Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Politics of Death

Just sat down to write about random acts of human goodness and instead I'm writing a post with a very bleak title indeed.

It's because of this.
Iraq has launched an investigation into claims by the US military that an Iraqi interior ministry "death squad" has been targeting Sunni Arab Iraqis. The probe comes after a US general revealed the arrest of 22 policemen allegedly on a mission to kill a Sunni. "We have found one of the death squads. They are part of the police force," US Maj Gen Joseph Peterson said.
Death squads.

The fact that this has been happening has almost certainly been known to the US government for months at the very least. Sunnis have been making loud accusations of this sort for a considerable period of time. We know that the US military raided an interior ministry building in November last year and "discovered" prisoner abuses there. That raid was undoubtedly an American attempt to damage the repuation of the UIA in the run up to the election. Until that moment, the US government thought it in their interest to ignore these activities.

In fact, the possibility exists that the US government instigated these covert operations. From January 2005:
Now, NEWSWEEK has learned, the Pentagon is intensively debating an option that dates back to a still-secret strategy in the Reagan administration’s battle against the leftist guerrilla insurgency in El Salvador in the early 1980s. Then, faced with a losing war against Salvadoran rebels, the U.S. government funded or supported "nationalist" forces that allegedly included so-called death squads directed to hunt down and kill rebel leaders and sympathizers. Eventually the insurgency was quelled, and many U.S. conservatives consider the policy to have been a success—despite the deaths of innocent civilians and the subsequent Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal.

Following that model, one Pentagon proposal would send Special Forces teams to advise, support and possibly train Iraqi squads, most likely hand-picked Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shiite militiamen, to target Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers, even across the border into Syria, according to military insiders familiar with the discussions. It remains unclear, however, whether this would be a policy of assassination or so-called "snatch" operations, in which the targets are sent to secret facilities for interrogation. The current thinking is that while U.S. Special Forces would lead operations in, say, Syria, activities inside Iraq itself would be carried out by Iraqi paramilitaries, officials tell NEWSWEEK.
These types of actions have a specific psychological aim which is only partly targetted towards the insurgents themselves.
[al-Shahwani, director of Iraq’s National Intelligence Service] said most Iraqi people do not actively support the insurgents or provide them with material or logistical help, but at the same time they won’t turn them in. One military source involved in the Pentagon debate agrees that this is the crux of the problem, and he suggests that new offensive operations are needed that would create a fear of aiding the insurgency. "The Sunni population is paying no price for the support it is giving to the terrorists," he said. "From their point of view, it is cost-free. We have to change that equation."
[my emphasis]
These tactics, it appears, were being considered in the US administration in early 2005. Can anyone explain why the Pentagon source above is not advocating terrorism? We're talking about using death squads to terrorise a population into submission and co-operation. Morality aside, the idea that members of these covert death squads would only kill "terrorist evildoers" who fully deserve it is extraordinarily naive. Real life just doesn't work that way. Note also that the implication of the above is that the explicit aim of the strategy is to create a fear in people who "do not actively support the insurgents or provide them with material or logistical help".

There is no evidence to conclusively prove that the US government did implement this strategy but it seems clear that it was seriously being considered. Does this explain the apparent rise in reports of death squad activities in Iraq in 2005? It's a possibility which certainly can't be dismissed outright.

To go back to today's raid, the idea that this is was chance discovery or a surprise to the US military is not credible. The fact that the group did not feel the need to cover up their actions when confronted by the US military tells its own story, I suspect. It is undoubtedly the case that these captures were ordered by the US government and are politically motivated. There are two factors.

The first is, of course, the release of the new images of abuses at Abu Ghraib. The US government needs a distraction and this fits the bill perfectly. Straighforward enough, I should think.

The second is to do with the new politics of Iraq. As I've mentioned before, the US ambassador is desperately trying to get the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq out of the interior ministry. Given that the SCIRI is one of the powerful blocks of the UIA, this is proving to be enormously difficult (even more so after the SCIRI candidate did not get the PM job to sweeten the pill). The arrests today will put pressure on the SCIRI which will be used to once again try to remove them.

Notice however that it is gentle pressure. From the BBC article:
Gen Peterson said he was convinced Iraqi Interior Minster Bayan Jabr, a member of Sciri, had no knowledge of or involvement in the death squads.
It is very difficult to know whether this is true. The extent to which the SCIRI leadership is aware of, or supporting these activities is unclear. That doesn't usually stop the US administration bandying about accusations when it suits them though. In this case, they can't squeeze too hard because their position is already weak. The UIA would almost certainly get the votes it needs to call for a full US withdrawal if they feel their power is being threatened.

This is the politics of death in Iraq. Because of it, one Sunni Iraqi (who may be guilty of murder) is alive who would otherwise be dead. Many more have died while the US government looked the other way. And evidence suggests that US government complicity may go far beyond simply turning a blind eye.

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