Evidence of an American Dirty War in Iraq
Accepted for publication in Peace Review
The United States government has a well documented history of launching and supporting dirty wars in countries that are under its influence. From the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam to Uruguay, Central America and Colombia, the U.S. government has provided training, direction and support to local forces that have engaged in organized campaigns of extra-judicial detention, torture and summary execution against their own civilian populations.
Within months of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, evidence began to surface that the American occupation government, the U.S. armed forces, the C.I.A. and U.S.-backed exile groups were each putting into place elements of a similar campaign in Iraq. In November 2003, as resistance grew to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, administrator Paul Bremer approved plans for an Iraqi paramilitary force drawn from the ranks of exile groups such as the Iraqi National Congress and the Iranian-trained Badr Brigades, as well as from Kurdish militias.
Meanwhile, Seymour Hersh reported in the New Yorker on December 15th 2003 that Secretary Rumsfeld and Under-Secretary Cambone were launching teams of U.S. Special Forces working with Iraqi auxiliaries to conduct what they called "manhunts" in Iraq. Israeli Mist'aravim assassination squads trained their American counterparts in Israel and North Carolina for a campaign to kill large numbers of mid-level Baath Party members, essentially the professional class of the country, who the exile groups saw as the main obstacle to their ambitions and who the Americans were blaming for the growth of the Resistance.
And, in an article titled "Phoenix Rising" in the American Prospect on January 1st 2004, Robert Dreyfus revealed that $1 billion per year had been budgeted to fund stepped-up C.I.A. operations in Iraq, augmenting the force of 275 C.I.A. officers already deployed. John Pike, who runs the globalsecurity.org website, told Dreyfus, "The big money will be for standing up an Iraqi secret police to liquidate the resistance."
While these plans were taking shape in Washington and the Green Zone, award-winning British journalist Stephen Grey was in Baghdad, investigating the murder of Professor Abdullatif al-Mayah. The professor was killed within hours after he criticized the U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council on Al-Jazeera television. Grey's report was published in the New Statesman on March 15th 2004 under the title, "The Rule of the Death Squads". He quoted a senior Iraqi police official, "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."
By the end of 2004, Isam al-Rawi, a geology professor who was the head of the Iraqi Association of University Lecturers, had compiled a list of 300 assassinated academics. A year later, the Minister of Education of the transitional occupation government identified another 296 university faculty and staff murdered in 2005. The Brussels Tribunal on Iraq has forwarded a list of murdered academics to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Summary Executions, noting that the victims were from different ethnic, religious and political backgrounds, but that vocal opposition to the U.S. occupation appeared to be a common factor. Professor Al-Rawi was himself shot to death outside his home in Baghdad on October 30th 2006.
Assassinations of academics, doctors and local leaders and the resulting exodus of the professional class seem to have been calculated to deprive Iraq of the intellectual and political resources to arrest the decomposition of the country, reducing its fate to a violent struggle in which the Americans believed their greater capacity for violence would ultimately prove decisive. This led Iraqi novelist Haifa Zangana to write in an editorial for the Guardian, "For the occupation's aims to be fulfilled, independent minds have to be eradicated. We feel that we are witnessing a deliberate attempt to destroy intellectual life in Iraq."
Then, on January 14th 2005, Newsweek published a story it called "The Salvador Option", explicitly describing a Pentagon plan to employ death squads on the Central American model to counter resistance to the occupation of Iraq. A 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 officer expressed precisely the rationale that lay behind previous dirty wars in Latin America and the worst atrocities of the Vietnam War, making it clear that the target of this campaign was the civilian population rather than actual resistance fighters. Dirty war is not a strategy to identify, detain and kill armed insurgents, but a campaign of state terrorism against an entire population with the objective of terrifying it into submission.
Over the past four years, 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 in Iraq. Their campaign of murder and torture has evolved and become institutionalized, and their victims now number in the tens of thousands. There is substantial evidence that the United States has played a crucial role in recruiting, training, directing and supporting the forces carrying out this campaign of detention, torture and murder, but precise details of the American role are protected by a wall of secrecy, propaganda and censorship.
In September 2004, the "interim" occupation government of Iyad Allawi formed new paramilitary police units called Special Police Commandos, under the command of the interim Interior Ministry. The Senior U.S. Advisor to the Interior Ministry was a former D.E.A. Chief of Intelligence named Steven Casteel, who had previously worked with both U.S. Special Forces and paramilitary forces called Los Pepes in Colombia. These paramilitary groups later joined forces to form the A.U.C., which has been responsible for the most widespread murders of civilians and other atrocities in the U.S.-backed dirty war in Colombia.
