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Death-squad style massacres

For Iraq, "The Salvador Option" Becomes Reality
by Max Fuller 2 june 2005


The following article examines evidence that the 'Salvador Option' for Iraq has been ongoing for some time and attempts to say what such an option will mean. It pays particular attention to the role of the Special Police Commandos, considering both the background of their US liaisons and their deployment in Iraq. The article also looks at the evidence for death-squad style massacres in Iraq and draws attention to the almost complete absence of investigation. As such, the article represents an initial effort to compile and examine some of these mass killings and is intended to spur others into further looking at the evidence. Finally, the article turns away from the notion that sectarianism is a sufficient explanation for the violence in Iraq, locating it structurally at the hands of the state as part of the ongoing economic subjugation of Iraq.

Mounting evidence indicates that the ‘Salvador Option’ mooted for Iraq is already proceeding at full throttle
On 8 January this year, Newsweek published an article that claimed the US government was considering a ‘Salvador Option’ to combat the insurgency in Iraq
( The Salvador Option is a reference to the military assistance programme of the 1980s, initiated under Jimmy Carter and subsequently pursued by the Reagan administration, in which the US trained and materially supported the Salvadoran military in its counter-insurgency campaign against popularly supported FMLN guerrillas. The Newsweek article was widely cited in the mainstream media but the allegations were rapidly dismissed by Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld. Though the reports mentioned human-rights violations, they generally made little of the fact that it was the very units that US military advisors had instructed that were frequently responsible for the most unspeakable crimes* and that there was at times a clear correlation between fresh bouts of training and subsequent atrocities (see Noam Chomsky, ‘The Crucifixion of El Salvador’,

In an earlier interview on 10 January, retired General Wayne Downing, former head of all US special operations forces, took a very different line, stating that US-backed special units had been ‘conducting strikes’ against leaders of the so-called insurgency since March 2003 (cited in ‘Phoenix Rising in Iraq’ by Stephen Shalom, However, Downing was careful to say that implementing a Salvadoran strategy would add an extra ‘type’ of unit to the occupation’s arsenal. What neither the press, Donald Rumsfeld, nor General Downing pointed out was that the Salvador Option was already well underway in Iraq, and far more literally than might have been imagined.

According to an article recently published in New York Times Magazine, in September 2004 Counsellor to the US Ambassador for Iraqi Security Forces James Steele was assigned to work with a new elite Iraqi counter-insurgency unit known as the Special Police Commandos, formed under the operational control of Iraq’s Interior Ministry (‘The Way of the Commandos’, Peter Maass,

From 1984 to 1986 then Col. Steele had led the US Military Advisory Group in El Salvador, where he was responsible for developing special operating forces at brigade level during the height of the conflict. These forces, composed of the most brutal soldiers available, replicated the kind of small-unit operations with which Steele was familiar from his service in Vietnam. Rather than focusing on seizing terrain, their role was to attack ‘insurgent’ leadership, their supporters, sources of supply and base camps. In the case of the 4th Brigade, such tactics ensured that a 20-man force was able to account for 60% of the total casualties inflicted by the unit (Manwaring, El Salvador at War, 1988, p 306-8). In military circles it was the use of such tactics that made the difference in ultimately defeating the guerrillas; for others, such as the Catholic priest Daniel Santiago, the presence of people like Steele contributed to another sort of difference:

People are not just killed by death squads in El Salvador – they are decapitated and then their heads are placed on pikes and used to dot the landscape. Men are not just disemboweled by the Salvadoran Treasury Police; their severed genitalia are stuffed into their mouths. Salvadoran women are not just raped by the National Guard; their wombs are cut from their bodies and used to cover their faces. It is not enough to kill children; they are dragged over barbed wire until the flesh falls from their bones, while parents are forced to watch. (Cited by Chomsky, op cit.)

The Police Commandos are in large part the brainchild of another US counter-insurgency veteran, Steven Casteel, a former top DEA man who has been acting as the senior advisor in the Ministry of the Interior. Casteel was involved in the hunt for Colombia’s notorious cocaine baron Pablo Escobar, during which the DEA collaborated with a paramilitary organization known as Los Pepes, which later transformed itself into the AUC, an umbrella organization covering all of Colombia’s paramilitary death squads

Like Colombia’s death squads, Iraq’s Police Commandos deliberately cultivate a frightening paramilitary image. During raids they wear balaclavas and black leather gloves and openly intimidate and brutalize suspects, even in the presence of foreign journalists (see the report by Peter Maass’s). Significantly, many of the Commandos, including their leader, are Sunni Muslims.

