¡Nunca Olvida! Never Forget!
The US role in Iraq’s death squads:
A response to Gabriele Zamparini and Uruknet’s "Listening to the Survivors"
Max Fuller, member of the BRussells Tribunal Advisory Committee.
(July 2006) http://www.brusselstribunal.org/Fuller.htm
Hector Gomez Calito’s body was found by the road, 18 miles outside Guatemala City, his legs and stomach burnt, his tongue cut out.
‘Death in the Afternoon’, Edwin Charles, New Socialist April 1986
The year was 1986 and Guatemala had just emerged from 31 years of military dictatorship. The death toll stood at 138,000 since the CIA-engineered coup of 1954. The government had officially blamed the violence on everything from foreigners to the heat, yet most of the victims had been ‘disappeared’ by the various branches of the security forces (or private death squads largely made up of moonlighting members of the police or army), armed, trained and supported by the US military. Guatemala’s democratic ‘opening’ made little difference to the disenfranchised majority struggling for basic rights; nor did it halt the ravages of the security forces, which found themselves in a stronger position, free to pursue their internally directed war behind a ‘constitutional veneer’. By 1989 the death toll for the decade alone had reached some 100,000 killed and another 40,000 disappeared.
You can find a similar story in El Salvador, where the US felt it necessary, first, to engineer a civilian, José Napoléon Duarte, as president in 1980 and then to insist on constitutional (1982) and presidential (1984) elections. Such a commitment to ‘democracy’ provided the necessary gloss for the massive expansion of US military involvement under the Reagan administration, leading to a decade of brutal internal conflict. In fact, the US ran the war in El Salvador through a handful of assets in key positions and a military mission whose role was to create counterinsurgency forces to take the war to the guerrilla while the bulk of the armed forces held static positions. The result was a genocidal war of aggression against the Salvadoran population, whose targets, as Chomsky reminds us, were ‘peasants, labour organizers, students, priests or anyone suspected of working in the interests of the people’.
The full extent of the US role in El Salvador was not evident at the time. It has taken the courage of dedicated investigators in truth commissions, the heartbreaking work of forensic anthropologists and the first-hand testimonies of former soldiers and torturers to break the conspiracy of silence.
Serious scholars and activists of Latin American history, and US Imperialism in general, have learned to recognize the role and impact of US involvement in ‘counterinsurgency’ wars. A whole movement in the US is dedicated to closing down the notorious School of the Americas (recently renamed the Western Hemisphere School of Security Cooperation), because activists know that despite the human rights courses and the lessons in bomb disposal, many of the war criminals that have plagued Latin America over recent decades are the alumni of that academy of war.
Such activists have also learned to mistrust the Western media, which has consistently misrepresented or failed to report the horrific crimes committed by US proxy armies. Those activists have listened closely to the voices of the people in struggle and recorded their testimonies as part of their campaign to bring an end to US military training and assistance programs. Laboratories have been established on the ground to investigate and analyze the crimes of the state, as well as to dignify the memories of the victims. Uncovering the truth is not a matter of taking selected quotations from mainstream press articles or reading through blogs, but of building real links with organizations rooted in popular struggle.
In relation to the ongoing occupation and destruction of Iraq, activists and analysts like myself have scoured the information available at a distance and have tried to hear and understand the voices coming from the ground to the best of our ability. It is not a substitute for the kind of real solidarity work that I have been describing, but, for those of us who have looked at the US mode of war, it is enough to recognize the evidence of active US involvement with death squads and genocidal intelligence-based counterinsurgency operations – and we have tried to continue hearing those Iraqi voices despite the ceaseless cacaphony of disinformation put out by the Occupying powers and disseminated by the entire apparatus of the corporate media in their thrall.
In a very concrete sense, we have tried to hang a monumental question mark on the mightiest propaganda machine the world has ever known. In so doing, speaking for myself, I have questioned every assumption that I hold day after day, time after time and always been forced back to the same position: that the supposed sectarian violence afflicting Iraq is entirely an artifice of the Occupation and that British and American imperialism is not only attempting to fabricate a civil war, but is directly responsible for the vast majority of the violence, including the death squads.
