Z Magazine Online
May 2005 Volume 18 Number 5
Ruthless U.S. tactics are propelling the country toward civil war
By A.K. Gupta
In the U.S. war against Iraq it appears that the Pentagon may be gaining the upper hand against the armed resistance, but it is doing so at the cost of creating the conditions for civil war. The clearest indicator of a diminished insurgency comes from the number of U.S. casualties, which have declined by 75 percent since their peak of 126 combat deaths in November 2004. Part of that is probably due to sweeping thousands of Sunni Arab males off the street—Iraqis imprisoned under U.S. control have more than doubled since last October to 10,500.
But even more ruthless methods may be having a greater effect on squeezing the insurgency. According to a report by the Wall Street Journal from February 16, numerous “pop-up militias” thousands strong are proliferating in Iraq. Not only are many of these shadowy militias linked to Iraqi politicians, but the Pentagon is arming, training, and funding them for use in counter-insurgency operations.
Most disturbing, one militia in particular—the “Special Police Commandos”—is being used extensively and has been singled out by a U.S. general for conducting death squad strikes known as the “Salvador option.” The Police Commandos also appear to be a reconstituted Hussein security force operating under the same revived government body, the General Security Directorate, that was formerly tasked with suppressing internal dissent.
At the highest levels, White House officials consider the Police Commandos as the leading force against the insurgency. In hearings before the Senate Appropriations Committee on February 16 Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the commandos are among “forces that are going to have the greatest leverage on suppressing and eliminating the insurgency.”
Greg Jaffe, the Journal reporter, identified at least six such militias, one with “several thousand soldiers” lavishly armed with “rocket-propelled-grenade launchers, mortar tubes and lots of ammunition.” Yet these militias owe their allegiance not to the Iraqi people or government, but to their self-appointed leaders and associated politicians, such as interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Even the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, Gen. John P. Abizaid, admitted in testimony before Congress on March 1 that such militias are “destabilizing.”
Of these militias, at least three are linked to Allawi. Jaffe writes, “First came the Muthana Brigade, a unit formed by the order of…Allawi.” The second is the Defenders of Khadamiya, referring to a Shiite shrine on the outskirts of Baghdad, which appears to be “closely aligned with prominent Shiite cleric Hussein al Sadr.” Al Sadr ran on Allawi’s ticket in the January elections.
A third militia, the Special Police Commandos, is led by Gen. Adnan Thabit, who participated in the disastrous 1996 coup against Saddam Hussein that Allawi coordinated. Thabit was jailed and subsequently released shortly before the 2003 U.S. invasion. He is also the uncle of Iraq’s interim minister of the interior, under which the Commandos operate.
Thabit told the Armed Forces Press Service last October that the Commandos are drawn from “police who have previous experience fighting terrorism and also people who received special training under the former regime” of Saddam Hussein. A report from October 20, 2004, also quotes U.S. Army Col. James H. Coffman Jr., who specifies that Police Commandos are “former special forces and [former Directorate of General Security] personnel….”
Coffman reports to Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who heads the mammoth U.S. effort to create Iraq’s myriad security forces. Petraeus calls the Police Commandos “a horse to back” and has done so by providing it with “money to fix up its base and buy vehicles, ammunition, radios and more weapons.” In a satellite briefing to the press on February 4, Petraeus repeatedly praised the Special Police Commandos, calling the leadership “tremendously aggressive” in operations. Petraeus also revealed that the Commandos, the Muthana Brigade, and another militia, called the Defenders of Baghdad were used to provide security on election day.
The Directorate of General Security was one of the main security services Saddam Hussein used to maintain an iron grip on Iraq. The Center for Nonproliferation Studies describes the service’s role as “detecting dissent among the Iraqi general public” by monitoring “the day-to-day lives of the population, creating a pervasive local presence.”
Ironically, Allawi—with U.S. encouragement—has put a network of former Baathists in charge of various security services to fight what the U.S. claims are other Baathists who form the core of the insurgency. They include Thavit’s nephew, Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib, the son of a prominent Baath official. The Minister of Defense is Hazem al-Shaalan, a former Baathist from al-Hillah, and Brig. Gen. Muhammad Abdullah Shahwani, an old-time Baath officer, now head of the Iraqi secret police, according to author and analyst Milan Rai.
