Death Squads in Iraq

| Tue Nov. 29, 2005 4:33 PM EST

Reading the New York Times' report on Shiite death squads in Iraq—which seem to have semi-official backing from the Interior Ministry and have killed or abducted a reported "700 Sunni men" over the past four months—it's hard to figure out how this all got started. Laura Rozen suggests that Pentagon officials had planned for death squads (or as they put it, the "Salvadoran option") all along. But this part from the Times suggests that everything isn't quite going according to plan:

American officials, who are overseeing the training of the Iraqi Army and the police, acknowledge that police officers and Iraqi soldiers, and the militias with which they are associated, may indeed be carrying out killings and abductions in Sunni communities, without direct American knowledge.
Praktike points out that the original Newsweek piece on the Salvadoran option wasn't exactly correct, and the United States may have never intended to create "death squads" per se. In 2003, Special Forces veteran James Steele was charged with organizing "special police commando units" that were mainly supposed to target insurgent leaders. Those units, of course, drew heavily from Shiite and Kurdish militias, including, no doubt, the Iranian-backed Badr Brigade. Meanwhile, some of the Badr militamen running a torture camp in Baghdad may have been trained by American interrogators, but that doesn't mean they were intentionally trained as death squads. (U.S. forces uncovered the torture palace, after all.)

Either way, the end result was the same. The Pentagon's early attempts at a "dirty war" have pretty clearly spiraled out of control, and the death squads seem intent on going far beyond anything the U.S. ever envisioned. SCIRI leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim has been chafing at U.S. efforts to rein him in. The Interior Minister, Bayan Jabr, no longer shares information with the U.S. It never seems to have occurred to anyone that fanatical Shiite militias would be somewhat less than charitable about policing their former Sunni tormentors. (Or maybe it did, and there was nothing they could do about it.) Once again the Pentagon's discovering what a few "bad apples" can do if given half a chance.

Back when the Newsweek article on the "Salvadoran Option" was first published, Jason Vest wrote an important piece noting that military analysts have long concluded that the "death squads" in El Salvador, far from being a brutal force that just so happened to be effective, actually prolonged the conflict against the leftist insurgency there. It seems, reading the Times, that current military officers are aware that an Iraqi army filled with Iranian-backed thugs carrying out reprisal killings and running torture camps isn't going to end the violence in Iraq either. On the other hand, according to Seymour Hersh, the president sure seems enthusiastic about backing Shiite butchers so long as they "complete the mission." As one official described the president's thinking, the battle against the insurgency "may end up being a nasty and murderous civil war in Iraq, but we and our allies would still win." Lovely.

Maybe Bush will get his way, and that's how the U.S. will stake out its exit. Even if saner voices prevail, though, it's not clear that they can actually do anything about it. As the Times reported back in August, the U.S. is already wary of giving the Iraqi army heavy weaponry in part because they're worried that some of the Shiite groups will use them for "civil conflict". But if they don't arm the security forces, then there goes the exit strategy. On the other hand, Jim Lobe reports that Zal Khalilzad is going to start chatting directly, for the first time ever, with the Iranians about stabilizing Iraq. In a former age, this was known as the John Kerry policy, but I guess real men wait until the car is totaled before asking for directions.

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