The Dirty War in Iraq
On September 8, 2005 the UN
Assistance Mission for Iraq issued a human rights report, stating
that the governing institutions created by the United States in
Iraq are engaged in an organized campaign of detention, torture,
and extrajudicial execution, directed primarily at Iraqis who practice
the Sunni form of Islam.
The UN report expressed the greatest concern regarding arrests by
forces linked to the Ministry of the Interior: “Corpses appear
regularly in and around Baghdad and other areas. Most bear signs
of torture and appear to be victims of extrajudicial executions….
Serious allegations of extrajudicial executions underline a deterioration
in the situation of law and order…. Accounts consistently point
to the systematic use of torture during interrogations at police
stations and within other premises belonging to the Ministry of
In this report the UN has finally acknowledged what a small number
of journalists have been reporting for at least 18 months, that
a brutal “dirty war” has grown out of the U.S. occupation.
On March 15, 2004, the New Statesman published an article
by Stephen Grey titled “Rule of the Death Squads” regarding
the murder of Professor Abdullatif al-Mayah in Baghdad on January
19, 2004. It quoted a senior commander at the headquarters of the
U.S.-installed Iraqi police, “Dr. Abdullatif was becoming more
and more popular because he spoke for people on the street here.
He made some politicians quite jealous…. You can look no further
than the governing council. There are political parties in this
city who are systematically killing people. They are politicians
that are backed by the Americans and who arrived to Iraq from exile
with a list of their enemies. They are killing people one by one.”
On January 16, 2005 USA Today reported on the work of Isam
al-Rawi, a geology professor who heads the Iraqi Association of
University Lecturers. He has been cataloging assassinations of academics
in occupied Iraq and has documented 300 of them. He was unable to
identify a clear pattern to the killings, except that, like al-Mayah,
the victims were usually the most respected and popular members
of their universities and their communities.
On January 14, 2005 Newsweek
reported on “The Salvador Option,” the proposed use of
death squads as part of the U.S. strategy to subdue the country.
It noted that some U.S. policymakers consider this to have been
effective in Central America in the 1980s. Newsweek cited
Interim Prime Minister Allawi, a former agent of both the Iraqi
Mukhabarat and the CIA, as a principal proponent of this policy.
A U.S. military source told Newsweek, “The Sunni population
is paying no price for the support it is giving to the terrorists.
From their point of view, it is cost-free. We have to change that
equation.” This source was expressing precisely the rationale
behind the dirty wars in Latin America and the worst abuses of the
Vietnam War. The purpose of such a strategy is not to identify,
detain, and kill actual resistance fighters, but rather to terrorize
an entire civilian population into submission.
The exile groups who began this dirty war in the early days of the
occupation have come to form the core of successive governing institutions
established by the United States. Their campaign of killing and
torture has evolved and become institutionalized and their victims
now number in the thousands. The UN report does not address the
possibility of a direct U.S. role in the campaign, but the interior
ministry units that are most frequently implicated in these abuses
were formed under U.S. supervision and work closely with U.S. advisors.
The identities of their two principal advisors only reinforce these
concerns. They are retired Colonel James Steele and former DEA officer
Steven Casteel. Both are veterans of previous dirty wars.
El Salvador, between 1984 and 1986, Colonel Steele commanded the
U.S. Military Advisor Group, training Salvadoran forces that conducted
a brutal campaign against the civilian population. At other stages
in his career he performed similar duties during illegal U.S. military
operations in Cambodia and Panama. After failing a polygraph test,
he confessed to Iran-Contra investigators that he had also shipped
weapons from El Salvador to Contra terrorists in Nicaragua, leading
Senator Tom Harkin to block his promotion to brigadier general.
Until April 2005 Steele was the principal U.S. advisor to the Iraqi
Interior Ministry’s “Special Police Commandos,” the
group most frequently linked to torture and summary executions in
Steven Casteel worked in Colombia with paramilitaries called Los
Pepes that later joined forces to form the AUC in 1997 and who have
been responsible for most of the violence against civilians in Colombia.
Casteel is now credited with founding the Special Police Commandos
in his capacity as senior advisor to the Iraqi Interior Ministry.