This policy of “re-baathification” is actively supported by the Bush administration. The Washington Post reported on December 11, 2003 that the CIA met with Allawi and another member of his Iraqi National Accord party to create “an Iraqi intelligence service to spy on groups and individuals inside Iraq that are targeting U.S. troops and civilians working to form a new government.” The plan was to “screen former government officials to find agents for the service and weed out those who are unreliable or unsavory.” Evidence of this role comes from Thabit who told the Armed Forces Press Service that former regime personnel in his force “were efficiently chosen according to information about their background.”
Even before he officially assumed the post of interim prime minister, Allawi announced a reorganization of security forces at his first press conference on June 20, 2004. According to a Human Rights Watch report on torture in Iraq, Allawi mentioned, “Special police units would also be created to be deployed ‘in the frontlines’ of the battle against terrorism and sabotage, and a new directorate for national security established.” Human Rights Watch also noted that Al-Nahdhah, an Iraqi newspaper, reported on June 21 that the Interior Ministry “appointed a new security adviser to assist in the establishment of a new general security directorate modeled on the erstwhile General Security Directorate…one of the agencies of the Saddam Hussein government dissolved by the CPA in May 2003.” That security advisor was “Major General Adnan Thabet al-Samarra’i.”
On July 15, 2004, two months before the Police Commandos became public, Allawi said the government would establish “internal intelligence units called General Security Directorate (GSD) that will annihilate those terrorist groups.” Jane’s Intelligence Digest commented that the GSD, “will include former members of Saddam Hussein’s feared security services, collectively known as the Mukhabarat. These former Ba’athists and Saddam loyalists will be expected to hunt down their colleagues currently organising the insurgency.”
It seems former Baathist brutes may have gone from one security service under Hussein to the exact same one as under Allawi, another ex-Baathist. And the rogues apparently haven’t forgotten their old tactics.
The Police Commandos have been supplying suspects who confess their crimes to the TV show, “Terrorism in the Hands of Justice.” Described as the Iraqi government’s “slick new propaganda tool,” the program runs six nights a week on the Iraqiya network, which was set up by the Pentagon and is now run by the Australian-based Harris Corporation (a major U.S. government contractor that gave 96 percent of its political funding, more than $260,000, to Republicans in 2004). According to the Boston Globe, camera crews are sent “wherever police commandos make a lot of arrests.”
The show features an unseen interrogator haranguing alleged insurgents for confessions. Virtually every press account notes that the suspects appear to have been beaten or tortured, their faces bruised and swollen. The London Guardian states, “Some have…robotic manners of those beaten and coached by police interrogators off-camera.” The Boston Globe observed, “The neat confessions of terrorist attacks at times fit together so seamlessly as to seem implausible.” Then there’s the nature of the confessions. Many suspects admit to “drunkenness, gay orgies and pornography,” according to the Guardian. The Financial Times reported, “One long-bearded preacher known as Abu Tabarek recently confessed that guerrillas had usually held orgies in his mosques.” Another preacher giving a confession said he was fired for “having sex with men in the mosque.” The Globe account stated that suspects “frequently admit to rape and pedophilia.”
The show is said to be popular, particularly among many Shiites and Kurds, which causes concerns that depicting Sunni Arab nationalists as “thieving scumbags” could deepen communal strife. Political and religious leaders from the Sunni Arabs have denounced the show, calling for it to be pulled off the air. The show has explicitly promoted sectarian tensions, in one case airing the confession of a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni-based grouping, saying he drinks alcohol and doesn’t pray.
The Police Commandos’ penchant for tall tales caused them considerable embarrassment after they crowed about a major operation that killed more than 80 insurgents at a training camp along Lake Tharthar in Al Anbar on March 22. Within a day many discrepancies emerged—how many insurgents were killed, reports of more than 20 prisoners versus none, a number of different locations cited, many miles apart. The story fell apart after an AFP reporter visited the camp and found 40 to 50 insurgents camped there.
But the Police Commandos are still receiving special treatment from the U.S. occupation. A State Department report to Congress from January 5 noted that at the request of the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, “billeting space” was provided for 1,500 police commandos in the Baghdad Public Safety Academy.
