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2005-12-01

Is the U.S. Training Iraqi Death Squads to Fight the Insurgency?

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In what the White House billed as a major policy address, President Bush outlined the administration’s Iraq war strategy. Bush again linked a withdrawal of U.S. troops to improvements in the capability of Iraqi security forces. We speak with independent journalist Arun Gupta about the presence Iraqi death squads and the U.S. training of Iraqi security forces. [includes rush transcript]

President Bush sought to overcome mounting criticism of the Iraq war Wednesday in what the White House billed as a major address outlining the administration’s strategy.

In a 45-minute speech before the US Naval Academy, Bush again rejected a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops and recounted improvements made by Iraqi security forces. The speech was the first of a series of four Bush plans to give before the December 15th parliamentary elections. The president yesterday reiterated that Iraqi troops will eventually take over from US forces in fighting the insurgency.

President Bush, November 30
** "Our goals are to train enough Iraqi forces so they can carry the fight and this will take time and patience and it is worth the time and it is worth the effort because Iraqis and Americans share a common enemy and when that enemy is defeated in Iraq, Americans will be safer here at home. And as Iraqi security forces stand up then coalition forces can stand down and when our mission of defeating the terrorist is complete our troops can come home to a proud nation."

Bush has repeatedly linked a U.S. withdrawal to improvements in the capability of Iraqi forces. But the mainstream media has recently detailed the existence of death squads within the largely Shiite police and special commandos.

Operating through or with the Iraqi security forces, these militias have abducted, tortured and executed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Sunnis. The New York Times reported Tuesday "Some Sunni males have been found dead in ditches and fields, with bullet holes in their temples, acid burns on their skin, and holes in their bodies apparently made by electric drills. Many have simply vanished."

At a Pentagon press conference on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was questioned about the death squads.

Pentagon press conference, November 29
Q: Mr. Secretary, are you concerned over — and in fact, is the United States looking into growing reports of uniformed death squads in Iraq perhaps assassinating and torturing hundreds of Sunnis? And if that’s true, what would that say about stability in Iraq?
SEC. RUMSFELD: I’m not going to comment on hypothetical questions. I’ve not seen reports that hundreds are being killed by roving death squads at all. We know for a fact that it’s a violent country. We know for a fact that there have been various militias. We know that there have been some militias that have been Iran-oriented. We also know there’s been some militias in the north that have been very helpful. The Peshmerga have been very constructive in what they’ve done. But I’m not going to get into speculation like that.
Q: But, sir, that’s not a hypothetical, I don’t believe. The Sunnis themselves are charging that hundreds have been assassinated, people shot in the head, found in alleys.
SEC. RUMSFELD: What you’re talking about are unverified — to my knowledge, at least — unverified comments. I just don’t have any data from the field that I could comment on in a specific way.

While the story only recently made front-page news, it actually first appeared in the press over six months ago. Investigative journalist Arun Gupta was one of the first to report on the presence of death squads in Iraq back in April of this year. We interviewed him at the time, he joins us again in our firehouse studios. Arun is an editor with New York City Independent Media Center’s newspaper, The Indypendent.

  • Arun Gupta, investigative journalist who writes frequently for Z Magazine, Left Turn and the Indypendent newspaper in New York. He is an editor at the Indypendent and a former editor at the Guardian weekly in New York.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The President yesterday reiterated that Iraqi troops will eventually take over from U.S. forces fighting the insurgency.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Our goal is to train enough Iraqi forces so they can carry the fight, and this will take time and patience. And it’s worth the time. And it’s worth the effort, because Iraqis and Americans share a common enemy. And when that enemy is defeated in Iraq, Americans will be safer here at home. And as the Iraqi security forces stand up, coalition forces can stand down. And when our mission of defeating the terrorists in Iraq is complete, our troops will return home to a proud nation.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush repeatedly linked U.S. withdrawal to improvements in the capability of the Iraqi forces, but the mainstream media has recently detailed the existence of death squads within the largely Shiite police and special commandos operating through or with the Iraqi security forces. These militias have abducted, tortured, and executed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Sunnis. The New York Times reported Tuesday, quote, "Some Sunni males have been found dead in ditches and fields with bullet holes in their temples, acid burns on their skin, holes in their bodies, apparently made by electric drills. Many have simply vanished," the paper said. At a Pentagon news conference Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was questioned about the death squads.

REPORTER: Mr. Secretary, are you concerned over — and, in fact, is the United States looking into growing reports of uniformed death squads in Iraq, perhaps assassinating and torturing hundreds of Sunnis? And if that’s true, what would that say about stability in Iraq?

DONALD RUMSFELD: I’m not going to comment on hypothetical questions. I’ve not seen reports that hundreds are being killed by roving death squads at all. We know for a fact that it’s a violent country. We know for a fact that there have been various militias. We know that there have been some militias that have been Iran-oriented. We also know there’s been a — some militias in the north that have been very helpful. The Peshmurga have been very constructive in what they’ve done. But I’m not going to get into speculation like that.

REPORTER: But sir, that’s not a hypothetical, I don’t believe. The Sunnis themselves are charging that hundreds have been assassinated, people shot in the head, found in alleys.

DONALD RUMSFELD: What you’re talking about are unverified — to my knowledge, at least — unverified comments. I just don’t have any data from the field that I can comment on in a specific way. Do you General?

GENERAL PACE: I do not, sir, although I do know that the Iraqi government has said that they are going to investigate those kinds of allegations.

DONALD RUMSFELD: And they should. That’s a good thing. Look, it’s a sovereign country. The Iraqi government exists. There’s also a political campaign taking place. And we ought to be aware of that, that there are going to be a lot of charges and countercharges and allegations, and they may very well be timed — as they are in every country in the world that has a free political system — they may timed in a way to seek advantage. We also will find that in some cases that there will be investigations and that they will prove to have been valid. I just don’t know. I can only talk about what I know. That’s life.

