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December 4, 2005 - Just Like Old Times - Leaving No Fingerprints

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Last weekend in these pages, in Explaining the Inexplicable (and Iraq as El Salvador), it was clear something was bound to break.

Seymour Hersh, from last January with this in the New Yorker


"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."


And Newsweek at the time was reporting this


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. ... One military source involved in the Pentagon debate suggests that new offensive operations are needed that would create a fear of aiding the insurgency. "The Sunni population is paying no price for the support it is giving to the terrorists," he said. "From their point of view, it is cost-free. We have to change that equation."


And so we have.


The death squads are back. We're riding with the bad boys.

The key guy in setting up and funding right-wing death squads in the area at the time - in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala - to do the wet work we could not be caught doing (taking out the key pro-democracy rebels and such), was John Negroponte. That would be John D. Negroponte - US ambassador to the United Nations from September of 2001 until June 2004 (sat next to Colin Powell at the famous war-now speech) and US ambassador to Iraq from June 2004 to April 2005 (our first after Saddam was gone), and now our Director of National Intelligence. He survived the blowback from the problems with those tactics in Central America (like the dead nuns), and came out smelling like a rose. The Clinton administration wouldn't touch him. The new Bush administration liked his "can do" attitude.

There was grumbling about him in his confirmation hearings for the UN gig, given his past, but he was confirmed. September of 2001 was an odd time - you didn't really argue with the president. It was not the time to do that. You'd look like a coward and a traitor.

When Negroponte was named our first ambassador to the new Iraq there were comments here and there joking that he'd take care of things just as he did in Central America - he'd somehow, on the side, fund and arm nasty locals to "take care of" troublemakers - death squads to do some kidnapping, some clever targeted assassinations and a little torture - but we'd be clean. That worked fine, mostly, back in the eighties - a lot of civilians (and those nuns) died, but things got taken care of.

Negroponte denied it all when the investigations came around. The administration denied it all. Reagan was clean. And the appropriate folks had turned up dead, or never turned up at all. The idea is to leave no fingerprints, as it were. And there were none - or they were sufficiently smudged.

The Newsweek item is all about how, in the middle of this guy's tenure as our first ambassador to Iraq, the Defense Department started talking about a "Salvador option" for Iraq. But the story disappeared.

Then on Tuesday, November 29, 2005, the whole thing suddenly made the headlines, here in the New York Times and here in the Los Angeles Times. They both report Iraq is now pretty much run by death squads. Knight-Ridder was on the story more than a month earlier here, but Knight-Ridder is the second-string, aren't they?

Kevin Drum here has some thoughts, and he is the one reminding everyone Knight Ridder's Tom Lasseter was first on this.

But basically he notes now everyone is reporting that Iraq's security forces have been heavily infiltrated by Shiite "death squads" that are carrying out hundreds of executions in predominantly Sunni neighborhoods, and Lasseter was reporting the same thing over a month ago - crack units within the Iraqi army have essentially become Shiite militias that take orders from local Shiite clerics.

From the Solomon Moore story in the Los Angeles Times out here –


An Aug. 18 police operations report addressed to Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, who has ties to the [Shiite] Badr militia, listed the names of 14 Sunni Arab men arrested during a predawn sweep in the Baghdad neighborhood of Iskaan.

Six weeks later, their bodies were discovered near the Iranian border, badly decomposed. All of the corpses showed signs of torture, and each still wore handcuffs and had been shot three times in the back of the head, Baghdad morgue officials said.

A Western diplomat in Baghdad who spoke on condition of anonymity said that "we hear repeated stories" of police raids on houses and indiscriminate arrests of Iraqi civilians - many of them Sunni Arab Muslims.

"And they disappear, but the bodies show up maybe two or three governorates away," the diplomat said.


But that wasn't us doing these bad things, right?


We play by the rules. We don't take these shortcuts.

Still, things may be getting a little out of hand –


U.S. officials have long been concerned about extrajudicial killings in Iraq, but until recently they have refrained from calling violent elements within the police force "death squads" - a loaded term that conjures up the U.S.-backed paramilitaries that killed thousands of civilians during the Latin American civil wars of the 1970s and 1980s.

But U.S. military advisors in Iraq say the term is apt, and the Interior Ministry's inspector general concurs that extrajudicial killings are being carried out by ministry forces ...

This month, U.S. forces raided a secret Interior Ministry detention facility in southern Baghdad operated by police intelligence officials linked to the Badr Brigade, a Shiite militia that has long-standing ties to Iran and to Iraq's leading Shiite political party. Inmates compiled a handwritten list of 18 detainees at the bunker who were allegedly tortured to death while in custody. The list was authenticated by a U.S. official and given to Justice Ministry authorities for investigation. It was later provided to The Times.