The militias are a tacit admission that the U.S. effort to create an Iraqi military force has been a colossal failure, costing at least $5 billion to date. During the most recent large-scale military campaign, “Operation River Blitz,” U.S. Marines raided towns west of Baghdad along the Euphrates. The first order of business in many of these Sunni Arab towns, according to the Christian Science Monitor, was to “round up and detain police officers”—the very ones who had been “trained” by the U.S. to fight the insurgency. In Tikrit in early March, the police went on strike after U.S. troops raided the provincial police headquarters there and arrested two high-ranking officers. (About the same time in Samarra, the mayor and city council resigned after the mayor’s office was raided and in protest of U.S. troops refusing to withdraw from the city as agreed.)
In late March, police brandishing Kalishnikovs staged a demonstration in Hit, one of the towns targeted, demanding their jobs back. An AP account of the protest dated March 29 noted that police forces have been dismissed across the province of Al Anbar, the heart of the insurgency, and “former local police officers have been protesting in several cities in recent weeks against a new plan to replace them with police from other Iraqi provinces.”
A column by David Ignatius in the February 25 Washington Post notes that Thabit “commands a force of about 10,000 men,” which would make them larger than the British military, the second largest foreign force in Iraq. The Commandos have been used extensively, first last October in the assault on Samara that was called a “model” for how to retake a city from insurgents (but which is still roiled by regular attacks). The Commandos have also become a fixture in major cities such as Ramadi and Mosul. In Ramadi the Stars and Stripes describes the commandos as “the Iraqi forces that might soon be responsible for security in the city.”
A report in the December 25 issue of the Advisor—a Pentagon publication with the tagline “Iraq’s Official Weekly Command Information Reporter”—stated that the “Special Police Commandos have been deployed all over Iraq to hunt down insurgents and to help provide security for the upcoming Jan. 30 elections.”
Jaffe notes many of the pop-up militias come “from Shiite-dominated southern Iraq.” They appear to be operating mainly in Sunni Arab areas. The Police Commandos in particular are taking the lead in operations in such Sunni Arab hotspots as Samarra, Ramadi, Mosul, Tikrit, and Baghdad. Last October they were assigned to Haifa Street, which had been a resistance stronghold on the edge of the Green Zone, the heart of the U.S. occupation. It’s a district of 170,000 Sunnis and Shiites where insurgents find willing recruits among the Sunni neighborhoods. Two Iraqi battalions of more than 2,000 patrol the neighborhood, and the New York Times observes that one is lead by a Shiite general “commanding a unit composed mostly of Shiites” (the units are the Iraqi 302nd and 303rd Battalions; it’s unclear if they are affiliated with the Police Commandos assigned there).
Knight Ridder correspondent Tom Lasseter filed a report from Haifa on March 16, also noting, “Most of the Iraqi troops who patrol the area…are Shiite.” During the operations, Lasseter wrote, “When Iraqi and American soldiers detained a suspected Sunni insurgent in Haifa this week, a group of the Shiite troops crowded around him. A sergeant kicked him in the face. Another soldier grabbed him by the neck and slammed his head into a wall. A third slapped him hard in the face.” The U.S. forces’ Iraqi interpreter yelled at the detainee, “If you come with us, we will slaughter you.”
The ethnic-based militias are having a trickle-down effect on Iraqi society. With no functioning government, various communities are increasingly arming themselves. In another report, Lasseter spoke to a Shiite soldier who claimed, “Shiite neighborhoods on the edges of Haifa have formed militias to enforce the sectarian boundary.” The soldier added, “That militia is secretly funded by a sheik at a local Shiite mosque.... what’s happening right now could be the beginning of civil war in Baghdad.” In what remains of Fallujah, “Sunni residents say anger toward Shiite troops is reaching a boiling point.”
Military analyst William Lind notes, “the rise and spread of Shiite militias devoted to fighting Sunni insurgents puts ever-greater pressure on Iraq’s Sunnis to cast their lot with the insurgency.” Add to this the use of Kurdish Peshmerga militias also against Sunni Arabs and there is an increasing likelihood that civil war may result.
