Why Iraqis May See ISIL as Lesser Evil Compared To U.S.-Backed Death Squads


The mostly Sunni Arab population of western and northern Iraq is faced with a diabolical choice between the brutal rule of IS and the even more murderous rule of their own government. Their life and death predicament is the direct result of past and present U.S. policy in Iraq.

In 2004, the U.S. responded to resistance in Iraq with a "divide and rule" strategy that relied heavily on recruiting, training and deploying Special Police commandos to detain, torture and summarily execute tens of thousands of young men and boys in areas that resist the illegal U.S. invasion and occupation of their country. At its peak in 2006, this genocidal campaign delivered over 1,600 corpses per month to the morgue in Baghdad.

The killing wound down along with U.S. combat operations in 2008, but leaders of the Badr Brigade militia retained control of the Interior Ministry and their campaign of detention, torture and extrajudicial execution continued, albeit on a smaller scale. As Iraq's political crisis has exploded in the last year or two, the Interior Ministry has relaunched its death squads with a vengeance, leaving Iraqis in a large swathe of the country caught between IS and the death squads. After all they have suffered for the past 12 years, it is a rational choice for them to see IS as the lesser evil.

The U.S. role in the recruitment, training and deployment of these Interior Ministry forces was shrouded in secrecy and disinformation. But a great deal is known, and there are three chapters on America's "dirty war" in Iraq in my book, Blood On Our Hands, the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq.

Within six months of the illegal U.S. invasion of Iraq, the CIA warned that the occupation faced growing resistance from many sectors of Iraqi society. It also warned that armed resistance in the center of the country could spread to Shia majority areas, implying that only a "divide and rule" strategy could preempt the emergence of a unified national resistance movement.

At the time of that CIA report, U.S. forces were being hit by 35 attacks per day and only 400 Americans had so far died in Iraq. Over the next three years, resistance grew to 150 attacks per day, and 4,488 U.S. troops have now been killed in Iraq, including 2 in 2014. But U.S. leaders were caught in a trap of their own making.  Having conquered and occupied Iraq, they were not about to allow indigenous constituencies in Iraq to claim the right to govern their own country and snatch away the fruits of their victory. The U.S. and its Kurdish and formerly exiled Iraqi allies were determined to retain control of politics in Iraq and to silence anyone who challenged their legitimacy, and this remains the case today.

In December 2003, Seymour Hersh reported that U.S. special forces were being trained in Israel and North Carolina by Israeli assassins (Mista'aravim) to carry out assassination operations in Iraq. U.S. forces had killed or captured most of the leaders of the Iraqi government, but resistance was still growing.  U.S. officials believed the resistance was being led by "mid-level Baath Party members," effectively making the entire Iraqi middle class targets for assassination, from former military officers to academics.

A U.S. official in Baghdad told Hirsch, "The only way we can win is to go unconventional.  We're going to have to play their game.  Guerrilla versus guerrilla. Terrorism versus terrorism. We've got to scare the Iraqis into submission." A U.S. officer told Newsweek, "The Sunni population is paying no price for the support it is giving the terrorists. From their point of view, it is cost-free. We have to change that equation."

As these officials made clear, and as in previous U.S.-led dirty wars in Latin America and South-East Asia, the purpose of such a campaign is not to precisely identify and kill actual resistance fighters but to target and terrorize the civilian population that supports them. In many parts of Iraq, the occupation became a war against the entire population, characterized by indiscriminate violence, mass arrests, torture, collective punishment, extra-judicial executions and illegal rules of engagement. 

These rules included orders to "kill all military-age males" during certain operations; "free fire" or "weapons free" zones; "dead-checking" or killing wounded resistance fighters; standing orders to call in air-strikes in civilian areas, even on apartment buildings full of people; and "360-degree rotational fire" on busy streets. For most of the young Americans carrying out these orders, they were justified by propaganda falsely linking the people of Iraq to terrorist crimes in the U.S. A Zogby Poll in 2006 found that 85% of American troops in Iraq believed that their mission was "to retaliate for Saddam's role in the 9/11 attacks."