Following the election of January 2005, the SCIRI-led government appointed Bayan al-Jabr, a commander of its Badr Brigades militia, to the post of Interior Minister. John Pace, who was the United Nations Human Rights Monitor in Iraq for two years, identified many other Badr Brigade commanders in key posts at the Interior Ministry and in the Special Police Commandos. American advisors and U.S. military forces continued to work with the Special Police Commandos following this integration of Badr Brigade commanders and militiamen into their ranks.
U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte told Newsweek that the use of his name in its Salvador Option story was "utterly gratuitous" and that he was not involved in military strategy in Iraq. And yet both Steven Casteel and retired Colonel James Steele, who supervised the training of the Special Police Commandos, reported directly to Ambassador Negroponte. Colonel Steele had conducted similar duties in El Salvador as commander of the U.S. Military Advisor Group (1984-1986), and he also figured in the Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters as a principal member of Oliver North's network in Central America, overseeing shipments of arms from Ilopango air-base in El Salvador to contras in Nicaragua. He lied about the Ilopango operation to the Senate Intelligence Committee, but later confessed to the F.B.I. after failing a polygraph test.
In fact, by the time the Newsweek article was published, the first units of Special Police Commandos had already been deployed to Mosul in October 2004, where evidence of at least 150 summary executions soon appeared. In March 2005, the Special Police Commandos moved into Samarra, and tortured, executed corpses began to appear there too. Colonel Steele was still attached to the commandos during their deployment in Samarra.
Then, in April 2005, at about the time that Steele finished his assignment in Iraq, the Special Police Commandos were deployed for the first time in Baghdad. This deployment marked the beginning of an orgy of torture and murder that is now well known. The first indication that this campaign was under way was the discovery of 14 bodies of young men in a shallow mass grave in the Kasra-Wa-Atash industrial area. All the victims were blindfolded, with their hands tied behind their backs and gunshots to the head. Many of the bodies also had their right eyeballs removed and other signs of torture. They were identified as a group of farmers who had been arrested at a vegetable market.
Ten days later, eight more bodies were found in a garbage dump. The victims included some Sunni clerics, and Hareth al-Dari, the Secretary General of the Association of Muslim Scholars, directly accused the Interior Ministry. He claimed, "This is state terrorism by the Ministry of the Interior".
At the same time as these first reports of mass summary executions in Baghdad, allegations of torture in Interior Ministry prisons also began to appear. Saad Sultan of the Iraq Human Rights Ministry told the Los Angeles Times on June 20th 2005 that U.S.-trained Interior Ministry interrogators were abusing 60% of the prisoners in their custody.
A brave Iraqi physician named Yasser Salihee, who had been working as a translator for Knight Ridder in Baghdad, set out to investigate the mounting evidence that the Interior Ministry was responsible for this campaign of extra-judicial killing and torture. Knight Ridder posthumously published some of his work in its American newspapers. His reports 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."
Faik Baqr, the Director of the Central Morgue in Baghdad, told 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 is obviously increasing." Mr. Baqr has since left Iraq after receiving a succession of death threats.
Steven Casteel responded to Salihee's charges by claiming that the atrocities were the work of insurgents disguised as police commandos. As Knight Ridder put it, "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 $500 each, are hard to come by in Iraq, and are rarely used by anyone other than Western contractors and Iraqi security forces."
Yasser Salihee was shot by an American sniper as he drove to buy gas to take his children to a swimming-pool on his day off. An official investigation concluded that his death was a tragic mistake, but American investigations of such incidents in Iraq are not reliable, and the links between the forces he was investigating and the ones who killed him cast a long shadow over his death.
By the time John Pace submitted a U.N. Human Rights report in September 2005, the campaign of detention, torture and extra-judicial execution in Baghdad had become his most serious concern. He had just investigated an incident involving 36 men arrested by Interior Ministry commandos in Baghdad. Their bodies were found on August 25th near Badhra close to the Iranian border. 22 more bodies were found near Badhra on September 27th and identified as the victims of an early morning raid in the Iskan district of Baghdad on August 18th. 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 us terrorism worse thahn Saddam's." And, on August 31st, the BBC identified 76 mutilated bodies as the victims of a raid by the Interior Ministry's "Volcano Brigade".
Pace's report for the U.N. summarized the situation at that point as follows: "Corpses appear regularly in and around Baghdad and other areas. Most bear signs of torture and appear to be victims of extra-judicial executions... Serious allegations of extra-judicial 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." He has since estimated that 80% of Iraqis held in the Interior Ministry's prisons are completely innocent.
