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U.S. Funding Iraqi Militias Led by Baathists As Part of Counter-Insurgency Operation

StoryApril 21, 2005
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We talk to Arun Gupta of The Indypendent on the proliferation of illegal militias in Iraq. The U.S. government is not only aware of these militias but is arming, training and funding them for use in their counter-insurgency operations. [includes rush transcript]

We are joined in our studio by Arun Gupta who has been reporting on the proliferation of militias in Iraq. Arun is an editor with the New York City Independent Media Center’s newspaper, The Indypendent.

He writes in his article, "Let A Thousand Militias Bloom" that the U.S. government is not only aware of these illegal militias but is arming, training and funding them for use in their counter-insurgency operations. His article will be in the May issue of Z magazine.

The article begins:

In devising a strategy to defeat Iraq’s insurgents, the Pentagon may be gaining the upper hand but at the cost of pushing Iraq toward civil war. A report by the Wall Street Journal from Feb. 16 revealed that "pop-up militias" are proliferating in Iraq. Not only is the U.S. aware of these illegal militias, but the Pentagon is arming, training and funding them for use them in counter-insurgency operations.

Most disturbing, one militia in particular — the "special police commandos" — is being used throughout Iraq and has been singled out by a U.S. general as conducting death squad strikes known as the "Salvador option."

Greg Jaffe, the Journal reporter, identified at least six such militias. Yet these militias owe their allegiance not to the Iraqi people or state, but to their self-appointed leaders and associated politicians such as interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Even the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, Gen. John P. Abizaid, admitted to Congress on March 1 that such militias are "destabilizing."

Of these militias, at least three are linked to Allawi. Jaffe writes, "First came the Muthana Brigade, a unit formed by the order of… Allawi." The second is the Defenders of Khadamiya, referring to a Shiite shrine on the outskirts of Baghdad, which appears to be "closely aligned with prominent Shiite cleric Hussein al Sadr," who ran on Allawi’s ticket in the January elections.

  • Arun Gupta, former editor of The Guardian, one of the most respected independent newspapers in recent U.S. history. He is currently an editor with the New York City Independent Media Center’s newspaper, The Indypendent.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Well, finally, we’re joined in the studio by Arun Gupta, who has been reporting on the proliferation of militias in Iraq. Arun is an editor with the New York City Independent Media Center’s newspaper, The Indypendent. He writes in his article that the U.S. government is not only aware of these illegal militias, but is arming, training and funding them for use in their counter-insurgency operations. His article will be in the May issue of Z magazine. And we welcome you to Democracy Now!

ARUN GUPTA: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what’s happening.

ARUN GUPTA: Well, these militias, which the government, the U.S. government is referring to as pop-up militias first came to prominence a couple of months ago in a report in the Wall Street Journal. This Journal reporter Greg Jaffe noted that these militias are appearing all over Iraq. And he was interviewing various members of a General Petraeus’s staff. General Petraeus is the U.S. general and head of training all security services in Iraq. And it was presented as like, gee, all these militias are starting to appear all over Baghdad, militias with names like the Muthana Brigade, the Defenders of Khadamiya, and the special police commandos. And Petraeus’s staff was interested in funding and supporting these, but what it really appears to be turning out that these have been set up in secret with the U.S. government’s knowledge all along and that in many instances these militias are actually ex-Ba’athists, many of the thugs who served under Saddam Hussein in his notorious intelligence services, and they are being deployed extensively throughout Iraq in counter-insurgency operations. They have also been implicated in death squad operations known as the "Salvador option," and they also appear to be using torture extensively throughout Iraq, so it’s a very unseemly situation. What essentially the U.S. is trying to do is privatize, is outsource these militias and provide itself with cover, but the whole time it’s actually funding and creating these militias apparently.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, your article seems to indicate also that the militias have been having some effect on the resistance in that the actual — just by counting the toll of American soldiers, that there’s been a reduction in recent months of the actual number of American soldiers killed. Could you talk about that?

ARUN GUPTA: Yes. The peek number of U.S. soldiers killed in combat was last November, during the sacking of Fallujah. 126 U.S. soldiers died in combat. By this past March, it had fallen by 75%. So, going on that and U.S. casualties, in general, it appears that there is some success. They’re using these militias extensively in the so-called Sunni Triangle area: Baghdad, Mosul, Samarra, Tikrit, Ramadi. And what it appears to be, according to Jane’s Intelligence Digest is that they’re using ex-Ba’athists to hunt down their former colleagues who are directing much of the insurgency. So they’re — the U.S. is saying, like, well, these are a bunch of Ba’athist dead-enders in the insurgency, but at the same time they’re using the ex-Ba’athists themselves, who they said they were freeing Iraq from, to hunt down insurgents. But they are also just rounding people up willy-nilly, and there appears, like I said, to be extensive use of torture, much of it coming from this TV show that is now appearing on Iraq called, Terror: The Grip of Justice. There have been many accounts of this in the media, where a number of times a week on this television station set up by the Pentagon, Al-Iraqiya, they parade insurgents before the TV. And these reports are all noting that the suspects have swollen faces, bruised, that they’re very cowed. And they’re also admitting to the most absurd charges, that they are participating in gay orgies, that they get drunk inside mosques, that they’re pedophiles engaging in rape, that they practice beheadings by cutting off the head of sheep. And the interesting thing is, one commentator noted, it’s the exact same tactic Saddam Hussein used under his government of airing televised confessions.

And there’s one Ba’athist in particular who is at very much the center of this. It’s a General Adnan Thavit, who was involved in the 1996 coup against Saddam Hussein that the former interim prime minister who just resigned, Iyad Allawi, headed up. And this character Thavit keeps popping up all over the place. He is the head of the special police commandos, which are said to number ten to eleven thousand, which would actually make them the second largest security force in Iraq, larger than the British. He was also the source for this raid a few weeks ago on this insurgent camp on Lake Tharthar, that turned out to be bogus pretty much. A reporter went there and found that there were all these insurgents still there, even though Thavit was saying something like 85 insurgents were killed. He is also now involved in this dispute over what’s going on in this town south of Baghdad, claiming there wasn’t any kidnapping and now there’s reports of these bodies being dragged out of the river. And the Interior Ministry a couple of days ago even said he was assassinated, and then retracted the report the same day. He is a very shady character, and the U.S. general staff under Petraeus notes that he’s very powerful, and that if he is removed, he could take his militias with him, this huge force. And right now, there’s a power struggle going on. Donald Rumsfeld flew into Baghdad last week and warned the new government not to purge these Ba’athists. This largely escaped the notice of many in the media. And Talabani, who is the new president, has said that, no, we are going to purge them, and we want to use our militias.

AMY GOODMAN: Arun Gupta, we want to thank you very much for being with us. If people want to read this article, where can they go on the web?

ARUN GUPTA: They can go to Z magazine. They can also go to the New York City IndyMedia Center, where it will be appearing.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you so much. The piece is called, "Let a Thousand Militias Bloom."

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