Socialist Worker

Who is controlling the death squads in Iraq?

The media blames the violence in occupied Iraq on sectarianism, but the role of the US and Britain in training the new security forces is rarely analysed, writes Max Fuller

Issue No. 1980

Members of the interior ministry police, who have been accused of involvement in death squads, being trained by US forces

Members of the interior ministry police, who have been accused of involvement in death squads, being trained by US forces

It has become impossible for anyone with half an eye on Iraq over the last six months not to recognise the widespread presence of death squads, especially in Baghdad and the ring of towns surrounding it.

Typically, the victims of the death squads are found casually discarded — their eyes may be blindfolded, their hands are bound or handcuffed behind the back and they have been killed with shots to the head or chest.

The victims frequently bear the signs of horrific torture, including savage beatings, electrocution, cigarette and acid burns, gouged out eyes and even the use of electric drills.

In every case where evidence is available, the victims were arrested by uniformed members of the police or armed forces, or un-uniformed gunmen bearing interior ministry identification.

Such killings are not mere blips on the screen, but are considered to have reached epidemic proportions by human rights groups in Baghdad, who regard them and the associated disappearances as the most pressing problem in Iraq today.

One Baghdad mosque has documented the death or disappearance of around 700 Sunni Muslim civilians during the last four months.

In July the Iraqi journalist Yasser Salihee described hundreds of victims of extrajudicial killings passing through the Baghdad morgue.

Although his picture of the morgue is confirmed by other journalists, he remains the only one to have seriously investigated the allegations of involvement by the security forces.

His last article was published on 27 June, three days after his own assassination at the hands of a US army sniper at a routine checkpoint.

The most prominent allegations have come from Sunni groups, as the majority of victims seem to have been young Sunni men.

In May, the Association of Muslim Scholars accused the government of conducting a policy of state terror.

It pointed to what it believed to be the presence of members of the Badr Brigade, the armed wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, operating alongside interior ministry commandos.

The Iraqi government has responded by alleging that extrajudicial killings are the work of insurgents masquerading as police officers.

This leaves gaping questions hanging over how “insurgents” were able to obtain uniforms and expensive police equipment, as well as how they are able to operate freely in heavily curfewed areas.

The mainstream Western media, however, is not so easily outfoxed. They have seized on the allegations of Badr involvement and repeated the charge of sectarianism like a mantra. The pattern is consistent.

After every fresh revelation of torture or murder linked to Iraq’s new interior ministry, the media trots out much the same story.

It refers to uncontrollable militias, Badr infiltration of the security forces and Shia domination of the interior ministry.

It inevitably concludes that the incident in question is yet another example of the sectarian violence gripping Iraq.


The pattern is visible in the most recent flurry of journalistic concern following the discovery on 13 November of an underground torture chamber in Baghdad, where around 170 prisoners were kept in unspeakable conditions.

Rumours that some of them had already been tortured to death remain unconfirmed.

The Observer’s Peter Beaumont writes that the roots of the human rights catastrophe that has enveloped the ministry are to be found in the simmering sectarian conflict of tit-for-tat assassinations.

The Independent’s Kim Sengupta states that the Badr militia controls part of the ministry.

No evidence is offered to support the contention that Badr controls the interior ministry, except perhaps the mention that the present minister is himself a former Badr member.

Almost no mention is made of the US and Britain’s role in training the security forces beside the occasional “obviously knew nothing about it” comment.

No frame of reference of other US-backed counter insurgency campaigns is ever offered.

What the mainstream Western media neglects to remind us is that following the occupation of Iraq, British and US intelligence went into overdrive to establish a new Iraqi intelligence apparatus.

They rightly saw this as the linchpin of their puppet state. Recruits were drawn from existing intelligence agents (presumably CIA assets) within the main political parties, all of whom had returned to Iraq on the back of US tanks, and hammered into a new organisation known as the Collection, Management and Analysis Directorate (CMAD).

CMAD’s first task was to draw up lists of opponents, who were to be the targets of a paramilitary unit drawn from the militias of the same political parties, working in collusion with US special forces.

Who these targets were is not known. It is known, however, that in the first year of occupation some 1,000 Iraqi professionals, including many teachers, were murdered, promoting a mass exodus.

While some reporters suggested that disgruntled students might be responsible for the massacre of academics, the pattern is better placed within the total levelling of Iraq’s cultural and political life — an apocalyptic Year Zero.

This has, as journalist Felicity Arbuthnot describes in her article, Iraq’s Year Zero, (, witnessed the destruction of written records, historical treasures, public monuments and, it seems, even people.

US experienced in fighting dirty wars

Far from being Shia fundamentalists, Iraq’s new spy chiefs were former Baathists and long-term CIA assets like general Mohammad Shahwani, who became the director of the National Intelligence Service when CMAD was split in June 2004.

The US has been busy rebuilding the Iraqi interior ministry. The ministry was headed, until the notional transfer of power, by US Drug Enforcement Agency man Steven Casteel.

Casteel’s experience was gained in Latin America, where he was involved in several of the drug wars that served as cover for the CIA in the 1980s and 1990s.

He was involved in the hunt for Colombia’s cocaine baron Pablo Escobar.

This was an enormous covert intelligence operation that saw the creation of the Los Pepes death squad, which was to serve as the backbone for the country’s present paramilitary organisation.

Alongside Casteel, came James Steele, who, as senior counsellor to US ambassador Paul Bremer for Iraqi security forces, was to systematise the establishment of paramilitary special forces units within the new interior ministry.

Steele’s background runs from Vietnam and Cambodia to El Salvador and Panama. Steele was there to train the police and army just about anywhere murderous repression took place.

In Iraq, Steele was responsible for overseeing the establishment of the Special Police Commandos, including the notorious Wolf Brigade.

The Police Commandos are the most widely implicated of all the new formations in Iraq, but they are not commanded by religious fanatics.

Their leaders are drawn from former military personnel, including general Rashid Flayyih, who, though a Shia, is the man most closely associated with the suppression of the Shia rising following the first Gulf War, as well as being a CIA collaborator.

Neither the transfer of sovereignty to the interim government, nor the switching of regimes to the transitional one, made any impact on the careers of the carefully groomed assets within the new Iraqi state, quashing the media-cherished notion of de-Baathification.

The picture of mass murder and torture at the hands of US proxies emerging from Iraq is consistent with the experience of every other counter-insurgency war in which the US has been involved.

From Indonesia to El Salvador, hundreds of thousands of killings have been committed by US-backed and trained forces.

This is all to ensure continuing access to markets, cheap labour and raw materials, and to prevent the rise of economic and social alternatives that could deliver hope to the masses.

This multi-tiered operation means operatives like Steele select the most brutal accomplices they can find, while top-level planners direct dirty wars from lavish offices. Both sets are murderers.

But between them, and between the crimes and the public who would put an end to them, are the professional liars of the corporate media, who, in concealing the truth, are as complicit as the driller killers in the balaclavas.

For more from Max Fuller go to the Centre for Research on Globalisation website
» For Iraq, the Salvador Option becomes reality
» Crying Wolf: media disinformation and death squads in occupied Iraq

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Sat 10 Dec 2005, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1980
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