Evidence of Massacres

In the last few weeks, with the discovery of several mass graves in and around Baghdad, evidence of multiple extra-judicial killings has started to become much more visible, but, in fact, even a cursory review of such archives as the one compiled by Iraq Body Count ( reveals that mass executions have been taking place commonly in Iraq over at least the last six months. What is particularly striking is that many of those killings have taken place since the Police Commandos became operationally active and often correspond with areas where they have been deployed.

The clearest correlation is in Mosul, where the Police Commandos began operating in late October
). In mid-November it was reported that insurgents were conducting an offensive and had managed to drive most of the (regular) police from the city. There followed what was described as a joint counter-offensive by US forces and Police Commandos. The Police Commandos conducted raids inside the old quarter starting on 16 November in which dozens of suspects were arrested. During one such raid on a mosque and a tea shop, detainees, blindfolded and with their hands tied behind their backs, were seen being taken away by commandos
( In the weeks and months that followed over 150 bodies appeared
(, often in batches and frequently having obviously been executed, usually with a bullet to the head

The victims are repeatedly stated to have belonged mostly to the security forces, with ‘insurgents’ blamed for conducting a campaign of intimidation. Yet, most of the bodies were dressed in civilian clothes with little in the way of identification. In the few instances in which positive identifications have been reported, these are based on flimsy evidence. For instance, in the case of nine victims described as soldiers that had been shot in the head, a US army lieutenant simply stated that a ‘unit recently moved to one of the US bases’ had ‘some guys missing’
(; photographs of the victims showed them wearing civilian clothes. A blatant case of disinformation regards a group of 31 bodies ‘discovered’ by the Police Commandos in March 2005 scattered around a cemetery in western Mosul. The bodies, described by an Interior Ministry spokesman as belonging to civilians, police officers and army soldiers, were said to have been the victims of a single policeman, Shoqayer Fareed Sheet, who confessed to these and numerous other killings on a special television show conceived by founder of the Police Commandos Adnan Thavit, called Terrorism in the Hands of Justice
( Not only does this programme break every conceivable moral and legal standard, but it is notorious for parading obviously tortured detainees who are often forced to confess to being homosexuals or paedophiles as well as murderers.
(, see "Detainees said tortured before confessing")

Given the extreme paucity of evidence, the lack of secure identification and the disinformation put out by the Interior Ministry, there is at least a strong possibility that many, if not all, of the extra-judicial killings in Mosul have been carried out by the Police Commandos.

Police Commandos Directly Accused

A similar, thought less complete pattern is emerging in other areas where the Commandos have been operating, notably Samarra, where bodies were recently found in nearby Lake Tharthar
( However, the strongest case is currently starting to emerge in Baghdad, where a wave of killings over the last few weeks has resulted in accusations being made directly against the state security forces and specifically against the Police Commandos. The accusations revolve around three distinct massacres. On 5 May a shallow mass grave was discovered in the Kasra-Wa-Atash industrial area containing 14 bodies. The victims, all young men, had been blindfolded, their hands tied behind their backs and they had been executed with shots to the head. The bodies also revealed such torture marks as broken skulls, burning, beatings and right eyeballs removed. In this case family members were able to identify the bodies; the victims were Sunni farmers on their way to market. According to Phil Shiner of the British-based Public Interest Lawyers, the men had been arrested when Iraqi security forces raided the vegetable market

Less than two weeks later on 15 May, 15 more bodies were discovered at two sites in western Baghdad. Eight of the victims were found In the Al-Shaab area, while a further seven were discovered behind a mosque in Ore district
( According to the Chicago Tribune, ‘some had been blindfolded, most were found with their hands bound and all had been shot in the head’
(,0,3795261.story?coll=chi-newsopinionperspective-utl). The Association of Muslim Scholars quickly responded to the wave of killings, accusing soldiers and Interior Ministry commandos of having ‘arrested imams and the guardians of some mosques, tortured and killed them, then got rid of their bodies in a garbage dump in the Shaab district’
). ‘This is state terrorism by the Ministry of Interior’ said Hareth al-Dhari, secretary general of the Association
( Whilst al-Dhari also blamed the Badr brigades associated with the ruling Shia coalition, the emphasis of his denunciation was quickly shifted in the mainstream press to reinforce only this aspect of the accusation and the notion of sectarian tit-for-tat violence
). The Iraqi government’s riposte to the Association’s accusations was predictably insidious, with the new defence minister blaming terrorists wearing military uniforms
(,0,3795261.story?coll=chi-newsopinionperspective-utl). However, it should come as little surprise to discover that at the beginning of May the government had announced an imminent counter-insurgency crackdown, which they said was likely to unleash well-trained commandos in Baghdad and other trouble spots