Two months later, on November 13th, the Western media gave the world a rare glimpse of the horrors of the occupation government's torture chambers. Local Iraqi police asked U.S. forces to intervene in the search for a missing boy that led them to the Interior Ministry's underground Al-Jadiriya prison, where they found 168 people who had been horribly tortured. The prison was run by an Iraqi colonel who reported directly to Interior Minister al-Jabr. The inmates gave the names of at least eighteen of their companions who had been tortured to death, and ten of the inmates were hospitalized by the Americans. An American soldier helped Dr. Tareq Sammaree (Ph.D. Kansas), the former Professor of Pedagogy at Baghdad University, and two other inmates to escape from the hospital. Dr. Sammaree is now seeking political asylum in Europe.
Another survivor of Al-Jadiriya, Abbas Abid, was not released until October 2006. He has given sworn testimony to a tribunal in Kuala Lumpur that, contrary to news reports, U.S. forces were frequent visitors to the prison, both before and after November 13th 2005, and that the torture regime continued following that visit. An American official eventually confirmed to the Los Angeles Times on July 9th 2006 that, "The military had been at the bunker prior to the raid in November, but they said nothing." In December 2006, a U.N. report complained that the occupation government had failed to conduct the investigation it had promised in November 2005 into human rights abuses at Al-Jadiriya and other detention facilities.
In fact, during 2006, the scale of atrocities in Iraq only multiplied, and thousands of people, mostly young men and teenage boys, were horribly murdered. American officials now presented so-called "sectarian violence" as the central problem facing Iraq and as the principal justification for continued occupation. This view was echoed by foreign journalists, who were understandably reluctant to risk their lives outside the Green Zone and were therefore more dependent than ever on press releases from U.S. forces and the occupation government. Most Iraqis however continued to hold the United States and the United Kingdom responsible for the violence, and rejected the oxymoronic notion that continued military occupation offered the solution to the epidemic of violence it had inflicted on them.
The public statements of American officials naturally deplored the work of the death squads and the prevalence of torture in Interior Ministry prisons, and journalists generally took these statements at face value, without exploring the American role in recruiting, training, supporting and directing the forces responsible for these atrocities.
U.S. officials publicly linked the death squads to Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army militia, which was certainly playing some role in these operations, while fastidiously ignoring the well established links between the death squads and the Iraqi National Accord and SCIRI parties, the Badr Brigades militia, the Ministry of the Interior and the Special Police Commandos, or the roles of U.S. advisors working with all of these entities throughout this crisis.
After the new occupation government took office in the Green Zone in May 2006, the post of Interior Minister became the object of a lengthy power struggle during which the Fadhila Party withdrew from the ruling United Iraqi Alliance, complaining of the dominant role Americans were playing in these negotiations. However, Fadhila's Jawad al-Bolani was eventually appointed to succeed Bayan al-Jabr as Interior Minister. Bolani issued at least 52 arrest warrants for Interior Ministry officials linked to atrocities, but, in a report on the situation in Iraq on September 1st 2006, Kofi Annan said that none of these warrants had actually been served. Finally, on October 4th 2006, one police lieutenant colonel was arrested and the brigade he commanded was taken out of service for additional training. It appears that the Interior Ministry police were still effectively under the command of al-Jabr's former deputy, Adnan al-Asadi, another Badr commander.
Meanwhile, in the Red Zone, as Americans in Baghdad refer to the real world outside their Green Zone fortress, resistance to the occupation continued to grow, as it had done steadily for four years. After July 2006, according to Pentagon figures, attacks against U.S. and auxiliary forces rose to a new level of about 110 or 120 attacks per day, not counting an additional 20 acts of violence per day against civilians.
This makes it clear that the Salvador Option, whatever the details of its secret history, utterly failed to reduce resistance and was in fact a horrific escalation of the American war in Iraq against the civilian population. Besides this dirty war centered on Baghdad, American and British air forces continued a campaign of bombing and aerial assault whose daily targets spanned almost the entire country from around Mosul and Kirkuk in the North to Basra in the South, with thirty to seventy close air support missions flown each day from late 2005 through 2007.
And in Baghdad, in spite of public American condemnations of the death squads, Interior Ministry police commandos operated with greater and greater levels of ground and air support from U.S. forces. Residents of the Adhamiya and Dora districts of the capital began reporting in early 2006 that their neighborhoods were under attack by police commandos and Shiite militiamen backed up by American troops. Small areas were cordoned off, electricity and cell-phone networks were cut off, and police commandos or militiamen swept through these areas detaining any young men they could find - many of whom were not seen again until their families identified their mutilated bodies at the morgue. When the U.S.-backed Iraqi auxiliaries encountered pockets of effective resistance, U.S. forces were called in to provide additional ground or air support.
