Nicolas J S Davies

A collection of published articles and letters to policymakers regarding the crisis in United States foreign policy by Nicolas J S Davies.

Location: North Miami, Florida, United States

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Berlin Wall, Panama and Iraq

Is the illegitimate and unconstitutional defense policy developed by the United States since the end of the Cold War a radical new departure or part of a familiar pattern of international behavior?

Published by Online Journal:

The Berlin Wall fell on November 9th-10th 1989. Forty days later, the United States invaded Panama. This was the first unilateral U.S. combat operation in Latin America in sixty years. It was also the largest U.S. combat operation anywhere in the world since Vietnam. The U.N. General Assembly condemned it as a “flagrant violation of international law” by a vote of 75 to 20. The O.A.S. condemned the U.S. for the first time in its history, by a vote of 20 to 1, and the U.S. representative did not vote against an additional O.A.S. resolution condemning his own country for violating the diplomatic status of the Nicaraguan Embassy to Panama.

Sixteen years later, the United States has invaded another country, Iraq, and is violating international treaties regarding torture, human rights, prisoners of war and the responsibilities of occupying powers. Further, it has formulated and committed itself to an illegitimate defense strategy in defiance of international law and the U.N. Charter. The Defense Strategy of the U.S.A. (2005) threatens unilateral military action against “gathering threats”, “emerging challenges”, “to deny an opponent the strategic initiative” and to “defeat adversaries at the time, place, and in the manner of our choosing – setting the conditions for future security”, none of which constitute legitimate bases for military action under international law. The United States Constitution defines international treaties as part of the “Supreme Law of the Land”, so that these policies are also unconstitutional under U.S. law.

In discussing the second Bush administration’s violations of international law and its unconstitutional defense policy, a question often arises. Is this really a radical departure from past U.S. policy, or is it just a new variation on a familiar pattern of U.S. international behavior? Most Americans, and indeed most other people too, have formed some view on this question. On the one hand, President Carter and many other Americans express outrage that our government is violating and undermining the international legal system so painstakingly crafted by its predecessors. On the other hand, many Americans believe that, appalling as it may be, this is the way the U.S. Government has always behaved.

In this essay I hope to unravel some of the elements of this question. Why was a firm commitment to peace vital to U.S. policymakers in 1945, and what has happened to that commitment? What part has the demise of the Soviet Union played in U.S. decisions to use force in violation of international law since 1989? What common threads connect the invasion of Panama in 1989 with the invasion of Iraq in 2003? And what does this greater willingness to commit illegal aggression say about the actual strategic position of the United States in the post-Cold War world?

To whatever extent these illegal and unconstitutional policies do constitute a new departure, we also have to ask: Are they the work of a powerful cabal of deviant policymakers who can be removed from office, or do they have the broader support of the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy and the Congress and thus constitute a more deeply-rooted and lasting danger to our country and the world?

A little history

Once the United States had expanded westward to the Pacific in the 19th century, its leaders agreed that its continued growth as a capitalist state required expansion into foreign markets, to sell agricultural and industrial surpluses and to obtain raw materials to fuel the continued growth of its industries. The Open Door policy formulated in the 1890s, which launched U.S. penetration of the world’s markets in the 20th century, was originally designed to open up foreign markets without recourse to war with existing empires or recalcitrant colonies.

The Open Door never exactly worked that way, as it is impossible to economically penetrate other societies on such a scale without causing upheaval and conflict, but successive U.S. administrations retained the fundamental goal of expanding overseas markets on favorable terms while tackling the inevitable or “unintended” social and political consequences via diplomacy, military action and foreign aid.

By the end of the Second World War, the United States not only dominated global production and trade but also global finance and credit. The Marshall Plan integrated Western Europe into its economic sphere as a consumer of U.S. surpluses and a supplier of raw materials from European colonies around the globe. In this context, President Roosevelt’s vision of the United Nations was one of a peaceful and prosperous world with the United States enjoying the benefits that would accrue to the richest and strongest member of this global community. The lesson of two world wars, that peace was a precondition for continued growth and prosperity, was so clear that even Roosevelt’s more insecure and parochial successor, Harry Truman, fully embraced it and assisted at the birth of Roosevelt’s brainchild.

