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The Death Squad Option

Faced with an intractable insurgency in Iraq, the Pentagon is returning to its bad old ways. Remember El Salvador?
 
 
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To deal with the skyrocketing insurgency, the Pentagon is considering creating secret death squads in Iraq. Now, the Pentagon's brave new solution for democracy in the Middle East is to revisit the reprehensible "Salvador Option," the clandestine operation implemented by the Reagan White House in the 1980s in El Salvador. According to Newsweek, "Back then, faced with losing a war against the Salvadoran rebels, the United States government funded "nationalist" forces that allegedly included so-called death squads which killed scores of innocent civilians." Today, according to an explosive new article in Newsweek, the Pentagon dusted off that model and has a proposal on the table to "advise, support and possibly train" secret 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."

It's unclear whether the current proposed policy would direct the Iraqi squads to assassinate their targets or "snatch" them and send them to secret facilities for interrogation. In plain language: the squads would be either hit men or kidnapper/torturers. The United States has recently come under serious criticism for whisking suspects to countries with questionable interrogation techniques. Recently, for example, a German national was allegedly kidnapped by Macedonian authorities, turned over to the United States and flown to a prison in Afghanistan where he claims to have been repeatedly beaten, all because he shared a name similar to one of the 9/11 suspects. Other reports show the CIA has employed a secret private jet to ferry terror suspects to places with terrible human rights records, such as Egypt, Jordan, Afghanistan and Libya.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has held El Salvador up as a model for Iraq. And during the recent Vice Presidential debates, Vice President Dick Cheney stated, "Twenty years ago we had a similar situation in El Salvador. We had a guerilla insurgency that controlled roughly a third of the country, 75,000 people dead. And we held free elections ... And today El Salvador is a whale of a lot better because we held free elections." According to a 1993 U.N.-sponsored truth commission, however, up to "90 percent of the atrocities in the conflict "were committed by the U.S.-sponsored army and its surrogates, "with the rebels responsible for 5 percent and the remaining 5 percent undetermined." These death squads "abducted members of the civilian population and of rebel groups. They tortured their hostages, were responsible for their disappearance and usually executed them."

John Negroponte, the current U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, is no stranger to death squads. In the 1980s, Negroponte served as the U.S. ambassador to Honduras. At the time, he was cozy with the chief of the Honduran national police force, Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, who also ran the infamous Battalion 316 death squad. Battalion 316 "kidnapped, tortured and murdered more than 100 people between 1981 and 1984." According to Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, "Negroponte publicly adopted a see-no-evil attitude to this army death squad."

President Bush also appointed neocon Elliot Abrams to be his senior adviser on the Middle East. Abrams was also a staunch supporter of the Salvador Option in the 1980s: when newspapers "reported that a U.S.-trained military unit had massacred hundreds of villagers in the tiny Salvadoran hamlet of El Mozote, Abrams told Congress the story was nothing but communist propaganda." When confronted with the United Nations report that the vast majority of "atrocities in El Salvador's civil war were committed by Reagan-assisted death squads," Abrams's response: "The administration's record on El Salvador is one of fabulous achievements." Abrams was convicted of lying to Congress about Iran-Contra in 1987 – he was pardoned by George H.W. Bush in 1992.