Thursday, December 01, 2005

Laura Rozen's compendium: Iraqi death squads: who's behind them

More on Iraqi death squads as a product of deliberate Pentagon (+CIA) policy. Note the link to the relevant NYT article below. The Times article is worth reading to see that the most important US newspaper is taking note of hundreds of militia style victims, and to see how they leave out any notion of USG involvement and to see how late in the game they are coming to this story: i.e.. their refusal to look into the matter for two years, despite plenty of anecdotal evidence presented in their own Sunday Magazine!! (see below), not to mention other mainstream outlets like Newsweek. And they are only writing a story now because the USG has gotten around to putting their spin on events. -- RB

Blogger Laura Rozen writes:

Nov 29, 2005
"The Salvador Option." Reader MV writes, "Long story why I'm so emotionally involved in this, but please read this Newsweek piece from January about internal DoD debates regarding the 'Salvador Option,' showing internal debate within the DoD about the formation of Salvador- style 'death squads' as one possible means of regaining control of Iraq. This story has gotten so little play for what it says":

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. (Among the current administration officials who dealt with Central America back then is John Negroponte, who is today the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. Under Reagan, he was ambassador to Honduras. There is no evidence, however, that Negroponte knew anything about the Salvadoran death squads or the Iran-Contra scandal at the time. The Iraq ambassador, in a phone call to NEWSWEEK on Jan. 10, said he was not involved in military strategy in Iraq. He called the insertion of his name into this report "utterly gratuitous.")

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.

Also being debated is which agency within the U.S. government—the Defense department or CIA—would take responsibility for such an operation. Rumsfeld’s Pentagon has aggressively sought to build up its own intelligence-gathering and clandestine capability with an operation run by Defense Undersecretary Stephen Cambone. But since the Abu Ghraib interrogations scandal, some military officials are ultra-wary of any operations that could run afoul of the ethics codified in the Uniform Code of Military Justice. That, they argue, is the reason why such covert operations have always been run by the CIA and authorized by a special presidential finding. ...

So the US is no hapless bystander to the Shiite death squads we are seeing, but they are the product of deliberate Pentagon policy? Is Cambone going to be hauled before Congress or what? Talk about missing the black helicopter crowd. One cannot but long for justice for these guys. Could some forward looking European nation please arrest them next time they stop over, just to give them a scare? A little Pinochet-like unpleasant episode, if not a full fledged trial? Doesn't this country deserve to know what is being done in our name? If these guys believe in what they're doing, if they believe it's in the interest of US national security, why don't they have the courage to admit it openly? Why are they trying to organize Shiite death squads in secret? Because it would be bad for the US to be seen to be behind this policy? Or because they are concerned about their own legal vulnerability?
Update: More from Eric Umansky (who recommends journalists in Iraq try to profile one James Steele), Praktike, Needlenose, Peter Maas, No More Mister, and Bob Dreyfuss. Thanks to multiple readers.

Here's the cited entry from No More Mister Nice Blog

By Swopa
May 1 2005 - 12:41pm

Remember the controversy when Newsweek wrote in January that the U.S. was thinking about supporting a "Salvador option" in Iraq? Remember a month later, when the Wall Street Journal wrote about "pop-up militias" there, which I promptly surmised might be the "Salvador option" put into motion?

Well, today Peter Maass has a massive report in the New York Times Magazine that essentially confirms this. Here's his account of visiting the head of the Special Police Commandos death squad militia described by the WSJ as "catching the American military by surprise":

Adnan's office was a hive of conversation, phone calls and tea-drinking. Along with a dozen commandos, there were several American advisers in the room, including James Steele, one of the United States military's top experts on counterinsurgency. Steele honed his tactics leading a Special Forces mission in El Salvador during that country's brutal civil war in the 1980's. Steele's presence was a sign not only of the commandos' crucial role in the American counterinsurgency strategy but also of his close relationship with Adnan.

. . . As part of President Reagan's policy of supporting anti-Communist forces [in El Salvador in the 1980s], hundreds of millions of dollars in United States aid was funneled to the Salvadoran Army, and a team of 55 Special Forces advisers, led for several years by Jim Steele, trained front-line battalions that were accused of significant human rights abuses.
Maass goes on to describe the U.S. role in the death squad militia's creation:

. . having been a key participant in the Salvador conflict, Steele knows how to organize a counterinsurgency campaign that is led by local forces. He is not the only American in Iraq with such experience: the senior U.S. adviser in the Ministry of Interior, which has operational control over the commandos, is Steve Casteel, a former top official in the Drug Enforcement Administration who spent much of his professional life immersed in the drug wars of Latin America.

. . . Last summer, with the security situation deteriorating, some Iraqi and American officials began to argue that the time had passed for a ''clean hands'' policy that rejected most of the experienced people who had fought for Saddam Hussein. The first official to take action was Falah al-Naqib, interior minister under the interim government of Ayad Allawi. In September, Naqib formed his own regiment, the Special Police Commandos, drawn from veterans of Hussein's special forces and the Republican Guard. As its leader, he chose General Adnan, not only because Adnan had a useful collection of colleagues from Iraq's military and security networks, but also because Adnan is Naqib's uncle.