The United Nations Charter is a wonderful document, and it is well worth reading in its entirety, which gives a more complete sense of the commitment to peace made by its signatories than any of its individual parts, but the express commitment to refrain from aggression or the threat of aggression is Article 2(4):

“All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”

It must be said that those who emphasize the cynicism of U.S. behavior since 1945 have plenty of material to support their position. In Killing Hope (updated edition 2003), William Blum details every publicly known U.S. intervention or covert operation during this period, and makes it clear that the United States has indeed killed the hopes of millions of people in dozens of countries who hoped merely for a fairer society or for some relief from brutal oppression, while justifying its actions in terms of the Cold War and anti-communism.

In the immediate post-World War II period, the United States, Great Britain and France brutally suppressed the very resistance groups that had fought with them against the Germans in Greece and against Japan in the Philippines, Korea and Indochina, but the United States did not openly violate Article 2(4) in the years that followed. It acted in support of brutal dictatorships in many countries, and covertly to destabilize or even replace governments it opposed, but it did not launch unilateral full-scale invasions to effect “regime change” in any country during this period, not even to roll back any part of the established Soviet strategic and economic zone.

The Korean War, however contrived, was conducted under the auspices of the U.N. The basis for the U.S. war in Vietnam developed from the temporary division of Vietnam into North and South by the Geneva Accords of 1954, which created a quasi-state for the U.S. to “defend” in the South. The invasion of the Dominican Republic was sanctioned by the O.A.S. and that of Grenada by the O.E.C.S. (although I’ll come back to Grenada later). On occasion, the U.S. Congress made genuine efforts to curb direct and indirect acts of violence by the C.I.A., and it tried to put a stop to the mining of Nicaraguan harbors and other illegal U.S. actions against Nicaragua in the 1980s following a ruling by the International Court of Justice.

Clearly, the strategic position of the United States was affected by the political changes in Eastern Europe in 1989, and the invasion of Panama, concurrent with this shift in strategic power and before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, provides an opportunity to explore the effect of this on U.S. policy regarding military force and compliance with international law.

A little theory

The decision by a U.S. president and his advisors to use military force is complex and related to specific events at specific times, making it particularly difficult to analyze in general terms. However, political scientists have constructed models that claim to accurately describe this decision-making process. In particular, Charles Ostrom and Brian Job conducted a study of presidential decisions regarding the use of military force between 1950 and 1976, and found that such decisions could be explained by a combination of ten factors weighted appropriately, encompassing international, domestic and personal/political factors.

Four of the factors they considered are particularly relevant in understanding any change in the U.S. Government’s propensity for violence since the end of the Cold War, because each is a function of the global environment in which the United States finds itself, and should therefore reflect in some way the shift that occurred at that moment in history.

Two of these are international factors: the Relative Strategic Balance, and the Level of International Tension; and two are corresponding domestic factors: the Public Perception of the Strategic Balance, and the Public Perception of the Level of International Tension. A fascinating aspect of this study is that these international factors and their domestic counterparts actually pull in opposite directions, creating the potential for a powerful bias towards military action when strategic insecurity and international tensions coincide with a public perception of strategic strength and international harmony.

Here’s how these factors operate, according to Ostrom & Job:

With the Relative Strategic Balance, they find that “an increased propensity to use force grows out of perceived strategic inferiority; the less secure the president is, the more likely he is to engage in bellicose action to demonstrate to opponents that the U.S. is not cowed”. By contrast, “the greater the strategic dominance, the lower the propensity to use force”. This pattern corresponds with Hannah Arendt’s view of violence as a manifestation of weakness rather than a form of power. Likewise, a high Level of International Tension puts pressure on the president and his advisors to act aggressively, while a lower level of tension permits cooler heads to prevail.

