forces strike capability (US Department of Defense). In keeping with such a role, the Police Commando headquarters has become the hub of a nationwide command, control, communications, computer and intelligence operations centre, courtesy of the US (Defend America). Interestingly, supplying a state-of-the-art communications network to coordinate mass murder was part of the plan in Indonesia as well (Pilger, The New Rulers of the World, p 30); it is doubtless common practice.


It seems that a nebulous Wolf Brigade linked to Badr, full of vengeful Shiite militiamen serves as a useful foil for allegations of ‘state terrorism’, but that when the accusations are sufficiently well-grounded, it is easier to keep it out of the spotlight for fear that a pattern of gross and systematic violations of human rights might start to emerge.


In fact, the entire intelligence establishment is a creation of the Anglo-American secret services (Los Angeles Times), which began building at least as early as the beginning of the occupation (Detroit Free Press), although it may be suspected that the process was conceived long before. The new Iraqi establishment was staffed by long-term CIA assets, such as General Mohammad Shahwani, who had been nurtured by the CIA since the late 1980s (Asia Times Online) and became director of the new National Intelligence Service (the Mukhabarat). Like Thabit and Flayyih, other old CIA hands, Shahwani had participated in attempted coups against the government of Iraq. Further agents (presumably existing intelligence assets for the most part) were recruited from Iraq’s main political groups, consisting of SCIRI, the Dawa Party, the two main Kurdish parties, the Iraqi National Congress and the Iraqi National Accord. These agents became the Collection, Management and Analysis Directorate (CMAD), whose principal job was to ‘turn raw intelligence into targets that could be used in operations’ (Detroit Free Press, op. cit.). Initially, ‘operations’ were carried out by a paramilitary unit composed of militia from the five main parties, who, under the supervision of US commanders, worked with US special forces to track down ‘insurgents’ (Washington Post).


These new intelligence agencies supply the data for the Interior Ministry to make arrests . . . Like Thabit and Flayyih, Shahwani has retained his position under the transitional government and continues to report directly to the CIA (Seattle Times). Clearly, however, the purpose of stating or implying that unaccountable militias are behind the extrajudicial executions and/or that sectarian rivalries, especially Shia control of the Interior Ministry (which, as Beaumont correctly points out, is the centre of the horror), are to blame, is to distance the US from the almost unthinkable ongoing crimes against humanity. Comparable disinformation strategies have been employed in every counterinsurgency conflict with which the US has been involved; it is known as establishing ‘plausible deniability’. For example, in Colombia, where the US as been deeply involved for decades, paramilitary death squads are invariably described in the media as a third force in the armed conflict, despite the fact that their victims are typically civilian opponents of the government, their members are drawn directly from serving members of the armed forces and they are only able to operate with the active complicity of the army (Human Rights Watch: The “Sixth Division”). In reality, they function as part of a shadow state, which exists to implement policies that must remain unaccountable.

Last week, Dreyfuss reported this exchange:

Last week I had a chilling encounter with one of the monsters responsible for the Murder Inc. units run by Badr and by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). At a Washington think tank, I met Adel Abdul Mahdi, Iraq’s so-called deputy president and a SCIRI official. When I asked Mahdi about reports that Iraqi police and interior ministry squads were carrying out assassinations and other illegal acts, he didn’t deny it—but, he said, such acts were merely a reaction to the terrorism of the resistance. “There is terrorism on only one side,” he said. “Inappropriate acts by the other side, by the police—this is something else. This is a reaction.” As far as civilian casualties in Sunni towns, he had this to say: “You can’t fight terrorism without attacking some popular areas.”

I also asked him about the Badr Brigade, the Iranian-backed paramilitary force that is the main domestic army propping up Abdul Mahdi’s Shiite coalition, he said “they are disarmed,” which is patently absurd. He added: “They participate fully in the political process.”

Abdul Mahdi had this to say about Fallujah, the city that was obliterated by the U.S. armed forces a year ago. “It is one of the most peaceful areas in Iraq. I don’t know whether the people are happy or not. But it is one of the most peaceful cities.

Make no mistake. The gangsters now running Iraq are our creatures.”

and he closes with these unsettling thoughts:

Earlier this week, I was speaking with someone who was involved in the pre-2003 war planning effort vis-à-vis Iraq. As I mentioned in TPM Cafe , he told me that some of his colleagues realized that the New Iraq would probably be taken over not by Ahmed Chalabi, but by the Shiite fundamentalists. Those radical-right parties (along with the Kurds) were the real forces that took part in Chalabi’s INC bloc. And the United States consciously supported the toppling of Saddam knowing that radical Shiites would be the chief beneficiaries. This was not an intelligence failure. We knew it. This was an explicit decision by the neocon-dominated cabal to replace Saddam with Shiite crazies. Now, we see that those crazies are running Saddam-like torture prisons where they use electric drills and flay the skin off Sunni captives.

The military in Iraq is scrambling to limit the damage from the stunning revelation about the men who are running Iraq today. We toppled Saddam—and in his place we’ve installed a hundred mini-Saddams.

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