The U.S. also began recruiting Iraqi forces to fight under U.S. command. The first units were drawn from the Kurdish Peshmerga militia and 3 former exile groups: the CIA-backed Iraqi National Congress and Iraqi National Accord and the Iranian-trained Badr Brigades. As the U.S. dirty war in Iraq exploded over the next few years, U.S. propaganda obscured its American roots, blaming the Iraqis for the terror unleashed in their midst.

After Ayad Allawi was appointed Interim Prime Minister in June 2004, with John Negroponte as U.S. Ambassador, the U.S. dirty war in Iraq moved to its next phase, the recruitment of the first battalions of Special Police commandos in September 2004. Steven Casteel, who had run the Iraqi Interior Ministry under Paul Bremer, stayed on as senior U.S. adviser to the Interim Interior Minister, Falah al-Naqib. Retired Colonel James Steele was appointed to lead U.S. Special Police Training Teams.

The backgrounds of these five men, Allawi, Negroponte, Casteel, Naqib and Steele encompassed some of the darkest chapters in recent U.S. history and should have been a giant flashing neon sign of what was to come. But throughout the coming reign of terror, Western journalists would faithfully report that this very experienced team of American dirty warriors were mystified and troubled by evidence of torture and the endless tide of mutilated corpses overflowing from morgues and mass graves in Iraq.

The two Iraqis, Allawi and Naqib, had long ties to the CIA. As a medical student in London, Ayad Allawi was an MI-6 double agent, reporting dissent among fellow Iraqi students to the Iraqi government while secretly working for British intelligence. He was tapped by the CIA to lead the failed coup that led to the arrest of every CIA agent in Iraq in 1996. As Interim Prime Minister, his brutality led Iraqis to dub him "Saddam without a mustache."

Naqib was the Iraqi-American son of General Hassan al-Naqib, the former Chief of Staff of the Iraqi Army, who defected to the U.S. in the 1970s and co-founded the Iraqi National Congress (INC) in 1992 with Ahmad Chalabi and the Rendon Group, a PR firm under contract to the CIA. The CIA funded the INC to the tune of $52 million, and the INC touted its "Information Collection Program" as the primary source for 108 newspaper and magazine articles about Iraq's fictitious WMDs and links to terrorism between October 2001 and March 2003.

As Political Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon from 1964 to 1968, John Negroponte was involved in the rise of Nguyen Van Thieu and his election as President of South Vietnam in 1967. As U.S. Ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985, he oversaw the "disguised, quiet, media-free" approach to dirty war in Central America, which now serves as a global model for U.S. covert wars. As U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations from 2001 to 2004, he provided diplomatic cover for U.S. aggression against Afghanistan and Iraq.

Steven Casteel was the former Chief of Intelligence of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. He worked for the DEA for 30 years, in the U.S., Peru, Bolivia and notably Colombia, where the DEA collaborated with Los Pepes, one of the death squads that merged to form the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), which was  responsible for about 75% of violent civilian deaths during a decade of dirty war.

After taking part in the U.S. covert war in Cambodia, James Steele commanded the U.S. Military Advisor Group in El Salvador from 1984 to 1986, working with Salvadoran forces who killed tens of thousands of civilians. He lied under oath to the Senate Intelligence Committee about his role in the Iran-Contra scandal, overseeing arms shipments to the Contras from Ilopango airbase, but he avoided prosecution by testifying against U.S. Ambassador Edwin Corr.

Naqib appointed his uncle, General Adnan Thavit, to head the Special Police Commandos. By October 2004, two battalions were operational, and four more were being recruited and trained.  General Thavit told Reuters that they included "police who have previous experience fighting terrorism, and also people who received special training under the former regime." An American officer in Iskandariya told Reuters, "The hardest fighters we have are the former special forces from Saddam's days." But one of the first units, the Wolf Brigade, was recruited mainly from the Iranian-trained Badr Brigade militia and was under the command of a Shiite general named Mohammed Qureshi, known as Abu Walid.

In January 2005, U.S. forces built a high-tech national operations center for the Special Police, complete with satellite phones, computers with uplinks to U.S. forces networks and direct connections to U.S. bases and the Iraqi Interior Ministry. A Special Police commander told a U.S. military reporter, "This is the first Iraqi force created in the organization of the Ministry of the Interior to fight the insurgency. The Americans have provided the equipment, supplies, munitions, phones and training."