Assigning responsibility for atrocities to particular units or individuals
is complicated by the dual nature of the Iraqi security forces,
which take orders both from their nominal superiors and from separate
chains of command in the factional militias that most of them belong
to. Ultimate responsibility for abuses is thus blurred by the fiction
of the “government” and the militias as distinct entities
when the same people are really involved in both all the way to
Reports of torture and extrajudicial killings have followed the
Special Police Commandos around the country wherever they have been
deployed, from Anbar province and Mosul since October 2004 to Samarra
in March 2005 to areas around Baghdad since May 2005. The UN report
highlighted an incident in Badhra on August 25, in which relatives
of the victims identified the abductors as Interior Ministry forces.
After Special Police Commandos were deployed in Baghdad, 14 farmers
were found in a shallow grave on May 5, 2005 with their right eyeballs
removed and other signs of torture after they were seen being arrested
at a vegetable market. Another incident ten days later, in which
eight bodies were found in a garbage dump, prompted Hareth al-Dhari,
the secretary general of the Association of Muslim Scholars, to
accuse the Interior Ministry directly. “This is state terrorism
by the Ministry of Interior,” he claimed. The defense minister
responded by blaming “terrorists wearing military uniforms.”
In another twist, the bodies of 8 men from Sadr City were found
in Yussufiah, 40 kilometers from their homes, dressed in army uniforms
even though none were soldiers. Their killers obviously wanted their
deaths to appear to have been the work of resistance forces.
Then there is the work and tragic death of Yasser Salihee, the Iraqi
physician turned journalist, who dared to launch an investigation
into abuses by the Special Police Commandos. Knight Ridder posthumously
published his work under the title, “Sunni men in Baghdad targeted
by attackers in police uniforms” on June 27, 2005. The cautious
language of the report verged on irony, but it described eyewitness
accounts of numerous abductions by “large groups of men driving
white Toyota Land Cruisers with police markings. The men were wearing
police commando uniforms and bulletproof vests, carrying expensive
9-millimeter Glock pistols and using sophisticated radios.”
Knight Ridder actually interviewed Steven Casteel for their story.
He predictably blamed “insurgents” impersonating commandos.
As the article pointed out, this raised “troubling 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
Faik Baqr, director of the central morgue in Baghdad, said, “It
is a very delicate subject for society when you are blaming the
police officers…. It is not an easy issue. We hear that they
are captured by the police and then the bodies are found killed….
It’s obviously in- creasing.”
Yasser Salihee died on his way to get gas to drive his family to
a swimming pool on his day off. He was shot by a U.S. sniper at
a “checkpoint.” His editor, Steve Butler, has told me
he has no reason to think Yasser’s death was connected to his
work and the U.S. Army’s account of the incident describes
a “random” shooting based only on rules of engagement
that greatly prioritize U.S. over Iraqi lives. However, as Italian
investigators found in the case of Nicola Calipari, U.S. accounts
of such incidents are not reliable and U.S. links to the forces
Salihee was investigating cast a dark shadow over his death.
Finally, the Iraqi death squads appear to have violated a dirty
war taboo—they’ve killed a U.S. journalist. Steven Vincent
was an award-winning art critic from New York who went to Iraq as
a freelance writer for National Review, the Wall Street
Journal, and Harpers, and wrote a book, In the Red
Zone, about the experiences of Iraqis in post-invasion Iraq.
On July 29, 2005, he wrote in an op-ed piece in the New York
Times that many of the police in Basra were also active in the
Shiite militias that had killed hundreds of Sunnis in the city.
Four days later, he was abducted by a group of men in a brand new
white Chevy pick-up with police markings. His body was found by
the side of a road outside the city with three gunshot wounds to
The Associated Press has begun to track the numbers of corpses found
and, as of October 7, they have tallied 539 since the “transitional
government” took office in April. They are reporting that the
majority are Sunnis, not Shiites or Kurds, and that “the count
may be low since one or two bodies are found almost daily and are
never reported.” Perhaps the UN report and the deaths, particularly
of journalists will spur more of the media to start reporting and
investigating this pattern of state terrorism.
J.S. Davies is a student of U.S. history and foreign policy. He
lives in Miami, Florida.