This helps to explain Paul Kennedy’s finding, in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, that an emphasis on military rather than economic power is a characteristic of a Great Power in decline. He concluded that such an emphasis is counter-productive as a means of prolonging dominance, which is ultimately a function of economic power. This is not to say that strategic insecurity and international tension are a sure sign of decline, but that a perception or even a fear of decline would contribute to strategic insecurity and international tension and thus, by Ostrom & Job’s analysis, to a greater propensity for violence.

With the corresponding domestic “public perception” factors, the tendency is reversed. The public is more likely to support military action when it perceives the United States’ position as strong, because the “political use of force is seen as a less risky undertaking, perhaps even as a legitimate expectation of the United States”. However, when there is already “public trepidation” regarding international tensions, the public displays greater aversion to the risks of war.

A third pair of international and domestic factors is Extent of U.S. Involvement in War, as measured by the number of U.S. casualties in recent conflicts, and Public Aversion to War. Unlike the other pairs of factors we have discussed, these two are mutually reinforcing. By both measures, the light casualties and perceived success of U.S. actions in Grenada and Afghanistan served to facilitate the march to war against Panama and Iraq respectively.

Ostrom & Job found that the domestic “public perception” factors exert a powerful influence on official decision-making and they actually weight them more heavily in their model than the international factors they correspond to. They also found that political or personal factors related to presidential approval ratings weigh even more heavily on this process. Therefore public perceptions of international affairs and of the government’s performance are powerful factors influencing the propensity to use military force, and the increasingly sophisticated ways in which the U.S. Government works to manipulate public perceptions of international affairs demonstrates its keen awareness of this.

Analyzing the position of the United States between 1989 and 2003 from this perspective, the public perception was certainly one of unprecedented power and low international tension, creating a favorable domestic climate for military action, but the analysis seems to break down in terms of the actual strategic situation. Surely the public was correct in its perception of U.S. dominance and relative international harmony, and surely policymakers in Washington shared this view, creating no impetus to take the risks associated with military action. The relative strategic strength of the United States and lack of international tension must have been offset by other factors.

On the other hand, perhaps this seeming anomaly reveals a genuine insecurity at the heart of U.S. foreign policy that is particularly dangerous because it interacts with the public perception of strength in precisely the way that this model predicts. The Cold War provided the United States with a stable strategic and economic environment for many years, and its end has brought new uncertainty to Washington. New economic competitors for world markets are emerging, and diverse social, political and economic forces can no longer be marginalized under the catchall rubric of communism and Soviet influence. The resort to violence as a result of insecurity and “to demonstrate to opponents that the United States is not cowed” could actually have been a factor in decision-making regarding both Panama and Iraq, if not in precisely the way Ostrom & Job described it during the Cold War.

Like the Open Door a century earlier, the corporate “globalization” of the 1980s and 1990s was formulated as a peaceful means of penetrating foreign markets, but the inevitable tensions it has produced were just as inevitable and destabilizing. The continuing effort to identify diverse “threats” throughout the post-Cold War period and the concerns raised by the Wolfowitz-Libby Defense Planning Guidance (1992) and the Project for the New American Century revealed an institutional psychology that was profoundly uncomfortable with some of the strategic consequences of the end of the Cold War, most notably the opportunities for disarmament and international cooperation. Based on Ostrom & Job’s model, these factors may have paradoxically combined with the public perception of the United States as a “sole superpower” enjoying a well-earned “peace dividend” to make the use of military force by the United States considerably more likely during this period.

A little dictator

This brings us to the specific circumstances surrounding the U.S. invasion of Panama. By 1989, the United States had been involved in covert military action and “counter-insurgency training” throughout Central America for many years, but its puppets had failed to win their dirty wars in Guatemala, El Salvador or Nicaragua. Indeed the invasion of Panama was preceded by serious setbacks for the United States in the region. In October the Nicaraguan government had suspended its ceasefire with the Contras; in November the FMLN in El Salvador had launched a major offensive against the U.S.-backed government; and at the same time the fourth and fifth U.S.-backed coup attempts against Noriega had both failed. These developments in the regional environment seem to support a “weakness” thesis for the invasion, and Bush’s “wimp factor” was in fact a hot topic on the U.S. political scene at the time.