Generals Thavit and Abu Walid soon became household names in Iraq thanks to a grotesque reality TV show called "Terrorism in the Grip of Justice," in which a parade of badly beaten Iraqis confessed to resistance activities, gruesome murders and often homosexuality for good measure, on the U.S.-backed Al-Iraqiya TV channel. The program was quickly linked to real crimes when the body of a policeman who "confessed" to killing two of his fellow officers was delivered to his family a few days after his confession was broadcast. In July 2005, an Iraqi lawyers' association identified 27 people who were still alive despite the televised confessions of their alleged murderers, exposing the program as a farcical form of propaganda.

The sectarian Shiite government that took office in 2005 appointed the head of the Badr Brigade militia, Bayan al-Jabr, to the post of Interior Minister and another Badr commander, Adnan al-Asadi as his deputy. Steven Casteel stayed on in Baghdad through 2005 as senior U.S. adviser to Interior Minister Jabr. The Los Angeles Times reported that the new government planned to "unleash well-trained Iraqi commandos in Baghdad and other trouble spots," adding that, "The special forces units have a reputation for effectiveness and brutality."  General Abu Walid of the Wolf Brigade made no secret of what was to come, "We are studying Baghdad now, to be ready for any mission we are assigned. Baghdad is filled with terrorists."

On April 4, 2005, the Interior Ministry announced an expansion of the Special Police to 24 battalions. In May, they were unleashed on Baghdad. The first sign of the campaign was the discovery of 14 bodies in a shallow grave in the Kasra-Wa-Atash industrial district. The bodies bore classic signs of torture, including broken skulls, other broken bones and burns. Many had their right eyeballs removed. They were identified as 14 farmers who had been arrested at a vegetable market in Baghdad on May 5. They were from Maidan, a hotbed of resistance, and the message to the people of Maidan was clear: this was the price they should expect to pay for resistance to the occupation.

As dozens of similar incidents were reported, Arab media immediately acknowledged the role of the Special Police in the atrocities. Hareth al-Dari of the Muslim Scholars' Association told Islam Online on May 17, 2005, "The mass killings and the crackdown and detention campaigns in northeastern Baghdad over the past two days by members of the Iraqi police or by an Interior Ministry special force known as the Wolf Brigade are part of a state terror policy." Even the commander of the Iraqi National Guard identified the Wolf Brigade as one of the units committing the atrocities. Muqtada al-Sadr issued a public statement to prohibit his followers from taking part in this campaign. "Any action targeting unarmed civilians is forbidden under any circumstances," he said in Najaf. "All Sunnis cannot be held responsible for the terrorist deeds of the occupiers and the Wahabis."

American reporting on the dirty war in Iraq quickly took an Orwellian turn. Steven Casteel was regularly quoted blaming detentions that led to torture and extrajudicial execution on "insurgents in stolen police uniforms." Knight Ridder's Yasser Salihee conducted a thorough investigation, but he was shot and killed by an American sniper before his work could be published. When it posthumously published the results of Salihee's investigation, Knight Ridder pointed out that Casteel's denials were not consistent with the numerous eyewitness accounts of Special Police raids that Salihee had collected, but it failed to follow up on its own questions, "about how insurgents are getting expensive new police equipment. The Toyotas, which cost more than $55,000 apiece, and Glocks, at about $500 each, are hard to come by in Iraq, and they're rarely used by anyone other than Western contractors and Iraqi security forces."

But Salihee's investigation had already established that none of these cases involved small groups of men with police uniforms and one or two police vehicles. They all involved well-organized raids by large groups of Special Police commandos with 10 to 30 clearly marked police vehicles and the full complement of equipment issued to the commandos by their American trainers. That included radios connected to U.S. military networks via the high-tech Special Police Command Center, which was jointly staffed by U.S. and Iraqi personnel, exposing U.S. official denials as a transparent smoke-screen.

The U.S. cover story for these crimes gradually transitioned from "insurgents in stolen police uniforms" to the now familiar narrative of "sectarian violence." Once the perpetrators' links to the occupation government could no longer be denied, they were simply deemed irrelevant to their crimes, which were instead presented as the result of the infiltration of legitimate security forces by Shiite militias. 

The term "Shiite militia" was used to obscure the fundamental distinction between the Badr Brigade's role in the occupation government's Special Police death squads and the organizing of local militias and al-Sadr's Mahdi militia to defend local neighborhoods against attacks by U.S.-led forces. U.S. and Iraqi officials blamed al-Sadr's militia for atrocities whenever they could get away with it.