U.S. military briefers have presented American offensives in Baghdad, "Operation Together Forward I & II" and the "Surge", as efforts to restore security to Baghdad, targeting both Iraqi Resistance forces and Shiite death squads. However, when General Thurman announced which neighborhoods his forces were targeting in Operation Together Forward, four out of five were the same Sunni or mixed neighborhoods that had already been under attack by the death squads for a year and a half: Adhamiya, Dora, Mansour and Ghazaliya.
Many of the American junior officers and soldiers involved in these operations quickly realized that the Iraqi auxiliaries they were working with were connected with the death squads who were one of their nominal targets. And yet these American forces were dependent on their Iraqi partners for the information they needed to plan their raids and patrols. Unsurprisingly, these operations killed or captured hundreds of young men allegedly suspected of armed resistance to the occupation, while failing to curb the U.S.-backed death squads. The daily tide of tortured bodies continued to overwhelm the Central Morgue throughout 2006. The overall effect of these operations was to reinforce the death squads, not to stop them. The escalation of direct U.S. military action in Baghdad in 2007 partially supplanted the death squads with American firepower, but this was still directed at the same recalcitrant neighborhoods.
And so it appears that, while publicly subscribing to a "political solution" and to "winning hearts and minds", the United States government in fact chose to unleash the most savage dogs of war to destroy countless human lives and the fabric of a whole society, and that its response to the continuing failure of this strategy was only to escalate the intensity of the campaign and to provide greater direct military support.
To fully understand why the United States did this, it is necessary to understand the strategic and commercial goals of the occupation. Regardless of what happened in the Red Zone, the United States required a government of some kind in the Green Zone that would accede to American interests, to approve military base agreements, sign oil production sharing contracts with U.S. firms and be a subservient ally in a critical part of the world. The emergence of a strong, independent Iraqi government had to be prevented at all costs, as it would have undermined the principal goals of the invasion, and this was done by exploiting ethnic, sectarian and private interests and unleashing terrible violence against the population to prevent coherent political opposition to the occupation.
The goals, rationales and methods of this policy, including the all-important public relations component, have followed closely those of other dirty wars, past and present. The statements of U.S. officials regarding previous dirty wars betray a prevailing view that, despite their horrors, these policies were successful in suppressing popular political movements in Latin America and South-East Asia. More detailed analyses have found that such successes have generally been limited to countries that had preexisting ruling and middle classes with strong ties to U.S. commercial interests, who would support the torture and murder of alleged communists or terrorists who seemed to threaten their political and economic privileges. Notwithstanding such short term successes, the inhumanity of these policies has progressively undermined American claims to political leadership all over the world, especially in the regions directly affected.
In any case, no such preconditions for a successful dirty war existed in Iraq, where the U.S. clientele was limited from the outset to the Kurdish minority and small groups of former exiles flown in with the invasion forces. So the resort to this brutal policy has betrayed the analytical weakness as much as the moral bankruptcy of present American political leaders. The full consequences of the failure of the American dirty war in Iraq are yet to be determined, and exactly which American policy-makers and agencies bear the responsibility for which aspects of these crimes will probably take decades for journalists, historians and lawyers to unravel, as has been the case following other dirty wars.
More immediately, U.N. agencies and other international institutions, human rights groups and diplomats of all countries should take note of the substantial evidence that the "sectarian violence" that has engulfed Iraq is not an unintended consequence of the U.S. invasion and occupation, but a deliberately engineered dirty war in the American tradition. The clear implication is that the United States is not just failing to restore stability and security to Iraq - it has been actively undermining them in a desperate effort to "divide and conquer", and to justify unlimited violence against Iraqis who continue to reject the illegal invasion and occupation of their country.
Blum, William. 2003. Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions since World War II. Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press.
Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson. June 11th 1995. "When a Wave of Torture and Murder Staggered a Small U.S. Ally, Truth Was a Casualty" The Baltimore Sun.
Tom Lasseter and Yasser Salihee. June 27th 2005. "Sunni Men in Baghdad Targeted by Attackers in Police Uniforms". Knight Ridder Newspapers.
Kucinich, Dennis. May 4th 2006. Letter to Donald Rumsfeld. The Congressional Record: E727-E729.
Jakub Cerny. June 28th 2006. "Death Squad Operations in Iraq". Conflict Studies Research Centre, Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. ( http://da.mod.uk/defac/colleges/csrc/document-listings/middle-east/06(28)JC.pdf )