The U.S. military is investigating whether police officers who worked at the secret prison were trained by American interrogation experts.


What did the president say this month?

"Our military is helping to train Iraqi security forces so they can defend their people and take the fight to the enemy. And we're making steady progress."

We need to define "progress" here.

Is this progress?


A Western diplomat in Baghdad who spoke on condition of anonymity said that "we hear repeated stories" of police raids on houses and indiscriminate arrests of Iraqi civilians - many of them Sunni Arab Muslims.

... The Al Mahdi army has a heavy presence in the regular police force, U.S. and Iraqi authorities said. One high-ranking U.S. military officer estimated that up to 90% of the 35,000 police officers working in northeast Baghdad were affiliated with Al Mahdi.

The U.S. officer said that "half of them are in a unit called 'the Punishment Committee,'" suspected of committing abuses against civilians believed to be flouting Islamic laws or the militia's authority. The officer said that Sunni Arab Muslims were frequently targeted by the committee.

... U.S. military sources said Badr militia members in the [Interior] ministry's Maghawir (Fearless Warrior) special commando brigades were carrying out illegal raids and extrajudicial killings.

... U.S. and Iraqi officials believe that both militias have been responsible for scores of execution-style slayings this year.

"The Mahdi army's got the Iraqi police and Badr's got the commandos," the high-ranking U.S. military officer said. "Everybody's got their own death squads."


Everybody's got their own death squads?  How democratic (small "d").

The problem is, of course, that you want some unity and focus. Negroponte left Iraq in April for his new job as Director of National Intelligence back here in Washington. Yeah, you want to scare the heck out of the Sunnis who don't like being out of power - and kidnapping, torture and random or selected murder do the job - either they'll stop sabotaging the new Shiite government out of fear, or blow up more marketplaces and hotels out of anger. There's no law or anything like it that will protect you, and you know it.

Of course you want to make sure no one can possibly think the Americans are doing this. We don't so such things. We're the "rule of law" folks.

But you really do want to send one message - give up or you and your family will die horrible deaths - not several messages regarding proper religious practices or this or that.

But Negroponte has gone home. There are lots of groups freelancing.

Things are bad? Everybody's got their own death squads?

No, things are good. Joe Lieberman says so. Everybody's got their own cell phone.

Tuesday, November 29th, Joe, there on the ground, explains in the Wall Street Journal


There are many more cars on the streets, satellite television dishes on the roofs, and literally millions more cell phones in Iraqi hands than before.

... It is a war between 27 million and 10,000; 27 million Iraqis who want to live lives of freedom, opportunity and prosperity and roughly 10,000 terrorists who are either Saddam revanchists, Iraqi Islamic extremists or al Qaeda foreign fighters who know their wretched causes will be set back if Iraq becomes free and modern. The terrorists are intent on stopping this by instigating a civil war to produce the chaos that will allow Iraq to replace Afghanistan as the base for their fanatical war-making.


Here's a note on what happened as Sunny Joe was drafting his WSJ piece –


Monday in Iraq was characterized by the usual mayhem, much of it with a dark sectarian character. Two prominent members of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party and a third politician from the Association of Muslim Scholars (hard line Sunni) were assassinated in Baghdad. South of the capital, two Britons of South Asian heritage who had gone on pilgrimage to the Shiite holy city of Karbala were killed in an ambush. Northern Iraq - 6 Iranian pilgrims were kidnapped.

In Baqubah four US troops were wounded by a suicide bombing. In Baiji, US troops opened fire when a bomb went off, and they killed a leader of the Shamar tribe, among the larger and more powerful in Iraq. Vice President Ghazi al-Yawir is from the Shamar. So too was one of the suicide bombers who blew up the Radisson SAS in Amman recently. Killing the Shamar shaikh = not good.


Some see the glass half-full, and some see it half-empty.

And some notice things like this - our new a US ambassador in Baghdad, now that Negroponte has been bumped up many notches, Zalmay Khalilzad, is going to start direct talks with the Iranians. What?

Juan Cole speculates


It is the return of Realism in Washington foreign policy. You need the Iranians, as I maintain, for a soft landing in Iraq? So you do business with the Iranians. This opening may help explain why Ahmad Chalabi went to Tehran before he went to Washington, and why he was given such a high-level (if unphotographed) reception in Washington.


Maybe so. The death squad thing just wasn't working. Ask one of the charter members of the Axis of Evil for a little help here.

This is all very odd.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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This issue updated and published on...

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