By July 2005, the Guardian was able to identify six facilities in Baghdad where torture was taking place: the seventh floor of the Interior Ministry; al-Hadoud prison in the Kharkh district; the basement of a clinic in Shoula; al-Muthanna airbase; the old National security headquarters; and of course the Nissor Square headquarters of the Wolf Brigade. Credible reports of torture included the use of hot irons and electric drills, and of being "sat on the bottle." The torture chambers on the seventh floor of the Interior Ministry were only one floor below the offices of U.S. advisers and the reputed headquarters of the CIA in Baghdad.

In September 2005, the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq published the first of many Human Rights Reports, with more details of atrocities committed by the Special Police. John Pace, the author of the report, left Iraq in February 2006 and gave several interviews, in which he identified Interior Minister Bayan al-Jabr as the commander of the Badr Brigade militia, confirmed that U.S. officials knew about torture in Iraqi prisons and estimated that 80 to 90% of the victims were innocent of any crime, making their plight all the more frightful.  Asked to compare the U.S.-led reign of terror with that of Saddam Hussein, Pace replied, "It is certainly as bad. It extends over a much wider section of the population."

The horrors of the Interior Ministry's prisons were publicly exposed when a U.S. regular army unit discovered the al-Jadiriyah interrogation center. U.S. officials expressed shock at the discovery, but an official finally admitted eight months later that, "The military had been at the bunker prior to the raid in November, but they said nothing." A U.N. investigation found that 101 of the 168 prisoners had been tortured, and that at least 18 others had already been tortured to death. One of the prisoners was Professor Tareq Sammaree, the former director of Baghdad University's School of Education. He was missing his front teeth and three toenails, he had a wound on his shin caused by a hot skewer and his spine was damaged by beatings with electric cables. His captors had also threatened to rape his daughters if he did not reveal the locations of other academics they were searching for, but Sammaree kept silent because he was convinced that he would be killed as soon as his captors thought he had told them all he knew. He was hospitalized after the U.S. raid and escaped from the hospital with the help of an American soldier. He smuggled his family out of Iraq and sought political asylum in Europe.

The New York Times questioned former interim Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib about the composition of the Special Police. The U.S. propaganda narrative by now blamed their atrocities on infiltration by "Shiite militias", but Naqib admitted that "the majority of commando officers working in the ministry now were appointed by him." He acknowledged recruiting many Badr Brigade members, although "not nearly as many as Mr. Jabr." Naqib's statement confirmed that, despite their expansion under Jabr, the nature and composition of these forces was largely consistent from their formation under Allawi, Negroponte, Casteel, Steele and Naqib in 2004 through the depths of the dirty war in Baghdad in 2005 and 2006.

The role of U.S. Special Police Transition Teams working with these forces throughout this period is also well documented.  Each Iraqi unit worked withU.S. advisers, usually from U.S. Special Forces units, and the Special Police Command Center was jointly staffed by U.S. and Iraqi personnel. In November 2005, the U.S. advisers attached to the Wolf Brigade were from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, known as the "Nightstalkers." One of these officers blogged about taking part in a battalion-sized operation in southern Baghdad on November 10 that netted "vehicle after vehicle of blindfolded detainees." It is a reasonable suspicion that the "advisers" from this U.S. special forces air support regiment were in fact ferrying victims of the Wolf Brigade by helicopter to remote areas outside Baghdad where they were summarily executed and buried in mass graves (like the ones found near Badhra on the Iranian border).

As the Interior Ministry's role in atrocities became harder and harder to cover up, the Badr Brigade's Bayan al-Jabr was replaced as Interior Minister by the independent Jawad al-Bulani, with promises to reform the now rebranded "National Police." But Deputy Interior Minister Adnan al-Asadi retained control of these forces, and their reign of terror climaxed over the next few months under cover of U.S. Operations Together Forward I & II. Bulani signed arrest warrants for 52 officers accused of torture and extra-judicial killing, but UN Secretary General Kofi Annan noted in a report months later that the warrants were never served.

