I Love the 80s: Did the U.S. train Iraq's death squads?

Until recently, even close news readers have known little about the bodies turning up around Iraq by the hundreds. More than a few of them have been headless, which makes identification more complicated. Were these insurgents? Sunni clerics? Ex-Baathists? Regime sympathizers?

New York Times war correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman suggested an answer to those questions in his Sunday front page story: frequently, none of the above. The piece begins with the case of a non-observant Sunni bird fancier who was extracted from his pet store at gun point, over the objections of a Shiite neighbor. He turned up the next day at a sewage plant. "A slight man who raised nightingales," Gettleman continues, "he had been hogtied, drilled with power tools and shot.

Gettleman's conclusion: Shiite militia are running loose in Iraq with the backing of the nation's Interior Ministry.

Do they also enjoy the backing of the United States? No one has hinted as much--recently, that is. Amid all the awful stories coming out of Iraq--the graft, the child soldiers, the Taliban-style restrictions on women, music and alcohol--one can forget the news from last week...to say nothing of last year. And so it was with morbid unease that I stumbled yesterday upon a Newsweek story from January of 2005 that suggested that frustrated American military planners were considering something called "the Salvador Option":

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....
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.

How much longer before the phrase "sectarian violence" yields to that old favorite, the dirty war?


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