. . . The American who was most involved in the commandos' creation was Casteel, Naqib's senior American adviser. Casteel, who previously worked for Paul Bremer in the Coalition Provisional Authority, realized that the de-Baathification policy had to be altered and that Naqib was the person to do it.
And just to show how closely tied to the Allawi regime the commandos were, it turns out that Gen. Adnan is the mastermind behind the surreality TV shows that feature "confessions" from torture victims supposed terrorists. Maass also shows us a hint of how complicit the U.S is in the commandos' familiarly Saddam-esque methods, going on a joint raid backed up by American troops led by a captain named Bennett:

The officer in charge of the raid -- a Major Falah -- now made it clear that he believed the detainee had led them on a wild-goose chase. The detainee was sitting at the side of a commando truck; I was 10 feet away, beside Bennett and four G.I.'s. One of Falah's captains began beating the detainee. Instead of a quick hit or slap, we now saw and heard a sustained series of blows. We heard the sound of the captain's fists and boots on the detainee's body, and we heard the detainee's pained grunts as he received his punishment without resistance. It was a dockyard mugging. Bennett turned his back to face away from the violence, joining his soldiers in staring uncomfortably at the ground in silence. The blows continued for a minute or so.
A similar situation occurs on another raid that Maass observes:

On March 8, I went on a series of raids with the commandos, traveling in a Humvee with Maj. Robert Rooker, an artillery officer based in Tikrit who was dispatched to Samarra to serve as my escort. . . . The target was a house outside Samarra where Najim al-Takhi, thought to be the leader of an insurgent cell, was believed to be hiding.

The commandos reached an isolated farmhouse and detained al-Takhi's son, who looked to be in his early 20's. This was an excellent catch. The son of a suspect usually knows where the suspect is hiding; if not, he can be detained and used as a bargaining chip to persuade the father to surrender.

. . . The captain pushed him against a mud wall and told everyone else to move away. Standing less than 10 feet from the young man, the captain aimed his AK-47 at him and clicked off the safety latch. He was threatening to kill him. I was close enough to catch some of the dialogue on my digital recorder.

. . . Major Rooker was just a few feet from the angry captain. He moved closer and nudged the captain's AK-47 toward the ground.

''You are a professional soldier,'' Rooker told him. ''You know and I know that you need to put the weapon down.''

. . . As the commandos pulled their prisoner away, Lieutenant Johansen conferred with Rooker. ''They don't operate the way we do, that's for damn sure,'' Johansen said. ''We have to be nice to people.'' Especially in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib, they both knew that threatening a prisoner with death ... was illegal under the Geneva Conventions.
Actually, the bitter punch line here is that taking a wanted man's son hostage is probably a violation of the Geneva Conventions, too -- which just shows how badly our troops' collective sense of right and wrong has been scrambled amid the nightmare they've been forced to endure.

Another sign comes when Maass's Dante-esque journey takes him to a "detention center" run by the commandos:

We walked through the entrance gates of the center and stood, briefly, outside the main hall. Looking through the doors, I saw about 100 detainees squatting on the floor, hands bound behind their backs; most were blindfolded. To my right, outside the doors, a leather-jacketed security official was slapping and kicking a detainee who was sitting on the ground. We went to a room adjacent to the main hall, and as we walked in, a detainee was led out with fresh blood around his nose. The room had enough space for a couple of desks and chairs; one desk had bloodstains running down its side. . . .

A few minutes after the interview started, a man began screaming in the main hall, drowning out the Saudi's voice. ''Allah!'' he shouted. ''Allah! Allah!'' It was not an ecstatic cry; it was chilling, like the screams of a madman, or of someone being driven mad. ''Allah!'' he yelled again and again. The shouts were too loud to ignore. Steele left the room to find out what was happening. When returned, the shouts had ceased. But soon, through the window behind me, I could hear the sounds of someone vomiting, coming from an area where other detainees were being held, at the side of the building.

. . . One afternoon as I was standing near City Hall, I heard a gunshot from within or behind the detention center. In previous days, I saw or heard, on several occasions, accidental shots by commandos -- their weapons discipline was far from perfect -- so I assumed it was another negligent discharge. But within a minute or so, there was another shot from the same place -- inside or behind the detention center.
There are caveats throughout the article that, of course, the U.S. isn't really condoning any of this brutality, much less pursuing it as an intentional policy. And yet, all of the above incidents occurred in the presence of American military officers and a U.S. civilian journalist. As Maass notes more than once, the worst atrocities tend to occur out of sight ... and even the Americans who assure Maass that they're doing what they can to restrain the death squad commandos acknowledge that the latter are entirely capable of committing such crimes.

Not only that, these are exactly the goons that Donald Rumsfeld flew to Baghdad to personally argue for keeping in the Iraqi military. So, please, spare me the Pollyanna bullshit disingenuous reasoning that we're trying to bring democracy and freedom to the Middle East, with Iraq as a shining example. It never was true, and as our lengthy fight against elections and our current sponsorship of the Special Police Commandos shows, the Bushites would be perfectly happy with a Saddam-free version of Saddamism.


The New York Times
Sunnis Accuse Iraqi Military of Kidnappings and Slayings
Published: November 29, 2005


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