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A Look at How Petraeus Helped Arm Warring Sunni and Shia Militias in Iraq

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On Tuesday, President Bush’s top military commander in Iraq returned to Capitol Hill for a second day to urge the continuation of the war in Iraq. We speak with Arun Gupta, an editor of “The Indypendent,” about the Petraeus hearings. Gupta’s most recent article is titled “Meet Gen. David Petraeus: His Militia Strategy Plunged Iraq Into a Civil War, And Now He’s Back for More.” [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: As Americans across the country marked the sixth anniversary of the September 11 attacks Tuesday, President Bush’s top military commander in Iraq returned to Capitol Hill for a second day to urge the continuation of the war in Iraq.

But over the past two days, neither General David Petraeus nor the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, have given any indication the U.S. has a strategy to end the war that began almost four-and-a-half years ago. Petraeus predicted at least 100,000 American troops would still be in Iraq a year from now. One State Department official told the McClatchy Newspapers the U.S. will still have 80,000 troops on the ground during the summer of 2009. And that figure includes only uniformed personnel, not private contractors. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said this, quote, “sounds to me like a 10-year, at least, commitment to an open-ended presence and war.”

When Republican Senator John Warner asked Petraeus whether the strategy in Iraq is making America safer, the four-star general responded by saying, “I don’t know.” Later, Petraeus clarified his statement and said Iraq “has very serious implications for our safety and security.”

President Bush is scheduled to address the nation Thursday night to voice his full support for General Petraeus’s recommendations to continue the so-called surge.

On Tuesday, Democratic Senator Robert Byrd grilled General Petraeus about why he was ordered to testify on September 11 and about the military’s strategy of arming former Sunni insurgents.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this important hearing is taking place on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. There seems to be another attempt to link in the mind of a confused public the war in Iraq to the attacks perpetrated on us on 9/11 by al-Qaeda. Is this just a big sales job? Please answer this clearly and succinctly, so that the American people can understand: is there and was there any connection between the attacks of September 11, 2001, and Iraq?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Not that I am aware of, Senator.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: General Petraeus, Ambassador Crocker, it’s getting to be like the change of seasons around here. Every few months someone from the administration comes up and says, “Just give us six or 12 more months, and things will look better.”

Your argument for the surge back in January was that military success would create space for political progress. That didn’t work. Now, the new buzzword is “bottom-up.” You’ve talked about military success, but, by the president’s own reckoning, that success is meaningless without political reconciliation.

Are six months or 12 months really going to make a difference on the big questions. Why should we keep giving you more and more time? Why? Why should we keep giving you more and more time, General Petraeus?

You’ve touted success in Anbar province. Just a few months ago, the tribes in Anbar province were shooting and killing Americans. Recently they decided they dislike the terrorists there more than they dislike Americans, so they are cooperating with us for the time being, while we give them money and arms. This recalls to my mind our policy in the 1980s in Afghanistan of arming the Taliban to fight the Soviet Union. We all know how that short-term policy hurt our long-term interest. What guarantee can you give us that the tribes in Anbar are not going to turn around and use the guns that we gave them against our troops once they feel we no longer serve their interest? Isn’t that a short-sited policy?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Senator, first of all, we are not arming the tribes. We have not provided weapons to them. What we did initially is basically give a thumbs up when they asked if it would be OK if they pointed the weapons they did have — they were already well enough armed — at al-Qaeda, because they had come to reject the Taliban-like ideology and barbarity of al-Qaeda in the Euphrates River Valley.

AMY GOODMAN: That was General David Petraeus responding to questions from Democratic Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia.

To talk more about the Petraeus hearings, Arun Gupta joins us here in the studio. He’s a reporter and editor of The Indypendent, a bimonthly newspaper based here in New York. His most recent article is called “Meet Gen. David Petraeus: His Militia Strategy Plunged Iraq Into a Civil War, And Now He’s Back for More.” Arun Gupta is currently writing a book on the history of the Iraq War that will be published by Haymarket Press.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Your assessment of what Petraeus’s message was to Congress?

ARUN GUPTA: Well, I think his message is the same thing the Bush administration has been saying for the last four years, which is “stay the course.” And there is no real strategy that the White House has, beyond trying to stave off defeat for the next year, so it can leave the war to its successor. And all this stuff about, “Well, you know, the surge is working, and we’re going to draw it down next summer,” again, it’s part of the same kind of treadmill we’ve been on, the same rhetoric that we’ve been hearing.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us who David Petraeus is. Arun, you’re the first person to mention General Petraeus on our show years ago.

