Sunday, January 09, 2005

Pentagon May Use Death Squads in Iraq

By Michael Hirsh and John Barry
Updated: 5:33 p.m. ET Jan. 8, 2005

Jan. 8 - What to do about the deepening quagmire of Iraq? The Pentagon’s
latest approach is being called "the Salvador option"—and the fact that
it is being discussed at all is a measure of just how worried Donald
Rumsfeld really is. "What everyone agrees is that we can’t just go on as
we are," one senior military officer told NEWSWEEK. "We have to find a
way to take the offensive against the insurgents. Right now, we are
playing defense. And we are losing." Last November’s operation in
Fallujah, most analysts agree, succeeded less in breaking "the back" of
the insurgency—as Marine Gen. John Sattler optimistically declared at
the time—than in spreading it out.

Now, NEWSWEEK has learned, the Pentagon is intensively debating an
option that dates back to a still-secret strategy in the Reagan
administration’s battle against the leftist guerrilla insurgency in El
Salvador in the early 1980s. Then, faced with a losing war against
Salvadoran rebels, the U.S. government funded or supported "nationalist"
forces that allegedly included so-called death squads directed to hunt
down and kill rebel leaders and sympathizers. Eventually the insurgency
was quelled, and many U.S. conservatives consider the policy to have
been a success—despite the deaths of innocent civilians and the
subsequent Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal. (Among the current
administration officials who dealt with Central America back then is
John Negroponte, who is today the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. Under Reagan,
he was ambassador to Honduras.)

Following that model, one Pentagon proposal would send Special Forces
teams to advise, support and possibly train Iraqi squads, most likely
hand-picked Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shiite militiamen, to target
Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers, even across the border into
Syria, according to military insiders familiar with the discussions. It
remains unclear, however, whether this would be a policy of
assassination or so-called "snatch" operations, in which the targets are
sent to secret facilities for interrogation. The current thinking is
that while U.S. Special Forces would lead operations in, say, Syria,
activities inside Iraq itself would be carried out by Iraqi
paramilitaries, officials tell NEWSWEEK.

Also being debated is which agency within the U.S. government—the
Defense department or CIA—would take responsibility for such an
operation. Rumsfeld’s Pentagon has aggressively sought to build up its
own intelligence-gathering and clandestine capability with an operation
run by Defense Undersecretary Stephen Cambone. But since the Abu Ghraib
interrogations scandal, some military officials are ultra-wary of any
operations that could run afoul of the ethics codified in the Uniform
Code of Military Justice. That, they argue, is the reason why such
covert operations have always been run by the CIA and authorized by a
special presidential finding. (In "covert" activity, U.S. personnel
operate under cover and the U.S. government will not confirm that it
instigated or ordered them into action if they are captured or killed.)

Meanwhile, intensive discussions are taking place inside the Senate
Intelligence Committee over the Defense department’s efforts to expand
the involvement of U.S. Special Forces personnel in
intelligence-gathering missions. Historically, Special Forces’
intelligence gathering has been limited to objectives directly related
to upcoming military operations—"preparation of the battlefield," in
military lingo. But, according to intelligence and defense officials,
some Pentagon civilians for years have sought to expand the use of
Special Forces for other intelligence missions.

Pentagon civilians and some Special Forces personnel believe CIA
civilian managers have traditionally been too conservative in planning
and executing the kind of undercover missions that Special Forces
soldiers believe they can effectively conduct. CIA traditionalists are
believed to be adamantly opposed to ceding any authority to the
Pentagon. Until now, Pentagon proposals for a capability to send
soldiers out on intelligence missions without direct CIA approval or
participation have been shot down. But counter-terrorist strike squads,
even operating covertly, could be deemed to fall within the Defense
department’s orbit.

Photo: Ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte, center, was ambassador to
Honduras during the Reagan years
Alaa Al-Raya / AP

The interim government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi is said to be among
the most forthright proponents of the Salvador option. Maj. Gen.Muhammad
Abdallah al-Shahwani, director of Iraq’s National Intelligence Service,
may have been laying the groundwork for the idea with a series of
interviews during the past ten days. Shahwani told the London-based
Arabic daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat that the insurgent leadership—he named
three former senior figures in the Saddam regime, including Saddam
Hussein’s half-brother—were essentially safe across the border in a
Syrian sanctuary. "We are certain that they are in Syria and move easily
between Syrian and Iraqi territories," he said, adding that efforts to
extradite them "have not borne fruit so far."

Shahwani also said that the U.S. occupation has failed to crack the
problem of broad support for the insurgency. The insurgents, he said,
"are mostly in the Sunni areas where the population there, almost
200,000, is sympathetic to them." He said most Iraqi people do not
actively support the insurgents or provide them with material or
logistical help, but at the same time they won’t turn them in. One
military source involved in the Pentagon debate agrees that this is the
crux of the problem, and he suggests that new offensive operations are
needed that would create a fear of aiding the insurgency. "The Sunni
population is paying no price for the support it is giving to the
terrorists," he said. "From their point of view, it is cost-free. We
have to change that equation."

Pentagon sources emphasize there has been no decision yet to launch the
Salvador option. Last week, Rumsfeld decided to send a retired four-star
general, Gary Luck, to Iraq on an open-ended mission to review the
entire military strategy there. But with the U.S. Army strained to the
breaking point, military strategists note that a dramatic new approach
might be needed—perhaps one as potentially explosive as the Salvador option.

With Mark Hosenball
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.


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