Tens of thousands of mostly Sunni Arab men and boys fell victim to the campaign of arbitrary detention, torture and extra-judicial execution, leading ultimately to the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad. The tide of death peaked during the U.S. Operations Together Forward I & II between July and October 2006, with over 1,600 bodies of victims per month delivered to morgues. In April 2006, an Iraqi human rights group, the Organization for Follow-Up and Monitoring, matched thousands of morgue records with reports of arrests and abductions. It found that 92% of the bodies brought to morgues matched the names and descriptions of people who had been detained by Interior Ministry forces.

The deployment of an extra 15,000 U.S. troops to Baghdad in Operations Together Forward I & II was billed as an effort to counter "sectarian violence." But the Iraqi forces that got extra U.S. support were the forces committing the atrocities in the first place, and the targets of these operations were precisely the districts that had until then resisted the death squads, such as Adhamiya, Dora, Mansour and Ghazaliya. The numbers of corpses brought to morgues only began to decline in November 2006 after these U.S. operations ended.

Operation Together Forward I & II were followed by the so-called Surge in 2007, a direct escalation of U.S. firepower that included a five-fold increase in air strikes, the use of Specter gun-ships and artillery in urban areas and more assassinations and night raids by U.S. Special Forces. Despite reduced violence between Iraqis, the rate of U.S. air strikes did not peak until January 2008, with 400 air strikes that month. The Surge was a devastating climax to five years of bombardment, torture, murder and collective punishment inflicted on the people of Iraq.

After tribal leaders in Anbar province and local warlords in Baghdad were bought off as part of the "Sahwa" or "Awakening" campaign, remaining resistance-held areas were targeted with overwhelming firepower, mainly from the air. The U.S. abandoned the mainly Sunni Arab leaders of the Sahwa campaign as soon as they had served their purpose, and they became new targets for the Iraqi Army and National Police death squads. Survivors of the 100,000 Iraqis who joined Awakening councils in 2007 are unlikely to make the same mistake again today.

Violence in Iraq subsided with the gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces between 2008 and 2011. During the Arab Spring in 2011, like people across the Arab world, Iraqis set up protest camps and held demonstrations in public squares. They were met by arrests, beatings, torture, snipers firing from roof-tops and U.S. helicopters flying over to dump garbage on protesters in a square in Mosul.

The political crisis in Iraq escalated over the next three years. The sectarian U.S.-backed government met every popular demand for civil and political rights with violence and repression, until tribes in Anbar province once again took up armed resistance and formed a new alliance with the Islamic State, formerly Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The new Interior Minister, Mohammed al-Ghabban, is another Badr militia leader, and Adnan al-Asadi has now been Deputy Interior Minister for over nine years. Asadi may be the only Iraqi official to have held such a senior position for so long. He also served as Acting Interior Minister, reporting directly to Prime Minister Maliki, while the position of Interior Minister was vacant from 2010 to 2014. What does it say about the U.S.-backed government of Iraq that the one official who seems to be irreplaceable is the commander of its death squads? 

Ten years of U.S. efforts to impose a brutal military solution on the political crisis in Iraq have only brought more death, destruction and chaos to its people. The 10-year-long genocidal campaign to target Sunni Arabs in Iraq with air strikes and U.S. and Iraqi death squads has killed at least 10% of them and driven millions from their homes. The one thing our leaders have never tried is the very thing they promised the people of Iraq when they illegally invaded their country: a new political order that honors the civil and political rights of all Iraqis, not least the right to life.

Ali Hatem al-Suleiman, the leader of the Anbar Tribes Revolutionary Council, claims that no more than 7% of Iraqi resistance forces owe their primary loyalty to IS. Abu Muhammad al-Zubaai, another Anbar tribal leader, told the BBC they will "guarantee to get rid of IS" in exchange for a real political solution. It's hard to judge Suleiman's and Zubaai's claims, but they underline the reality that the central problem in Iraq is not the atrocities of IS, but the reign of terror by the U.S., the Iraqi Interior Ministry and its "Federal Police," which have cast IS in the role of protecting Iraqis from their own government. (The Special/Nation Police were re-rebranded as the "Federal Police" in 2009.)

The problem with the death squads is not that they need more U.S. support or another new brand. The problem is that they are death squads. This is not a tactical problem, or an image problem, it's a reality problem. Changing that reality is the first essential step on the path to peace in Iraq.

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