AMY GOODMAN: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at his news conference on Tuesday. While the story only recently made front page news, we first reported on it six months ago. Investigative journalist Arun Gupta was one of the first to report on the presence of death squads in Iraq back in April. We interviewed him at the time. He joins us in the studio now. Arun is editor of the New York City Independent Media Center’s newspaper, The Indypendent. Welcome to Democracy Now!

ARUN GUPTA: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, lay out what you’re seeing right now in Iraq.

ARUN GUPTA: What you’re seeing is, I think, really the fruition of U.S. strategy in Iraq. The Pentagon has spent over $10 billion to try to stand up Iraqi military forces, and it’s been a complete disaster. So what they’re trying to do is they’re turning to death squads to fight the insurgency. The Iraqi forces, the military forces, the army, they really don’t stand and fight; and even when they do, they depend on tremendous U.S. logistical support to carry out any operation. So, they really can’t operate on their own.

But there are these militias that Donald Rumsfeld was talking about; but, of course, what he doesn’t want to talk about is that the U.S. set up these militias. They funded them. They armed them. They trained them. And a lot of this came out in the Pentagon’s own reports, Pentagon’s generals talking about how great they were over a year ago, how they really took the fight to the resistance. And so, what’s been going on is that the U.S. has set these up.

And there’s been a certain conflict. In April, when the Shiite government took control, they started firing a lot of the commanders who were basically ex-Baathists, and they started bringing in their own guys, especially from the Badr Brigade. And a lot of these are concentrated in what’s known as special police commandos, and they have all sorts of various brigades, one called the Wolf Brigade, the Scorpion Brigade, the Lion Brigade, another called the Fearless Warriors. And they sound like death squads. And they are death squads. They go around with masks. They’re conducting these raids, especially throughout Baghdad.

And the U.S. is saying, 'Well, you know, who knows who's doing this?’ But when twenty vehicles pull up with a hundred troops in them, and reporters are recounting — the New York Times article also recounts this — they’re showing up with sophisticated communications equipment. They’re showing up with these expensive Glocks, nine-millimeter Glocks that were supplied by the U.S. government. They have the insignia, the uniforms of the special police commandos. And these — In Baghdad there’s a very strict curfew that’s in place every single night. Yet how can these large convoys of vehicles be going around?

And so, they conduct these roundups, and in many areas it’s largely Sunni Arab males. And then they’re disappeared. They’re taking them to this network of secret prisons. One of the things that’s come out is that there’s this absolutely vast network of prisons throughout Iraq. In a nation of 27 million, the Iraqi government has 1,100 prisons.

AMY GOODMAN: Outside the U.S. prisons?

ARUN GUPTA: And this is — Yes, this is in addition to the U.S. prisons. Officially, the Iraqi government says they only have about 12-13,000 detainees. But that really strains credibility. That’s only 11 prisoners per facility, whereas the — what really set this all off was the uncovering of a secret detention center within an interior ministry building where they found approximately 170 men. Another Iraqi male spoke extensively to Reuters where he was kept in a building with 800 men. The BBC just published a report and photographs of another prison that they were allowed to enter, which showed a room so crowded that the prisoners could barely sit down. So nobody knows even really how many prisoners are being held by the Iraqi government.

And what’s been happening is that they’re being — you’re finding all these men being seized, primarily it looks like Sunni Arab males who are though to form the core of the armed resistance, and then bodies are turning up weeks, months later, often two or three governances away. So they’re seized in Baghdad, for instance, and then these 20-30 bodies will turn up on the Iranian border. And that part of the area is completely controlled by Shiite militias. The Sunni resistance has very little presence down there.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, when you mentioned these death squads, you mentioned the Badr Brigades. Now, Moqtada al-Sadr has been an opponent of the U.S. occupation —

ARUN GUPTA: Yes.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And he’s been hunted at several times by U.S. forces. Are you saying that there’s at the same time ongoing cooperation by some of his people with —?

ARUN GUPTA: Well, the Badr Brigade is linked to the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq which is based in — which was based in Iran. Al-Sadr’s forces are distinct: the Mahdi Army. And in the words of one high-ranking U.S. official who spoke to the L.A. Times, he said that the Badr Brigade has special commandos and the Mahdi Army has the police at Baghdad. And he said, quote: "Everybody’s got their own death squads." Now, this is a high-ranking U.S. military official, and this is admitted by also Iraqi officials.

AMY GOODMAN: We only have a minute to go, Arun. But the issue of U.S. military advisors to these death squads?

ARUN GUPTA: Yes. There are two advisors, in particular. One is named Steve Castillo. He was a high-ranking intelligence officer with the Drug Enforcement Agency throughout Latin America, and he was actually in charge of the interior ministry until the handover of sovereignty on June 20, 2004. And the other is Jim Steele who was in charge of Special Forces, a team of 55 Special Forces in El Salvador during that brutal counter-insurgency war, where they trained El Salvadoran forces and oversaw a very brutal counterinsurgency war, where tens of thousands were killed by death squads. And both of these are operating in the interior ministry. So the idea that this is going on without U.S. knowledge, it’s really — it’s just — it’s plausible deniability is what they’re trying to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Arun Gupta, I want to thank you for being with us. Arun is with The Indypendent, the newspaper of the New York IndyMedia Center. Your web site where documents will be at?

ARUN GUPTA: Yes, there’ll be the reports over the last six month that we’ve been publishing that are available at nyc.indymedia.org.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, you can go to our web site at DemocracyNow.org, where we will link to the New York IndyMedia center.

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