The "Salvador option"

The U.S. considers forming assassination squads like those once used by the Reagan administration to crush the insurgency in Iraq.

Published January 10, 2005 3:42PM (EST)

The United States is considering setting up an elite squad of assassins to target leaders of the Iraqi insurgency, according to reports Sunday. Newsweek magazine said the Pentagon is drawing up possible proposals to send U.S. Special Forces teams to advise, support and train handpicked Iraqi squads to target Sunni rebels.

The ploy has apparently been called the "Salvador option" after the strategy that was secretly employed by Ronald Reagan's administration to combat the leftist guerrilla insurgency in El Salvador in the early 1980s. In that instance, the U.S. government backed "nationalist forces" that hunted down rebel leaders and their supporters.

The plans appear to be a sign of the increasing frustration at the continued level of violence in Iraq. Direct actions, such the attack on Fallujah in November, have had little more effect than spreading the rebels out. Newsweek cited an unidentified senior military officer. "What everyone agrees is that we can't just go on as we are," he said. "We have to find a way to take the offensive against the insurgents. Right now, we are playing defense. And we are losing."

A retired four-star general, Gary Luck, is due in Iraq this week to conduct a reevaluation of tactics in Iraq, including troop levels and the training of Iraqi forces.

The U.S. and Iraqi security forces are facing mounting losses, and the stubbornness of the insurgents is causing increasing concern in Washington. Gen Luck is due to report back to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld within a month.

The Iraqi elite squads would most likely be made up of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shiite militiamen and could even operate across the Syrian border, the report said. It remains unclear whether they would be used for assassinations or in so-called snatch operations, capturing targets and taking them to U.S. bases for interrogation. According to Newsweek it is also still unclear which part of the U.S. government would take responsibility for the squads. Covert operations have in the past been run by the CIA, but the Defense Department under Rumsfeld has been seeking to build up the Pentagon's intelligence operations.

The plan would expand the role of the U.S. Special Forces into undercover missions, something many in the CIA are said to oppose. The interim government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi is said to have given the proposal strong backing.

By David Teather

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