The new dirty war

Iraq isn't so much like Vietnam -- it's looking more like El Salvador in the 1980s.

By Mark Follman
Published May 3, 2005 4:28PM (EDT)

Since last Thursday, militants have answered the announcement of Iraq's new Shiite-majority government with scores of car bombs that have left hundreds dead. Despite some recent upbeat talk from U.S. military leaders, it's clear that the insurgency remains a potent force.

And in recent months, the United States has quietly been changing tactics to fight it -- for better and for worse, judging by Peter Maass' invaluable cover story in Sunday's New York Times Magazine. As the U.S. relies increasingly on Iraqi security forces, which include U.S.-backed special commando units helping to conduct the counterinsurgency, the overall number of insurgent attacks has declined. But democracy still hangs in the balance -- perhaps as much for the country professing to bring it as for the one that might eventually adopt it.

"The template for Iraq today is not Vietnam, to which it has often been compared, but El Salvador, where a right-wing government backed by the United States fought a leftist insurgency in a 12-year war beginning in 1980," writes Maass. "The cost was high -- more than 70,000 people were killed, most of them civilians, in a country with a population of just six million. Most of the killing and torturing was done by the army and the right-wing death squads affiliated with it."

What's striking is the degree to which the U.S. military, in shepherding the new Iraqi commando forces, appears willing to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses. In essence, another unofficial but systematic outsourcing of torture is in progress, even in the wake of Abu Ghraib and all that's surfaced about the Bush government's secret policy of extraordinary rendition.

Two top U.S. military advisors in Iraq who spoke with Maass, and whose backgrounds include extensive experience in the clandestine wars of Latin America, maintained that they adamantly oppose human rights abuses. They stressed that "torture and death-squad activity are counterproductive."

But what Maass witnessed in practice on the ground tells a different story. In March, he accompanied a group of Iraqi commandos operating in Samarra, who were backed by soldiers from the Army's Third Infantry Division, led by Captain Jeff Bennett. During one night raid, a detainee in custody of the Iraqi commandos was suspected of giving them bad information:

"The detainee was sitting at the side of a commando truck; I was 10 feet away, beside Bennett and four G.I.'s. One of [the Iraqi] captains began beating the detainee. Instead of a quick hit or slap, we now saw and heard a sustained series of blows. We heard the sound of the captain's fists and boots on the detainee's body, and we heard the detainee's pained grunts as he received his punishment without resistance. It was a dockyard mugging. Bennett turned his back to face away from the violence, joining his soldiers in staring uncomfortably at the ground in silence. The blows continued for a minute or so.

"Bennett had seen the likes of this before, and he had worked out his own guidelines for dealing with such situations. 'If I think they're going to shoot somebody or cut his finger off or do any sort of permanent damage, I will immediately stop them,' he explained. 'As Americans, we will not let that happen. In terms of kicking a guy, they do that all the time, punches and stuff like that.' It was a tactical decision, Bennett explained: 'You only get so many interventions, and I've got to save my butting in for when there is a danger it could go over the line.'"

Later, Maass visited the commandos' detention center in Samarra, where James Steele, one of the top U.S. military advisors, offered to let him interview a Saudi-born insurgent in custody. "A few minutes after the interview started, a man began screaming in the main hall, drowning out the Saudi's voice," writes Maass. "'Allah!' he shouted. 'Allah! Allah!' It was not an ecstatic cry; it was chilling, like the screams of a madman, or of someone being driven mad. 'Allah!' he yelled again and again. The shouts were too loud to ignore. Steele left the room to find out what was happening. When returned, the shouts had ceased. But soon, through the window behind me, I could hear the sounds of someone vomiting, coming from an area where other detainees were being held, at the side of the building.

"That evening, as I was eating dinner in the mess hall at Olsen base, I overheard a G.I. saying that he had seen [a] Syrian at the detention center, hanging from the ceiling by his arms and legs like an animal being hauled back from a hunt. When I struck up a conversation with the soldier, he refused to say anything more. Later, I spoke with an Iraqi interpreter who works for the U.S. military and has access to the detention center; when I asked whether the Syrian, like the Saudi, was cooperating, the interpreter smiled and said, 'Not yet, but he will.'"

There may be a certain effective if cold calculus in the U.S. leadership's decision to bring back a number of Saddam's hardened former fighters for Iraq's new military; Paul Bremer's purging of all Baathists from the ranks, shortly after President Bush declared victory for Operation Iraqi Freedom in spring 2003, turned out to be a logistical and strategic disaster. But at what cost, ultimately, to Operation American Democracy?

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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