Manuel Noriega had been a valuable asset to the C.I.A. while gradually consolidating his power over Panama. U.S. officials attributed the deterioration in their relations with him to his growing involvement in the drugs and arms trades, a fraudulent election in 1984 and the assassination of Dr. Hugo Spadafora, an opposition political activist, in 1985. Other analysts have pointed to his refusal to support a proposed U.S. invasion of Nicaragua in December 1985.

Without question, he became an embarrassment to his allies in Washington as news of his drug trafficking and the Spadafora assassination became public, but the United States has maintained support for greater villains than Noriega when they had sufficient value to U.S. policy. Noriega’s refusal to cooperate with U.S. action against Nicaragua may have begun a downward spiral of increasing defiance, diminishing utility to the United States and hostility in Washington.

The C.I.A. stopped Noriega’s paychecks in July 1987 and, by September, the United States was calling for the end of his military government and threatening to cut off aid to Panama. The next two years saw increasingly heavier economic sanctions and five U.S.-backed coup attempts. More troops were sent to the Canal Zone, and the U.S. reoccupied parts of the Zone already formally returned to Panama. In February 1988, Noriega was indicted for drug trafficking in Miami.

A little cabal

The plan for the invasion of Panama was code-named “Blue Spoon”. It was the most extensive of five contingency plans drawn up by the Pentagon as a result of a meeting in the White House on March 29th 1988. For some time, Secretary of State George Schultz and his assistant for inter-American affairs, Elliott Abrams, had been advocating military action against Noriega, but this was originally conceived as a kidnapping by U.S. Special Forces rather than an invasion. This was vehemently opposed by General Woerner of Southern Command in Panama, National Security Advisor Frank Carlucci and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral William Crowe, citing the danger to 50,000 Americans living in Panama and difficulties negotiating basing rights with other countries if the bases in the Canal Zone were used to launch such an attack against their host country. A military officer, possibly Woerner, also pointed out that kidnapping was illegal and asked how it could be justified under international law.

“Blue Spoon” and the other military options didn’t get beyond the planning stage until the new president George Bush brought in his own foreign policy and military advisors in 1989. James Baker and Brent Scowcroft were more involved in momentous events in other parts of the world at the time, making Bush, Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell the principal decision-makers on Panama.

Until 1983, Richard Cheney had little background in foreign or defense policy, but had been appointed to the House Intelligence Committee. He was a politician’s politician, Chief of Staff of Ford’s White House, Ford’s campaign manager in 1976, and then a Congressman from Wyoming who was well funded by constituents in the petroleum and coal industries and rose quickly to become Chairman of the Republican Policy Committee and eventually Minority Whip.

Cheney’s satori on Defense apparently came on a Congressional delegation to Grenada following the U.S. invasion, which won high approval ratings after the fact from both the American public and the citizens of Grenada itself. He returned to tell his hometown paper, the Casper Star Tribune (11/6/1983), that the international image of the United States would be bolstered when it demonstrated a willingness to support its allies through the use of military force. Our forces would be welcomed with open arms by the local population following such an invasion, and the global spread of Communism would be stopped. This might be interpreted as a cynical statement by an astute politician who had just found a new horse to ride. However it has the ring of idealism, and that is a deadly quality when combined with Cheney’s political ambition and his prior lack of interest in other cultures.

Cheney’s subsequent twenty-two years climbing to the head of U.S. foreign policy do not seem to have disabused him of his moment of enlightenment in Grenada. Such a vision dies hard, especially when it has provided the basis for enormous personal success and power. It is slowly being buried in the sands of the Iraqi desert, but at what a cost to so many other people. This is of course the stuff of tragedy: the powerful man with a vision who unleashes untold death and destruction but clings to his vision as it turns into a nightmare. Comparisons with Darth Vader miss the point that it was Darth Sidious’ vision of power, not his own, that turned Anakin Skywalker to the “dark side”. Like other real-world villains, it is the “dark side” of Cheney’s own vision that has led him to inflict untold suffering on so many people.