Wider Evidence of Massacres

With such accusations being made specifically against US-trained counter-insurgency forces it is worth briefly mentioning some of the other massacres that have occurred in Iraq over recent months. In October 2004 some 49 bodies were discovered on a remote road about 50km south of Baquba. The victims, who wore civilian clothes, had all been shot in the head. The Interior Ministry announced that they were off-duty soldiers. Some accounts by police said the rebels were dressed in Iraqi military uniforms, although details were far from clear

Similarly, in March of this year 26 bodies were discovered at Rumana, near Qaim, close to the Syrian border. According to the Interior Ministry, most of the victims were members of a rapid response team. The victims had been blindfolded, handcuffed and shot in the head. The bodies, which once again were dressed in civilian clothes, were found in an area where the US army had been conducting Operation River Blitz, a marine-led assault on insurgents in the Euphrates River valley

To further muddy the waters, the bodies of eight men from Sadr City were found in Yussufiah, 40km south of Baghdad, on 9 May this year. The victims, who had been tortured, then executed with a bullet to the back of the neck, were found wearing army uniforms, but relatives identified them as civilians. Army captain Ahmed Hussein suggested that the killers wanted people to believe they had executed soldiers

There are other similar cases of mass killings, as well as many more involving smaller numbers of bodies far too numerous to mention. Nonetheless, it is worth emphasising the many bodies (more than 100) gradually being dredged up from the River Tigris, especially around Suwayra, south of Baghdad. The bodies began to be noticed in late February of this year, surfacing at the rate of one or two a day, but began to increase in frequency in April; some of the victims, who were mostly men but included some women and children, were bound, others shot or beheaded. In April, president Talabani claimed the victims had been kidnapped by insurgents in the village of Madain, but, in fact, those identified to date hailed from a wide radius and could not be accounted for by a single episode of kidnapping. Police in Suwayra have stated that many of the victims are likely to have been stopped at impromptu checkpoints by masked men, while some Sunnis say that the victims may include people detained by the police

In light of these bodies in the Tigris, it may be significant to note a strange report on the website Jihad Unspun of US soldiers dumping body bags from helicopters in the Diali River in eastern Iraq during the early hours of the morning. The writer argues that the bags held the corpses of American soldiers or foreign mercenaries that the army wished to conceal from public knowledge
). This implausible theory leaves a very large question mark over the identity of bodies that the US army wishes to conceal and recalls the report submitted to the Brussels Tribunal, ‘Tarmiya: the Silent Agony’. This account contains first hand testimony from an agricultural worker who survived an attempted execution by a team of US special forces. He and a colleague were abducted from the farm where they worked, then taken to a secluded grove where their throats were cut. They were left for dead, but miraculously, one of them survived
( Whilst this account lacks corroboration and has remained anonymous to protect the identities of those involved, it remains a convincing description of the kind of long-range ‘reconnaissance’ missions that people like James Steele were conducting in Vietnam.

Modelling the Iraq War

Whilst much of the violence across Iraq appears chaotic, some lines are starting to emerge that follow the pattern and the logic of other counter-insurgency wars. In El Salvador, when the war finally came to an end, it became clear that the majority of its victims had been participants in progressive social movements as well as peasants who had been perceived as sympathising with or supporting the guerrillas. The object of the war was not to defeat an ideologically motivated rebellion, it was to prevent the possibility of progressive social change and to maintain the country within the US economic orbit in its traditional tributary role.

The same can be said of Colombia at present, where the long current phase of the internal conflict in which thousands of social activists have been murdered has butted seamlessly with the country’s exposure to economic liberalisation. In short, legitimate social demands are violently suppressed in favour of allowing foreign capital to extract super profits from Colombia’s rich natural resources and selling off its public assets for the same purpose. Much of the conflict takes place within the realm of so-called ‘civil society’, where progressive leaders are excluded or eliminated, whilst those who are prepared to throw in their lot with predatory foreign capital are rewarded and extolled.

In Iraq the war comes in two phases. The first phase is complete: the destruction of the existing state, which did not comply with the interests of British and American capital. The second phase consists of building a new state tied to those interests and smashing every dissenting sector of society. Openly, this involves applying the same sort of economic shock therapy that has done so much damage in swathes of the Third World and Eastern Europe. Covertly, it means intimidating, kidnapping and murdering opposition voices.