It is no surprise to find that these views are challenged by such apologists as Stephen Zunes, who writes that ‘there is little evidence to suggest that US trainers have actively encouraged death squad activity’ (just as there is no ‘evidence’ that Negroponte knew anything about the death squads in El Salvador or Honduras) despite an avalanche of material available to any prepared to look. Nor is it any surprise that these views are ridiculed at such bastions of learning as the Conflict Studies Research Centre of the Defence Academy of the UK.
But it comes as a shock to find these arguments under assault from an organization like Uruknet, which has consistently opposed the Occupation of Iraq and provided a bulwark of news and analysis against the lies of the criminals. Yet Uruknet editor Paola Pisi and writer and activist Gabriele Zamparini have chosen to do essentially that in their article ‘Iraq: Listening to the Survivors’, in which they have criticized an article in which I called for an independent investigation into the killings of three lawyers defending Saddam Hussein and other members of the former Iraqi government on the grounds that I have not heard and understood what is happening in Iraq. Their argument is that rather than focusing on US control of the Iraqi security apparatus, we should be looking at the involvement of Iraq’s two most famous Shiite militias, the Mehdi Army of Radical Cleric Muqtada al Sadr and the Badr Brigade, linked to the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
There are both micro and macro dimensions to their criticism of my article, both of which I would like to have the opportunity to address. The micro dimensions consist in a detailed critique of my article along the following lines.
1) I claimed that the murdered lawyer Khamis al-Obeidi had been hauled from his home in the middle of the night by Interior Ministry representatives when in fact, according to his bereaved wife, 20 men in civilian clothes who identified themselves as members of a ministry security brigade burst into their home in the early hours of the morning while the family slept; Mr Obeidi had little chance to reply before he was seized. It is hard to see how my rendering of the event differs notably from the related facts, which of course formed the basis of my account.
2) I failed to mention that Mehdi Army militiamen are reported to have paraded Mr Obeidi around the Al Thawra (Sadr City) district of Baghdad before his murder and subsequently celebrated his killing with refreshments in the streets. It is true that I did not refer to this account on one blog that is no longer available, but only referred to the disposal of My Obeidi’s body under an image of the Ayatollah al-Sadr, Muqtada al-Sadr’s father. However, my point was that most murderers try to conceal their crimes or transpose the blame to others. A spokesman for Muqtada al-Sadr ‘angrily denied’ the accusations, a surely significant fact that neither I nor Pisi and Zamparini mentioned previously. It should also be noted that the account of militiamen parading Mr Obeidi described by Pisi and Zamparini refers to a Mehdi Army leader named Abu Der’ra. Perhaps, if Pisi and Zamparini had done some more listening of their own, they would have heard the residents of Sadr City who denied that Abu Deraa was a resident of the area, or even the Thawra councilman and senior Sadr official, who insisted that Deraa is not a member of the Mehdi Army. In fact, Deraa is being referred to as the ‘Shiite Zarqawi’ and, I suggest, is just as much a psyop.
3) I failed to discuss an aspect of the background to the killings of the three lawyers, namely that Muqtada al-Sadr and two of his spokesmen had made hostile comments towards the trial of Saddam Hussein. I would like to deal with the various comments separately.
(i) The most substantively incriminating comment was made by Shaikh Raid al-Kadhimi in July 2004 from the ‘pulpit of Baghdad’s Kadhimiya Shrine’. The problem with using this as evidence against Muqtada al-Sadr is that Kadhimi seems an unreliable spokesman. Kadhimi himself had been in exile in Syria for a number of years before the US invasion (unlike Muqtada al-Sadr) and the Kadhimiya Shrine where he spoke has been strongly linked with another al-Sadr, Muqtada’s uncle Hussein al-Sadr, who was not only also in exile, but strongly supported the US invasion and dines with Colin Powel. Hussein al-Sadr is not close to Muqtada, but is closely associated with US/UK intelligence asset Ayad Allawi.