Most commentators have portrayed Colin Powell as a “good soldier”, a man who brought military values of discipline and loyalty to his political appointments after a long and distinguished military career. Richard Betts, who directs the Institute for War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, divides Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs into three categories: “routine-professional”, “professional-political” and “exceptional-political”; and places Powell in the third category, “exceptional-political”.

Colin Powell’s first political appointment was on a White House Fellowship in the Office of Management and Budget under Frank Carlucci and Casper Weinburger. Lieutenant Colonel Powell was 35 years old, and Richard Nixon was president. In the Carter administration, he served as assistant to Deputy Secretary of Defense Charles Duncan, with primary responsibility for the financial management of the Pentagon.

Powell joined the Reagan administration in 1983, as assistant to his former boss Secretary of Defense Casper Weinburger, four months before the invasion of Grenada. He was deeply implicated in the Iran Contra affair. He met frequently with Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar as the Saudis funded the Contras in Nicaragua to the tune of $12-25 million per year. Later he arranged shipments of missiles to Iran and used his authority to thwart questions about the shipments from the U.S. military personnel carrying out his orders. After a brief stint out of the spotlight in Germany, he was appointed Deputy National Security Advisor in January 1987, and promoted to National Security Advisor ten months later. Between each of his political appointments, he held military positions commensurate with his rise through the ranks to Four-Star General.

George Bush Sr. brought Powell back to the White House three months before the invasion of Panama, this time as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. What is it about Colin Powell that has made him indispensable to three U.S. presidents just as they were about to invade foreign countries? Maybe this is a coincidence, or maybe it is precisely Powell’s consummate ability as a politician in uniform that has made him so useful at these times.

A perennial problem facing warmongering American leaders is that the U.S. military never wants to go to war. Those who know war at first-hand generally do not like it and mainly subscribe to the idea of military force as a deterrent or a last resort. When U.S. presidents want to go to war, therefore, someone like Colin Powell can perform an invaluable function. He can present a face to the public and to his colleagues in the military of a reluctant warrior who shares their concerns with the gravity of these decisions, conveying the sense that all other options have truly been exhausted and that the country faces a grave threat that it would be irresponsible to ignore. And this is precisely what Powell did on each occasion, most notoriously at the United Nations in February 2003. While that performance was unconvincing to the assembled foreign ministers and the people of the world at large, he did a masterful job on the American media and thus on public opinion in the United States.

A little legal maneuvering

In June 1989, the U.S. Government took a crucial step towards military action against Panama. The Justice Department issued a “reinterpretation” of the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which prohibited the use of U.S. military forces to apprehend criminal suspects, ruling that this prohibition now applied only on U.S. soil. There is of course nothing about the law itself that supports this interpretation, but the ruling technically removed the prohibition under U.S. law against using U.S. forces to kidnap Noriega in Panama. It did nothing to legitimize such an action under international law, and the ruling itself could be considered an illegal threat in violation of Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter.

As we review this in 2005, this extraordinary ruling fits a now familiar pattern. This technique of “reinterpreting” U.S. law behind political arguments regarding national security and terrorism has now been used to justify restrictions on civil liberties; creating legal “limbos” beyond domestic or international jurisdiction; running a concentration camp in Cuba and secret prisons all over the world; and torturing prisoners at these facilities and elsewhere. Victims of extrajudicial detention by the C.I.A. bear the physical evidence of horrendous torture – including parts of their bodies boiled alive in Uzbekistan and genitals mutilated in Morocco. The U.S. judicial system has made tentative efforts to examine some of these cases, and other countries have issued international arrest warrants for U.S. military and C.I.A. personnel suspected of international crimes.

But this pattern of undermining and manipulating the U.S. legal system to facilitate violations of international law was a relatively new departure in 1989. The U.S. Government had previously sought to justify its actions within the context of international law and collective security. As noted earlier, a slim majority at the O.A.S approved the invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965. The invasion of Grenada followed a request for military action from members of the O.E.C.S. (Organization of Eastern Caribbean States) who also contributed troops to the invasion, and this was the principal justification cited by U.S. officials. This did not actually legitimize the invasion, as military action was not unanimously approved as required by the O.E.C.S. charter, and the U.N. General Assembly condemned the invasion by a vote of 108-9, an even wider margin than Panama six years later.

