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

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”.


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