(ii) Shaik Awad Khafaji and Muqtada al-Sadr are both reported to have demanded the execution of Saddam Hussein. I don’t have to agree with their position to point out that in neither statement, as far as I am aware, were specific threats made against the lawyers themselves. From Muqtada al-Sadr’s position, one possible outcome of killing the defence lawyers must surely be the removal of the trial to a country where the death penalty would not even be an option. On every count it would be an act of unbridled stupidity on al-Sadr’s part to sanction the murder of Saddam Hussein’s lawyers and there is no evidence that he has done so.
The point of my article was to emphasize the role of the US-built Ministry of the Interior and its forces and to argue that there is abundant grounds to suspect British and American involvement in most of the killings taking place, quite apart from any moral or legal argument that they are responsible by dint of being in occupation. In taking this position I was in fact listening to many of the voices I hear coming from Iraq, as well as to the victims and fighters, alive and dead, from every other US imperialist aggression.
For instance, I was listening to the murdered lawyer Khamis Obeidi, who stated, ‘The government bears the responsibility because it is supposed to protect the citizens. If there were a serious investigation into the previous murder of Janabi and the perpetrators had been arrested, we would not see today’s crime.’
I was listening to Saddam Hussein’s chief lawyer Khalil al-Dulaimi, who said, ‘We strongly condemn this act [the killing of Mr Obeidi] and we condemn the killings done by the Interior Ministry against Iraqis.’
I was listening to Freedom Voice Society for Human Rights, which is calling for a factfinding mission of the UN, the Arab League or International Organisations and wants peacekeeping forces to protect civilians.
I was listening to an Iraqi professor who wrote that his colleagues were being killed by professional assassins, none of whom have been arrested; he said ‘nobody has taken responsibility, and reasons have not been clarified.’
I was listening to the Shiite farmers who wake up to find typewritten flyers on their doorsteps telling them to leave the mixed communities where they have shared their whole lives with their Sunni neighbors and relatives.
I was listening to the boy whose ears were burnt off in a fire in a police station where he should never have been but was held for stealing some lengths of electrical cable in order to live.
I was listening to the street vendors forced off their pitch by the police and left with no means of subsistence.
I was listening to the workers encountered by Naomi Klein who said they would rather blow up their factory with themselves in it than see it privatized.
I was listening to tales of torture and horror coming out of every US-installed detention facility and every ‘security’ unit given unnatural life by US trainers.
The ‘macro dimension’ to Pisi and Zamparini’s criticism of my article actually has very little to do with the substance of the particular piece. Their real objection is that in consistently drawing on detailed evidence, including US military sources, to examine the role of the US military-intelligence apparatus within the ongoing violence in Iraq, I have systematically downplayed the involvement of the Badr Brigade and the Mehdi Army.
The truth is that, aside from anecdotal allegations from fairly spurious sources, there is no publicly available information on the organisation or structure of either group and spokespersons for both of them assiduously deny their involvement. Even more significantly, Muqtada al-Sadr has been steadfast in opposing sectarianism, as Dahr Jamail, amongst others, has noted. Such a stance simply does not square with his characterisation as one of the arch villains in an internally driven conflict. You don’t need to be an Islamist to see that. Even that other arch fiend, Bayan Jabr, whose offices crawled with US agents, appeared out of his depth, desperately thrusting passports at impassive journalists who would rather crucify him with letters than pose a single rudimentary question about US collusion. Yet no charges are forthcoming against Jabr and it is the US state, not he, that has the more distinguished pedigree in violence.
What we do have is a growing body of eyewitness testimonies from Iraqis asserting the presence of members of one or other militia group. Such assertions are blown out of all proportion within the mainstream western media by writers who have never seriously questioned the role of US military-intelligence advisors in orchestrating the death squads despite a barrage of evidence. The views of journalists who take this line can be discarded as trash, but not those of the Iraqis, who, undoubtedly, genuinely see the involvement of both Badr and Mehdi militiamen.
The problem with such testimonies is not in their credibility but in their ability to perceive the structures and follow the chains of command of the various armed groups that are assaulting them. Despite truisms, the truth is that sometimes you can feel the effect of the lash, but not see the hand that is wielding it.