The illegality and worldwide condemnation of the invasion of Grenada, juxtaposed against its subsequent approval in opinion polls of Americans and Grenadans, clearly influenced the view that Cheney and others developed regarding the political feasibility of such policies and their view of international law as an inconvenient but surmountable obstacle. The legal strategy that the U.S. Government has developed since 1989 is to “reinterpret” U.S. law on an ad hoc basis citing national security concerns, while gradually backing away from our country’s commitment to the U.N. Charter and international law. A further step of this kind was taken before the fifth and final C.I.A. coup attempt against Noriega in November 1989. The Army JAG office issued a “reinterpretation” allowing greater military involvement in coup planning and relaxing a long-standing ban on political assassinations by U.S. forces. The coup itself was another failure.


So, we have tentative answers to some elements of our question. The resort to force seems to be influenced by a dangerous interaction between strategic insecurity in Washington and the public perception of our country as “the world’s only superpower”. It has been promoted by Richard Cheney’s vision in Grenada of a world waiting to welcome American invaders with open arms, and it has been facilitated by the “exceptional-political” general Colin Powell. At the same time, the U.S. Government has progressively undermined the U.S. and international legal systems in a calculated and deliberate effort to accommodate increasingly unrestrained and systematic lawlessness and violence.

This is an enormous test for both American society and the international community. A small cabal of U.S. officials has been able to wield enormous power with dreadful global consequences, but the American people have played a disturbing role in supporting these policies, and this is particularly true of the most influential sectors of our society.

In the coming months, Democrats and Republicans will be coming forward, as Jack Murtha has done, to admit that they were wrong on Iraq. However, will they focus only on the practical flaws of the U.S. invasion and occupation, or will they be willing to acknowledge that it is actually wrong in the moral and legal sense? Will the “lesson of Iraq” be only that you need more troops to launch a successful invasion or will it be that international law must protect all countries and peoples, most of all those facing powerful adversaries amid serious tensions? And will they be ready to consign the “doctrine of preemption” to the garbage can of history where it belongs?

The answer to these questions will indicate clearly to the American people and the world whether this problem can in fact be resolved at the personal/political level and whether, once Cheney and his cabal are out of the picture, the United States can make a new commitment to peace, or whether we are confronting a strategic abandonment of legitimacy by a broad consensus of the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy.

While the U.S. Government has made efforts at reconciliation with other countries, these have so far been strictly on terms defined by the U.S. However the international response to U.S. lawlessness and brutality has displayed extraordinary sensitivity to the strategic insecurity that lies behind it, and this is a positive indication that more genuine efforts at reconciliation and a new commitment to peace would be well received.

We do not live in a world of enemies. Suicide bombing is a response to military occupation, not a global religious phenomenon, and it generally ends along with the occupation it is targeting, as in Lebanon in the 1980s. We need the education and the good sense to resist manipulation by warmongers and their dupes in the media. And we need to start dismantling the Cold War infrastructure of the military-industrial-congressional complex that was always dangerous but never more so than in the hands of Richard Cheney and his cabal. The fact that our own strategically insecure government is the greatest obstacle to peace in the world today and the evidence that American public opinion plays such a significant role in its decision-making gives us as Americans a responsibility to find effective ways to oppose our government’s illegitimate and deadly policies.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Dirty War in Iraq

Published in Z Magazine, November 2005

On September 8th 2005, the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq issued a human rights report stating that the governing institutions created by the United States in Iraq are engaged in an organized campaign of detention, torture and extrajudicial execution, directed primarily at Iraqis who practice the Sunni form of Islam.

The U.N. report expressed the greatest concern regarding arrests by forces linked to the Ministry of the Interior: “Corpses appear regularly in and around Baghdad and other areas. Most bear signs of torture and appear to be victims of extrajudicial executions ...Serious allegations of extrajudicial executions underline a deterioration in the situation of law and order… Accounts consistently point to the systematic use of torture during interrogations at police stations and within other premises belonging to the Ministry of the Interior.”