ARUN GUPTA: Yeah. What we were talking about two-and-a-half years ago was Petraeus’s role in helping to set up the Special Police Commandos. In 2004, 2005, he was given the mission to train all Iraq military and police forces. And, in fact, in July 2004, Newsweek had this cover of him, saying that Petraeus was going to train Iraqis to take over the fight. Now, the reality is, is that was, of course, a failure, because three years later he was back with an escalation of U.S. forces.

Now, one of the key things that Petraeus did was they decided — him and his command decided — that they were going to create this paramilitary force, the Special Police Commandos. They armed them. They funded them. They trained them. And they also issued the usual denials: “Oh, we’re not giving them any weapons. This is an Iraqi initiative.” And so, now he’s saying the same thing with the Sunni militias.

So, anyway, the Special Police Commandos quickly morphed into Shiite death squads that were used against the Sunni insurgency and against Sunnis, in general, throughout Iraq. And this played a key role in terms of stoking and fomenting the civil war, because you had these death squads wearing government uniforms, being armed and trained by the U.S., going around killing Sunnis randomly. It generally alienated the Sunni Arab population from the government and drove them into the arms of the resistance.

Now what Petraeus is doing is he’s funding and arming these Sunni militias. And there are reports that have stated clearly with these militias saying, like, “Yes, we’re getting weapons from the U.S. government.” And part of it is, is that they do want to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq, which is another Sunni-based group. It’s an Iraqi-based group. But their main purpose is they want this money and weapons and aid to fight the Shiite militias.

So here we have them, like in 2004, setting up these Shiite militias, and now he’s setting up these Sunni militias to fight these Shiite militias. And what it portends is just an absolute disaster for Iraq. And, of course, it will also be used as justification: “Well, we can’t leave because a bloodbath will result.” But we’re not looking at the fact that it’s the U.S. that’s creating this bloodbath.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about General Petraeus and the missing arms, the missing weapons?

ARUN GUPTA: Also during his tenure, 190,000 weapons went missing. These were Pentagon weapons that were supposed to go to Iraqi security forces. A report came out last month stating that there was no proper bookkeeping done. There were more weapons, but what it found was that 190,000 assault rifles and handguns, along with all sorts of body armor and other military equipment, had just completely gone off track. There were no records of it kept. Such simple things as recording the serial numbers were not done.

And, of course, the fear is that this is just going to turn up all sorts of places. The Turkish government has already claimed that it has seized more than 1,000 of these guns in Turkey that are being used by anyone, from criminal enterprises to anti-government militants. And there’s also reports that they’ve turned up as far away as Italy.

So — and this was part of the Petraeus strategy, that he was just throwing all this money and weapons and aid at the Special Police Commandos, because they were so desperate to create a strategy to defeat the Sunni insurgency. And, of course, by the time he left his mission in 2005 of training Iraqis, there was only one battalion that was considered ready. In one year, that’s what his work amounted to.

And now a report just came out, a commission set up by Congress of four retired U.S. generals, in which they stated that the National Police, which is what the Special Police Commandos are now known as, the National Police are so corrupt, so riven with sectarianism, they’re so hated by the public, the Iraqi military and other police services, that they should just be completely disbanded. And yet, none of this is being talked about in Congress or the media.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about General Petraeus’s comments about Iran?

ARUN GUPTA: I don’t think there is any real credibility in terms of talking about what Iran is involved with, because this administration clearly has been trying to stoke a war against Iran. And it also beggars the imagination that somehow Iran is going to be supplying groups that it’s hostile with, whether it’s Sunni insurgents in Iraq or whether it’s the Taliban, who it went to war with in the 1990s. So I think this is just part of the administration’s drumbeat to create some sort of military action against Iran before it leaves office.

AMY GOODMAN: Last question: the Democrats’ questioning of Petraeus?

ARUN GUPTA: I think they missed a great opportunity, in terms of focusing on Petraeus’s past record, because he’s been given a free pass, that he’s someone who has great credibility and impartiality, rather than, you know, really revealing that he played this critical role in stoking the civil war. But more so, you know, what we need to focus on is how Petraeus and Crocker are really just trying to play down the clock so that the Bush administration doesn’t have to have a significant withdrawal, so it could dump the problem on his successor, probably a Democratic president, and then leave them the enormous burden of figuring out what to do with Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Arun Gupta, I want to thank you very much for about being with us, editor of The Indypendent, currently writing a book on Iraq. Thank you very much.

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