As for the “hunt” for insurgents, it seems to include death squads. Retired Gen. Wayne Downing, former head of all U.S. Special Operations forces, appeared on NBC’s “Today” show on January 10 to discuss a Newsweek report about the Salvador option. The reference is to the extensive use of death squads by El Salvador’s military during its war against the left in the 1980s. Downing called it a “very valid tactic” that has been employed “since we started the war back in March of 2003.” In the account, brought to light by analyst Stephen Shalom, Downing adds, “We have Special Police Commandos now of the Iraqi forces which conduct these kind of strike operations.”
According to the March 12 London Times, the body of Qahtan Jouli was delivered to his family in Samarra by commandos from the interior ministry. He had appeared on “Terror in the Grip of Justice” and confessed to collaborating with insurgents in ten killings. Qahtan’s father charged, “My son was killed after he was tortured by the Interior Ministry commandos…. They killed him to cover up the lies they broadcast on the al-Iraqiya channel that my son killed many people, including Iraqi army officers.”
Despite the pressure, the insurgency is still capable of conducting large-scale attacks. It’s still mounting 50 to 60 strikes a day across Iraq. The difference is U.S. forces have become more effective at responding to the attacks—with more armor, more surveillance, and electronic countermeasures. The insurgents have responded by shifting their targets to the Iraqi security forces and intensifying economic sabotage by crippling the electrical and petroleum infrastructure.
The militias are central to many of these roundups. According to the Advisor, in Samarra, the Special Police Commandos detained 200 suspected insurgents in the “short time [they] have been operational in the area.” In one week in the Mosul area, according to a December 7 press release from U.S. Task Force Olympia, the Commandos and Iraqi National Guard, backed by U.S. troops, detained 232 people. A report from the Iraqi Ministry of Defense claimed that more than 400 suspects were seized in Baghdad in just one week in March with hundreds more taken from surrounding towns. Many of those arrested remain under Iraqi control—where many are tortured, according to human rights groups as well as the U.S. State Department. Thus the actual prison population in Iraq is unknown, with many more thousands probably in custody above the U.S. total (which itself is unverified).
U.S. Marine units have taken the militia strategy to a new level: by creating their own. In a recent sweep through Al Anbar province, the 7th Marines Regiment brought with them the Iraqi Freedom Guard, a 61-person unit set up by the Marines in January and paid $400 a month each, according to a Reuters report. During the same operation, Marines of the 23rd Regiment were accompanied by 20 members of a Special Forces unit called the Freedom Fighters. The Christian Science Monitor described them as Shiites from the southern city of Basra, with “little love between them and the Sunni Arab citizens of Anbar.”
In the greatest irony, U.S. forces have reached a pact with elements of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army to have them hunt down insurgents. This is the same militia that U.S. forces fought in lopsided battles last year during which U.S. massive firepower devastated much of Sadr City in Baghdad and Najaf’s old city and killed thousands of Iraqis.
According to Agence France-Presse, U.S. forces are using a Shiite tribal leader to enforce vigilante justice in Baghdad’s Dura district. One U.S. officer calls the leader, Sayed Malik, “the godfather” and notes he’s received lots of public works contracts, enough to make him a millionaire. Another Sadr official states that “people from [the] Sadr organization are publicly hunting down the terrorists.” This apparently includes the kidnapping of a Sunni cleric.
The U.S. military is “routinely freeing dangerous criminals in return for a promise to spy on insurgents,” according to the Independent. One senior Iraqi police officer charged, “The Americans are allowing the breakdown of Iraqi society…. We are dealing with an epidemic of kidnapping, extortion and violent crime, but even though we know the Americans monitor calls on mobiles and satellite phones, which are often used in ransom negotiations, they will not pass on any criminal intelligence to us. They only want to use the information against insurgents.”
Despite the ruthless and destabilizing tactics, the insurgency is far from over. One U.S. general recently noted that it takes on average nine years to defeat an insurgency. Additionally, it’s the violence of the U.S. occupation that gives the insurgency such force. Even if the rebellion is contained to “manageable” levels for the Pentagon, meaning a low rate of combat deaths, that does not mean the resistance will end. U.S. forces long ago lost the battle for hearts and minds.
Iraq’s “democracy” is in trouble, leaving many Iraqis disillusioned. With a do-nothing government ensconced in the bosom of a deadly U.S. occupation, the stage is set for further rebellion and repression.
A.K. Gupta is a staff member of the Indypendent.