In this report, the U.N. has finally acknowledged what a small number of journalists have been reporting for at least eighteen months, that a brutal “dirty war” has grown out of the fertile soil of the U.S. occupation. On March 15th 2004, the New Statesman published an article by Stephen Grey titled “Rule of the Death Squads” regarding the murder of Professor Abdullatif al-Mayah in Baghdad on January 19th 2004. It quoted a senior commander at the headquarters of the U.S.-installed Iraqi police, “Dr. Abdullatif was becoming more and more popular because he spoke for people on the street here. He made some politicians quite jealous…You can look no further than the Governing Council. There are political parties in this city who are systematically killing people. They are politicians that are backed by the Americans and who arrived to Iraq from exile with a list of their enemies. They are killing people one by one.”

On January 16th 2005, USA Today reported on the work of Isam al-Rawi, a geology professor who heads the Iraqi Association of University Lecturers. He has been cataloging assassinations of academics in occupied Iraq and had documented three hundred of them by the time of this article in January. He was unable to identify a clear pattern to the killings, except that, like Professor al-Mayah, the victims were usually the most respected and popular members of their universities and their communities.

On January 14th 2005, Newsweek reported on “The Salvador Option”, the proposed use of death squads as part of the U.S. strategy to subdue the country. It noted that some American policymakers consider this to have been effective in Central America in the 1980s, although most historians would disagree with that assessment. Significantly, Newsweek cited Interim Prime Minister Allawi, a former agent of both the Iraqi Mukhabarat and the CIA, as a principal proponent of this policy. A U.S. military source told Newsweek, “The Sunni population is paying no price for the support it is giving to the terrorists. From their point of view, it is cost-free. We have to change that equation.” This source was expressing quite precisely the rationale that lay behind the dirty wars in Latin America and the worst abuses of the Vietnam War. The purpose of such a strategy is not to identify, detain and kill actual resistance fighters, but rather to terrorize an entire civilian population into submission.

The exile groups who began this dirty war in the early days of the occupation have come to form the core of successive governing institutions established by the United States. Their campaign of killing and torture has evolved and become institutionalized and their victims now number in the thousands. The U.N. report does not address the possibility of a direct U.S. role in the campaign, but the Interior Ministry units that are most frequently implicated in these abuses were formed under U.S. supervision and work closely with American advisors. The identities of their two principal advisors only reinforce these concerns. They are retired Colonel James Steele and former D.E.A. officer Steven Casteel, and they are both veterans of previous dirty wars.

In El Salvador between 1984 and 1986, Colonel Steele commanded the U.S. Military Advisor Group, training Salvadoran forces that conducted a brutal campaign against the civilian population. At other stages in his career, he performed similar duties during illegal U.S. military operations in Cambodia and Panama. After failing a polygraph test, he confessed to Iran-Contra investigators that he had also shipped weapons from El Salvador to Contra terrorists in Nicaragua, leading Senator Tom Harkin to block his promotion to Brigadier General. Until April 2005, Steele was the principal U.S. advisor to the Iraqi Interior Ministry’s “Special Police Commandos”, the group most frequently linked to torture and summary executions in recent reports.

Steven Casteel worked in Colombia with paramilitaries called Los Pepes that later joined forces to form the A.U.C. in 1997, and have been responsible for most of the violence against civilians in Colombia. Casteel is now credited with founding the Special Police Commandos in his capacity as Senior Advisor to the Iraqi Interior Ministry.

Assigning responsibility for atrocities to particular units or individuals is complicated by the dual nature of the Iraqi security forces, which take orders both from their nominal superiors and from separate chains of command in the factional militias that most of them belong to. Ultimate responsibility for abuses is thus blurred by the fiction of the “government” and the militias as distinct entities, when the same people are really involved in both all the way to the top.

However, reports of torture and extrajudicial killings have followed the Special Police Commandos around the country wherever they have been deployed, from Anbar province and Mosul since October 2004, to Samarra in March 2005, to areas around Baghdad since April 2005. The U.N. report highlighted 36 bodies found near Badhra, close to the Iranian border, on August 25th who were identified by relatives as men who had been arrested by Interior Ministry forces in Baghdad.