The most consistent detail in all accounts of raids and arrests/kidnappings (including those cited by Pisi and Zamparini) is the presence of members of the new Iraqi armed forces, be they members of the National Guard (now regular army), blue-shirted policemen or paramilitary members of the Special (now National) Police. This phenomenon is so pointed that no one can seriously discuss the role of militias as death squads without qualifying their position by arguing that these militias have integrated themselves within branches of the security forces to the extent that they have become essentially indistinguishable from the security forces, with the security forces themselves (parts of them at least) now operating as the sectarian militias. Empirically, this is an extraordinarily weak position, as I have attempted to argue with detailed examinations of the relationship between such forces and the US military-intelligence apparatus.
What this leaves essentially are the eyewitnesses who report seeing members of one or other militia operating alongside members of the security forces.
So who are the ‘militiamen’ that Iraqis have seen and, in the case of the recent raids in Adhamiya, even captured? One possible answer is that they are the same plainclothes intelligence operatives that a UPI journalist witnessed participating in a Baghdad raid in June 2004, well before anyone had charged that the Ministry of the Interior or any Iraqi police forces had been infiltrated by Shiite militiamen. Such intelligence operatives might also constitute the mysterious Field Intelligence Units that Gen Rasheed Flayih, the head of the Police Commandos, uses as a euphemism for the death squads. Might such units be made up of ‘militiamen’? We know they are, or at least that they were. From the outset of the occupation, the CIA took the ‘top intelligence agents’ from each of the main exile political groups and hammered them into the Collection Management and Analysis Directorate, which was to become the new Mukhabharat under the Sunni former Baathist general Mohammed Abdullah Shahwani. In November 2003 the Occupation authority formed a paramilitary unit ‘composed of militiamen from the country’s five largest political parties’ to ‘track down insurgents’. I drew attention to all of this in my article ‘Crying Wolf: Media Disinformation and Death Squads in Occupied Iraq’. Do these agents knock on people’s doors saying ‘I’m from the Badr Brigade’? I sincerely doubt it, but even if they do, it is no reason to situate the intelligence apparatus underlying Iraq’s death squads anywhere but, ultimately, with the Occupying forces. For instance, we know that the raids conducted by the paramilitary Special Police are overseen by Multi National Force-Iraq operatives. A second possibility is that local ‘defence’ forces of the kinds seen in Latin America are being organized by the state and deliberately given a sectarian character. If such units exist (I have seen no evidence that they do), they too will operate within the framework of the Occupation’s military-intelligence apparatus.
The one thing that is really certain, as Pisi and Zamparini readily acknowledge, is that whoever these militiamen are, they would not be able to operate without the active collusion of the Ministry of the Interior and the Occupation forces. This fact is crystal clear when we consider that units like the Special Police Commandos, which have been closely linked with death squads and militias, operate with embedded US special forces trainers at the battalion level (ie about the ratio of teacher to student in most class rooms), who live, work, patrol and sleep with the units. It is therefore entirely appropriate to focus on the intellectual authorship of this genocidal campaign of murder at its highest level in order to seek ways to prevent further crimes and prosecute those responsible. One such way would be to press for an independent international investigation by an agency such as the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. Such an investigation must not be charged with examining specific organizations; it must be charged with investigating the thousands of extrajudicial killings taking place across Iraq and determining responsibility, wherever it may lie. This is in no way an alternative to ending the occupation, but is an integral part of campaigning to uncover the crimes of the occupiers, end the occupation and act in solidarity with Iraqis facing terrible persecution. It is in just this spirit that Dennis Kucinich wrote an open letter to Donald Rumsfeld, exposing the complicity of the US war machine, not in defending Muqtada al-Sadr or the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
As I wrote at the beginning of this response, it took years of agony to finally uncover a tiny fraction of the true extent of US complicity in El Salvador’s killing fields. Soldiers tormented with guilt finally had the courage to come forward at the risk of their own lives to reveal their roles in collecting information through savage torture and murder, information that was laid on the adjacent desks of US intelligence operatives, minus only the gory details of how it had been obtained. The value of such testimonies is in revealing the structure and logic of US counterinsurgency wars, so that their lessons never are forgotten.