The economic assault on Iraq is well underway. Visible unemployment stands at around the catastrophic level of 28%, large parts of the state sector have already been sold off and wages have fallen (often to less than half of their pre-war levels), thanks in part to the introduction of thousands of cheap workers from Pakistan, India and the Philippines. These workers are often tricked into coming and stripped of their passports, effectively working as slaves in order to undercut accustomed Iraqi living standards. Reconstruction projects are given almost exclusively to foreign (mainly US) companies, who pay a flat rate of 15% tax with no limits to repatriation of profits, while Iraq’s state-owned companies are excluded
( In the countryside, Iraqi farmers are now obliged to buy a licence to grow genetically modified seed and are prohibited from resowing the seed developed by their ancestors in the cradle of civilisation

The covert assault has also begun. Attacks on workers and trade unionists are becoming increasingly common
( and it is instructive that the railway workers union, in an industry that has been slated for privatisation, seems to have been particularly targeted, with US administrators on the ground threatening to bring in Indian workers
( Whilst the IFTU, the dominant, state-sanctioned new trade-union umbrella organisation, may have endorsed the occupation, the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI) has not; in any case, ordinary Iraqi workers will find themselves increasingly at odds with the puppet government as they try to defend even rudimentary living standards. Industrial action is already widespread in Iraq, though little reported in the mainstream press.

An even more frightening picture is emerging within the sector of higher education, where, since the beginning of the occupation, some 200 Iraqi academics have been murdered, while control and intimidation has become systematic. Many of the victims worked in the social sciences, where overlap with progressive social movements is unavoidable

Unfortunately, in Iraq it is almost impossible to securely attribute any of the host of assassinations and extra-judicial killings, while the US-UK propaganda campaign has left many all too willing to believe in such bugbears as Al-Zarqawi (see Michel Chossudovsky’s article ‘Who is Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi?’
( What we do know, however, is that hundreds of Iraqis are being murdered and that paramilitary hit squads of the proxy government organized by US trainers with a fulsome pedigree in state terrorism are increasingly being associated with them.

In the context of a country where good information is extremely scarce, disinformation and black propaganda are endemic and independent journalists and monitors are deliberately eliminated, it is vital to be able to model the situation in order to understand it and, hopefully, be effective. There are two principle dimensions to such modelling. In the first, Iraq has frequently been compared to Vietnam. The similarity is that the US has well over 100,000 soldiers on the ground. However, the analogy is misleading in that in Iraq conflict with a populous enemy state, as North Vietnam was, ended quickly. As a model, El Salvador is not wholly accurate either. In El Salvador US ‘advisors’ were few in number and prohibited from taking part in combat. Nevertheless, it is towards this model that the US is attempting to move, hoping to farm out the sordid business of occupation to Iraqi auxiliaries. But, in many ways it is contemporary Colombia that offers the closest analogy: not for the disposition of US forces, but because here the same process of asset-stripping, impoverishment and conquistador-like plundering is both deeply entrenched and ongoing. It is here that is to be found that clearest pattern for the assaults on academics, independent trade unionists and peasant organisations that will increasingly characterise Iraq for those prepared to look beyond the fireworks. This is the second dimension that any model must address, but in essence the pattern is repeated time after time in every imperialist so-called counter-insurgency war; for behind each and every one lurks the reality of exploitation and class war, and, as successive imperialist powers have shown, the bottom line in combating the hopes and dreams of ordinary people is to resort to spreading terror through the application of extreme violence. In Iraq, the Salvador Option may mean returning home to find your entire family seated at table with their own severed heads served to them and a bowl of blood for relish.

*One of the worst atrocities was committed in December 1981 at the village of El Mozote in the department of Morazán by the Atlacatl Battalion, an elite counter-insurgency force trained by US advisors and regarded as one of El Salvador’s best fighting units. Over 200 men, women and children (the entire village) were systematically tortured and murdered over the course of a day

Max Fuller has worked for some years as a member of the Colombia Solidarity Campaign in the UK and has read extensively on US policy and Latin America. He is the author of several reports published in the Bulletin of the Colombia Solidarity Campaign.

© Copyright Max Fuller Global Research 2005.

See also:

Crying Wolf: Media Disinformation and Death Squads in Occupied Iraq

Torture and Extrajudicial Killings in Iraq

Video: Telling Lies and False Statements - Where Have All The Young Men Gone?

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