In devising a strategy to defeat Iraq’s insurgents, the Pentagon may be gaining the upper hand but at the cost of pushing Iraq toward civil war. A report by the Wall Street Journal from Feb. 16 revealed that “pop-up militias” are proliferating in Iraq. Not only is the U.S. aware of these illegal militias, but the Pentagon is arming, training and funding them for use them in counter-insurgency operations.
Most disturbing, one militia in particular – the “special police commandos” – is being used throughout Iraq and has been singled out by a U.S. general as conducting death squad strikes known as the “Salvador option.”
Greg Jaffe, the Journal reporter, identified at least six such militias. Yet these militias owe their allegiance not to the Iraqi people or state, 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 to 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,” who ran on Allawi’s ticket in the January elections.
The leader of the special police commandos, Gen. Adnan Thavit, participated in the disastrous 1996 coup against Saddam Hussein that Allawi coordinated. Thavit 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.
New Boss = Old Boss
A recent Human Rights Watch study on torture in Iraq noted that Al-Nahdhah, a 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 [GSD] 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.” (Like most Arabic words, Thavit’s name is translated into English with various spellings.)
Jane’s Intelligence Digest commented at the time 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 organizing the insurgency.”
Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who heads the mammoth U.S. effort to create Iraq’s myriad security forces, called the commandos “a horse to back.” And Petraeus has done so by providing it with “money to fix up its base and buy vehicles, ammunition, radios and more weapons.”
The special police commandos have also received special treatment from the U.S. occupation. A State Department report to Congress from Jan. 5 noted that at the request of the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, “billeting space” was provided for 1,500 commandos in the Baghdad Public Safety Academy.
Bigger than the British
In terms of numbers, a column by David Ignatius in the Feb. 25 Washington Post notes that Thavit “commands a force of about 10,000 men,” which would make them larger than the British military. 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 stilled 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 Dec. 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.”
This “hunt” seems to include death squad operations. Retired Gen. Wayne Downing, the former head of all U.S. special operations forces, appeared on NBC’s Today show on Jan. 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.” Downing added, “We have special police commandos now of the Iraqi forces which conduct these kind of strike operations.”
At the highest levels, White House officials consider the special police commandos as the leading edge against the insurgency. In hearings before the Senate on Feb. 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.”
By all accounts, the insurgency is still very active, conducting up to 60 strikes a day. But one key indicator of its effectiveness – U.S. combat deaths – shows a marked decline since the razing of Fallujah last November. In that month, some 126 U.S. troops died in combat, more than four per day on average. By March, combat deaths had declined by more than 75 percent.
Sweeping countless thousands of Sunni Arab males off the streets has had an effect. The prison population under U.S. control alone has exploded to over 10,000. The insurgents have responded by shifting their targets, concentrating attacks more on Iraqi security forces and they have intensified economic sabotage, crippling the electrical and petroleum infrastructure.
U.S. Marines units have taken the militia strategy to a new level: by creating their own. In a recent sweep through Al Anbar province, the heartland of the insurgency, The 7th Marines Regiment brought with the Iraqi Freedom Guard, a 61-man unit set up 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.”
Despite being squeezed, no one is predicting an end to the insurgency. One U.S. general recently noted that it takes on average nine years to defeat an insurgency. 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.