Iraq’s ‘democratic opening’ was just as vital a fig leaf for all-out dirty war as Duarte’s civilian presidency was in El Salvador. At this moment all of the voices are telling us the same thing and that is that US-trained, armed and backed forces are committing yet another genocide. Islamofascism is just another cover for ruthless political, economic and social repression, with Shiite militiamen in Iraq no more needing to take their orders from Tehran than Guatemalan death squads needed to take theirs from the Vatican. The objective is not a mystery. It is total neo-colonial domination. Let’s focus on what is concrete and start looking for ways to protect Iraqis from the wolves and wolf brigades that Anglo-American imperialism has unleashed on them. Focusing on the Mehdi Army or the Badr Brigades is exactly what the Occupation wants the anti-war movement to do, providing the real criminals with ‘plausible denial’ and building a climate in which Iraq can be successfully dismembered.
The Assault on Adhamiya - Not Civil War Yet
After numerous reports of fighting in the Adhamiya district of Baghdad over the last few months, many of them drawing on first-hand testimonies, it would probably surprise few of those who have paid attention to descriptions of Sunni vs Shia warfare, that the area is Tiger Brigade territory.
What might come as slightly surprising is to learn that the Tiger Brigade is not the feared Shiite predator, against whom residents of the predominantly Sunni district have thrown up barricades and formed neighbourhood self-defence groups. Instead, the Tiger Brigade is the 2nd Brigade of the 6th Iraqi Army Division (erroneously referred to in most reports as National Guard), headquartered at the old Defence Minsistry building, based in al Thawra (Sadr City) and responsible for a large swathe of Baghdad east of the Tigris, including al-Adhamiya.
The best known and best reported part of the ongoing battle for Adhamiya took place on the nights of 17 and 18 April 2006, when gunmen stormed the neighbourhood and were resisted by local forces. What role did Tiger play? According to one local ‘the National Guards that are usually patrolling the street left’. Did they melt away out of fear of the gunmen? Did they secretly or openly sympathise with the gunmen’s aims? Were they obeying arcane orders passed down from the Ministry of Interior (MOI) not to interfere with the raid? I suggest the answer is none of those, but that the troops of the 2nd Brigade did not disappear, but redeployed to the perimeter of a predefined area of operations as part of a diligently orchestrated assault (‘cordon and search’) of the district. In doing so, they would have been fulfilling a role that US trainers had devised for them, and, no doubt, the Military Transition Team (MiTT), the 506th Regimental Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division under Lt Col Paul Finken, would have been on hand to ensure that the job was done properly.
From what we know of such planned raids, the actual forces that enter the area of operations are usually paramilitary units of the Special (now National) Police, formerly made up of Police Commandos and Public Order Brigades, now simply consisting of two divisions with around eight individual brigades. This seems to be essentially consistent with what happened on the night of 17 April, with first-hand accounts stating that the intruders were special police forces from MOI. Nothing so far is out of step with what we should expect from a carefully planned counterinsurgency operation (eg see the account of Operation Knockout).
Where doubt about the identity of the attackers and intellectual authorship of the assault starts to creep in is with the eyewitnesses who made the following statements (see ‘The assault on Adhamiya: Limitations and perspectives of war reporting from Iraq’ and ‘Baghdad Slipping into Civil War’).
‘Shia attacked a Sunni mosque’
‘Special forces from the Ministry of Interior, probably Badr brigades’
‘these were members of the Badr militia and Sadr’s Mehdi Army who were raiding the neighborhood’
‘I have seen these members of the Badr militia and Mehdi Army wearing Iraqi Police uniforms and using Iraqi Police pick-up trucks roaming our streets’
‘Some were just wearing civilian clothes with black face masks, others were definitely commandos from the ministry of the interior’
Such statements deserve neither to be dismissed, not patronised, but they do need to be questioned.
What seems clear is that many of the intruders were indeed MOI Special/National Police units and that the description of them as either Badr of Mehdi militiamen, though undoubtedly believed, relies solely on the assumption that such forces have been thoroughly infiltrated by these two Shiite militias. This simply is not true, certainly to any practical effect, as a wealth of evidence demonstrates (for instance, Major General Rick Lynch, who headed the training mission for the Public Order Division, highlights the mixed ethno-sectarian make-up of the Special/National Police).
