More Than Timetables

Instead of criticizing Iraqis for not curbing the deadly militias, the Bush administration ought to own up to its role in creating and fomenting them. With singular hypocrisy U.S. officials have been calling for their dismantling even while the Pentagon remains convinced that these “aces-up-the-sleeve” are our ticket to victory.

Despite public denials of plans for war, the Department of Defense was organizing, training and arming a secret militia of 5,000 Iraqi exiles and Arab mercenaries outside of Budapest in December 2002. They were to be slipped into Iraq with the invading forces to serve as muscle for its then-preferred choice for prime minister, Ahmed Chalabi. [1] Reports are they later comprised the bulk of looters who ripped Baghdad apart while U.S. soldiers stood idly by.

The Coalition Provisional Authority’s highly undemocratic response when resistance to the occupation appeared was to form a paramilitary unit directly tied to members of Iraq’s provisional government. They included gunmen of the Kurdish peshmerga, Shiite units–especially those of the SCIRI’s Badr Brigade–and of Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress (INC).

In late 2003, Vice-President Cheney wasted no time in obtaining $3 billion in covert funds to finance a secret police, and by year’s end, the new favorite, Iyad Allawi, was at CIA headquarters designing the not-so-covert operations that would put special commando brigades on the scene. Assigned to head up a new counterinsurgency force was Colonel James Steele, former chief of the U.S. Military Group in El Salvador, who developed special operating forces (sic) during the death squad era there. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s denials of the existence of a “Salvador Option”–death squads in Iraq– were contradicted by the reality on the ground and by the former head of all U.S. Special Forces, Gen. Wayne Downing, who called it a “very valid strategy, a very valid tactic,” and stated that “it’s actually something we’ve been doing since we started the war back in March of 2003.” [2]

Making their debut in September 2004 with heavy-weapons, rocket-propelled grenades, AK-47 assault rifles, mortars and 9mm pistols, the special commandos were infinitely better armed and trained than Iraq’s regular army and police. Being outside the official security forces also assured immunity for extrajudicial killings.

“We don’t call them militias. Militias areillegal,” said Maj. Chris Wales, sent to track down the “pop-up units” camped out in bombed-out buildings around Baghdad. There were as many as 15,000 soldiers in a dozen units, whose first loyalty was to the unit’s commander and not necessarily to the central government. At least three were linked to Allawi.

Former Ba’athist intelligence officer Gen. Adnan Thavit headed up the Special Police Commandos, which was singled out early on by the United Nations for conducting death squad strikes. When Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who was overseeing the U.S. effort to train and equip Iraqi military units, visited the Commando’s base, he agreed to provide the unit with funds for infrastructure, vehicles, ammunition, radios and more weapons. “When I saw themI decided this was a horse to back,” said Petraeus. [3] The commandos were particularly attractive for their potential to reduce U.S. casualties, shifting the burden to zealous militiamen. So popular was the idea that the U.S. Marines proceeded to set up a private militia of their own, the Iraqi Freedom Guard, [4] to carry on “preemptive manhunts” ahead of their forces.

As execution-style killings mounted throughout 2005, Shiite militias, police and death squads linked to the SCIRI-dominated Interior Ministry were widely blamed. Outgoing United Nations human rights chief John Pace declared that as many as 1,000 Iraqis per month were turning up in morgues, bound and gagged, with signs they had been tortured. According to Pace, “The vast majority of bodies [in the Baghdad morgue] showed signs of summary execution.Some showed evidence of torture, with arms and leg joints broken by electric drills.” [5]

Corpses found along roadsides and in shallow graves brought the unprecedented level of violence in early 2006 to some 2,000 a month. The Pentagon’s own report to Congress showed Iraqi civilian casualties up 51% this summer, claiming a staggering 3,438 lives in July, more than in any previous month of the war. [6] And yet Sec. Rumsfeld repeatedly told Congress that the plan was to prevent a civil war. Or if one occurred, to have the Iraqi security forces deal with it. In other words, Iraqis would be left to shoulder the U.S. wreckage.

Following the Samarra shrine bombing in February, US Ambassador Khalilzad’s declaration that “Militias are the infrastructure of civil war and the basis of warlordism,” was a further attempt to blame Iraqis for their plight. In the height of cynicism, Khalilzad told reporters in August “that Iraq’s political leaders had failed to fully use their influence to rein in the soaring violence, and that people associated with the government are stoking the flames of sectarian hatred.”

Today Gen. Thavit is director-general of the Iraqi police. His irregular units were eventually incorporated into the government. When the 8th Iraqi Police Unit was suspended from duty, charged with the October 1 kidnapping and murder of 26 factory workers, Adnan Thavit said they would not face punishment, but would rather be rehabilitated and placed back in service. It is widely known that the security forces are permeated with militiamen, policemen by day and hit men by night. It is truly El Salvador déjà vu.

Death tolls for Iraqis are now running above 100 a day. Militias are fighting militias. The country teeters on the edge of a full-blown civil war. Both spiraling conflicts: the insurgency, fuelled by the invasion, and sectarian violence, provoked by illegal militias, are the direct result of US policy. The Pentagon’s latest “solution” to the Sunni-led insurgency has been to create yet another militia just last month-a Sunni one! Rumsfeld continues to look for the magic pill, still refuses to believe that his “ace” strategy did not work and will never work-not if democracy is the aim.

President Bush has asked us to hold him accountable if we are unhappy about the war in Iraq. We should take him up on it. A moment of truth would go a long way to righting the terrible wrongs. This administration must own up to its responsibility in unleashing the ungodly carnage and massive destruction. Rather than ordering others to develop a timetable for it to end, or plotting a coup so a strongman will handle it, the goal would swiftly be achieved by an immediate U.S. disengagement.

Iraqis have a right to design their own future, their own governance, as it should have been from Day One. They have endured the lashes of U.S. will for too long, ever since it paved the way for Saddam Hussein’s rise to power. The same illegal and despicable means–hiring him to assassinate their prime minister in 1959–has brought decade upon decade of horrendous suffering, worse now than during Saddam’s rule.

When will the Iraqi people be free? When will they finally be released? It would only take an ounce of humanity to halt the slaughter, to pull them back from the brink of civil war. It’s time for deceit and finger-pointing to end. Long past due.

VICTORIA FURIO has been dedicated to education for justice since 1976, having directed several regional and national programs within the religious community. She has also spent 15 years in Latin America in ecumenical human rights and reconstruction efforts, and is currently on staff at a major U.S. seminary. She can be reached at: goldenrules05@yahoo.com.


[1] “US paying Iraqi rebels at secret training camp,” Sunday Herald-UK, January 5, 2003.

[2] “Today Show”, WNBC, January 10, 2005.

[3] Greg Jaffe, “Brands of Brothers-New Factor in Iraq: Irregular Brigades Fill Security Void,” Wall Street Journal, February 16, 2005.

[4] Reuters, “U.S. Marines hire private Iraqi force to hunt insurgents,” January 3, 2005.

[5] Jonathan Steele, “Baghdad official who exposed executions flees,” Guardian, March 2, 2006.

[6] Department of Defense, “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq,” August 2006, p.3.



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