A second group of 22 young men whose bodies were found near Badhra on September 27th had been arrested in Baghdad on August 18th. Fifty police vehicles full of Special Police Commandos swept through the Iskan neighborhood early that morning seizing young men from their homes. At their funeral, the cleric declared “They took them from their bedrooms. We blame the government, which came to save us from Saddam’s terrorism but has brought terrorism worse than Saddam”.

After Special Police Commandos were first deployed in Baghdad in April, fourteen farmers were found in a shallow grave on May 5th 2005, with their right eyeballs removed and other signs of torture, after they were seen being arrested at a vegetable market. Another incident ten days later, in which eight bodies were found in a garbage dump, prompted Hareth al-Dhari, the secretary general of the Association of Muslim Scholars, to accuse the Interior Ministry directly. “This is state terrorism by the Ministry of Interior”, he claimed. The Defense Minister responded by blaming “terrorists wearing military uniforms”.

In another twist, the bodies of eight men from Sadr City were found in Yussufiah, 40 km from their homes and dressed in army uniforms, even though none were soldiers. Their killers obviously wanted their deaths to appear to have been the work of resistance forces.

Then there is the work and tragic death of Yasser Salihee, the Iraqi physician turned journalist, who dared to launch an investigation into abuses by the Special Police Commandos. Knight Ridder posthumously published his work under the title “Sunni men in Baghdad targeted by attackers in police uniforms” on June 27th 2005. The cautious language of the report verged on irony, but it described eyewitness accounts of numerous abductions by “large groups of men driving white Toyota Land Cruisers with police markings. The men were wearing police commando uniforms and bulletproof vests, carrying expensive 9-millimeter Glock pistols and using sophisticated radios”.

Knight Ridder actually interviewed Steven Casteel for their story. He predictably blamed “insurgents” impersonating commandos. As the article pointed out, this raised “troubling questions about how insurgents are getting expensive new police equipment. The Toyotas, which cost more than $55,000 apiece, and Glocks, at about $500 each, are hard to come by in Iraq, and they’re rarely used by anyone other than Western contractors and Iraqi security forces.”

Faik Baqr, the director of the central morgue in Baghdad, would only tell Knight Ridder, “It is a very delicate subject for society when you are blaming the police officers… It is not an easy issue. We hear that they are captured by the police and then the bodies are found killed…it’s obviously increasing.”

Yasser Salihee died on his way to get gas to drive his family to a swimming pool on his day off. He was shot by a U.S. sniper at a “checkpoint”. His editor, Steve Butler, has told me he has no reason to think Yasser’s death was connected to his work, and the U.S. Army’s account of the incident describes a “random” shooting based only on rules of engagement that greatly prioritize American over Iraqi lives. However, as Italian investigators found in the case of Nicola Calipari, U.S. accounts of such incidents are not reliable, and U.S. links to the forces Dr. Salihee was investigating cast a dark shadow over his death.

Finally, the Iraqi death squads appear to have violated a dirty war taboo – they’ve killed an American journalist. Steven Vincent was an award-winning art critic from New York who went to Iraq as a freelance writer for National Review, The Wall Street Journal & Harpers, and wrote a book, In the Red Zone, about the experiences of Iraqis living under occupation. On July 29th 2005, he wrote in an op-ed piece in The New York Times that many of the police in Basra were also active in Shiite militias who had killed hundreds of Sunnis in the city. Four days later, he was abducted by a group of men in a brand new white Chevy pick-up with police markings. His body was found by the side of a road outside the city with three gunshot wounds to the chest.

As long as it is left to a handful of extremely brave journalists to try and unravel the truth about this dirty war, it will certainly continue unchecked. However, maybe the U.N. report and the deaths of these journalists will spur more of the international media to start reporting and investigating this disturbing pattern of state terrorism. The Associated Press has begun an effort to track the numbers of corpses found around the country, and, as of October 7th, they had tallied 539 since the “transitional government” took office in April. They are reporting that the majority are Sunnis, not Shiites or Kurds, and that “the count may be low since one or two bodies are found almost daily and are never reported”.