More challenging are the accounts of un-uniformed attackers in balaclavas. Could these not be Shiite militiamen loyal to Badr of Mehdi working alongside MOI forces? I believe not. Firstly because we know from a June 2004 UPI account of a raid in Baghdad (now mysteriously removed from the Internet and only currently available here) that plainclothes intelligence officers accompany MOI operations.
Secondly because, despite the initial absence of US ground forces, we can be confident that the raid had been coordinated with Multi National Force-Iraq, ie the Occupation. For instance, several witnesses reported the presence of helicopters overhead, while others mentioned that US soldiers joined the attackers subsequent to the initial incursion – these soldiers almost certainly constituted the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) that US Army spokesman Rick Lynch told journalists was dispatched (ie a planned operation was not going according to plan). That US forces were not present from the outset is not surprising. This is exactly what the US has been wanting to achieve and Lynch boasts that 60% of patrols are now conducted by Iraqi forces (op cit.). In fact, as independent journalist Dahr Jamail rightly points out, the new US modus operandi sounds disturbingly similar (if not identical) to what just occurred in Adhamiya.
‘Iraqi forces would take the lead, supported by American air power, special operations, intelligence, embedded officers and back-up troops. Helicopters suitable for urban warfare, such as the manoeuverable AH-6 ‘Little Birds’ ... are likely to complement ground attacks.’
So if ‘militiamen’ were present, we absolutely have to assume that they were under US oversight, making any accusations against Badr or Mahdi irrelevant.
Dude, where’s my civil war?
With the greatest possible respect to the Iraqis living and dying through this Occupation-imposed nightmare and to the commentators who are understandably confused by the inherent duplicity of ‘dirty wars’, it must be emphasised that it does no favours to the Iraqis to overblow the supposed sectarian dimension of the ongoing conflict.
In fact, one of the most revealing aspects of the Adhamiya battle is that it is most definitely not Sunni vs Shia. We know that the US proxy forces are not exclusively Shiite, despite popular misconceptions. It should also not be forgotten that the ‘predominantly Sunni area of Adhamiya’ is, de facto, mixed! Of all the unlikely sources, it is the New York Times that reveals that on one block in Adhamiya, Sunnis and Shiites stood guard on rooftops and at street corners together. This shoudn’t really surprise us. The residents of Adhamiya and Kadhamiya, a predominantly Shiite district, got together to send relief to the residents of Fallujah during the US siege. It took the destruction of the bridge linking the two communities and the imposition of roadblocks to start breaking down that sense of solidarity.
Undoubtedly, the unity of Iraq is under desperate threat and the actions of the Occupation are producing extraordinary tensions. That is by design. Nevertheless, the closest thing to a civil war in Adhamiya is that ordinary Iraqis are attempting to protect themselves from the ravages of Iraqi mercenaries fighting for the Occupation. That some Iraqis, at the sharpest end of violence, propaganda and active disinformation campaigns (psyops), are started to falter in their belief in a shared destiny for all Iraqis is hardly surprising. It is the duty of the anti-war movement to listen to them, but is not our duty to follow them when they are deceived down blind alleys. It is also our duty to understand what is going on to the best of our ability and to try to find ways of building active solidarity with all sectors of Iraqi society in struggle.
Max Fuller (July 2006)
Max Fuller has worked for some years as a member of the Colombia Solidarity Campaign in the UK and has read extensively on US policy and Latin America. He is the author of several reports published in the 'Bulletin of the Colombia Solidarity Campaign'. Max Fuller is the author of ‘For Iraq, the Salvador Option Becomes Reality’ and 'Crying Wolf: Media Disinformation and Death Squads in Occupied Iraq' , both published by the Centre for Research on Globalisation. He is a member of the BRussells Tribunal Advisory Committee where he has published several articles: Conflicting Media Accounts: Evidence of Iraqi Death Squad Conspiracy and Diyala - A Laboratory of Civil War? He is an authority in the field of "Death Squads" and "the Salvador Option". He can be contacted via the website www.cryingwolf.deconstructingiraq.org.uk
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