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Condemned to Relive the Past

July 9, 2005
By Ken Sanders

"Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it." - George Santanya

It is probably safe to assume that few Americans know or care about their nation's history of atrocities in Latin America. They neither know nor care about the death squads in Guatemala and El Salvador that were trained, funded, and equipped by the U.S., and which tortured and murdered thousands of alleged "communists and terrorists."

From the point of view of the U.S. government, Americans' ignorance and disinterest in their nation's history of "counter-terror assistance" to countries like Guatemala is a real boon. It makes it that much easier for the U.S. to fund, train, and equip nearly identical death squads in Iraq.

Beginning in the 1960's, the U.S. assisted the right-wing Guatemalan government in establishing a counter-terrorist task force to combat communist insurgent groups (a.k.a. terrorists). For instance, when the Guatemalan government asked for help in developing special squads that would kidnap, torture, and kill suspected communists, the U.S. military recommended that the U.S. "fully support current police improvement programs and initiate military psychological warfare training and additional counterinsurgency operations training." In other words, Guatemala got the help it wanted.

In 1968, the State Department's Viron Vacky, former U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission in Guatemala, criticized the U.S. government for condoning the Guatemalan government's counter-terror practices of killing, torturing, and mutilating suspected communists. Vacky summarized the U.S. position regarding Guatemala's death squads: "[A]s long as Communists are being killed it is alright. Murder, torture and mutilation are alright if our side is doing it and the victims are Communists."

In a 1971 cable to the House Sub-Committee on Inter-American Affairs, the U.S. embassy in Guatemala confirmed Vacky's accusations when it admitted, "The U.S. Government is aware of the tactics being used by the Government of Guatemala in combatting (sic) urban and rural terrorism."

Despite this awareness, the U.S. continued to provide overt military aid to the Guatemalan government and its regime of murder and torture until 1990. Covert military aid continued until 1995. The U.S. wrote a similar story in El Salvador.

Why the (extremely) brief history lesson?

In Iraq, U.S.-backed counterinsurgency groups are engaging in the same practices of kidnapping, torture, and murder that were employed in Guatemala and El Salvador. With each passing day in Iraq, more and more bodies of suspected insurgents are turning up exhibiting clear signs of torture and summary execution.

Take, for instance, the case of Hassan an-Ni'ami, a suspected terrorist. As reported in The Observer, an-Ni'ami was abducted in May by Iraqi police commandos (to great televised fanfare) twelve hours before his mutilated body turned up at the morgue. He had been hung from handcuffs until his hands and wrists became swollen. There were burn marks and welts covering his torso. His nose and arm were broken and one of his upper vertebrae was dislodged. Clusters of circular wounds on both sides of his left knee looked like they had been inflicted by an electric drill.

Finally, he was shot repeatedly in the chest and head. His is not an isolated case.

Beginning in April, following the announcement of Iraq's new Shiite-led government, the bodies of Sunni men began turning up at Baghdad's central morgue. Witnesses had seen the men captured by men in police commando uniforms and body armor, brandishing Glock 9mm pistols, and driving Toyota Land Cruisers with police markings. (The use of Land Cruisers and Glocks is significant since they cost more than $55,000 and $500 apiece, respectively, and are used exclusively by Western contractors and Iraqi security forces.)

The mens' hands had been tied or handcuffed behind their backs and their eyes were blindfolded. The dead men appeared to have been whipped, electrocuted, and beaten with blunt objects before being shot, execution style, in the back of the head. According to Knight-Ridder, more than 30 such killings in Baghdad occurred in less than a week.

Similarly, Knight-Ridder reported that in May, 14 Sunni farmers were abducted from a Baghdad market by a patrol of more than 10 police vehicles. The next day, the bodies of the suspected insurgents were found in shallow graves. The men had been blindfolded and tortured, their hands cuffed behind their backs. According to the Knight-Ridder story, Iraq's Human Rights Ministry found nearly 100 detainees in Iraqi police and intelligence facilities. The majority of them had been tortured. (On June 24, 2005, Yasser Salihee, an Iraqi special correspondent for Knight-Ridder, was killed by a U.S. sniper's single shot as Salihee approached a roadblock. The Knight-Ridder story on Iraq's U.S.-backed death squads broke three days later.)

The paramilitary forces credited with the torture and execution of an-Ni'ami and the other suspected terrorists and insurgents are the Rapid Intrusion brigades of Iraq's Ministry of the Interior. The most infamous of the Rapid Intrusion brigades is the Wolf Brigade, a group suspected of a litany of human rights abuses. The Wolf Brigade even has its own "Cops"-like television show on the U.S.-financed Iraqi television network. Called "Terrorism in the Grip of Justice," the show features detainees confessing, apparently under duress, to various crimes. The detainees frequently appear to have been beaten. In one case, a former policeman with two black eyes who confessed to killing two police officers was killed and delivered to his family a few days later.

These paramilitary groups are funded by American and British aid diverted from the Iraqi Police Service. The aid includes weapons, ammunition, protective vests, and armored vehicles. Iraq's paramilitary groups are also advised by members of the U.S. military. One such advisor, James Steele, led U.S. Special Forces missions in El Salvador during that country's era of death squads. According to the New York Times Magazine, Steele was responsible for training elements of the Salvadoran army that committed rampant human rights abuses in the 1980's. In other words, Steele trained the Salvadoran death squads.

Finally, as frequently boasted by the Bush administration, paramilitary groups like the Wolf Brigade work in conjunction with U.S. forces. While embedded with U.S. forces in March, Peter Maass of the New York Times Magazine witnessed U.S. soldiers turning a blind eye to Iraqi commandos kicking and beating suspected insurgents. Maass also reported how U.S. soldiers only reluctantly intervened when Iraqi commandos threatened to execute the son of a suspected insurgent if he did not reveal his father's location.

Maass also described his tour of a detention center established by Iraq's paramilitary commandos in Samarra. Jim Steele was the tour guide. Maass witnessed 100 detainees on the floor, blindfolded, their arms tied behind their backs. Maass saw a detainee being beaten, a detainee with a freshly-bloodied nose, and an interrogation room with a desk that "had bloodstains running down its side." Maass also overheard U.S. soldiers talking about a suspected insurgent at the detention center who was "hanging from the ceiling by his arms and legs like an animal being hauled back from a hunt."

It bears remembering that we do not know, and there is no way to confirm, that any of the people captured, tortured, and murdered by Iraqi death squads like the Wolf Brigade were terrorists or in any way involved in the insurgency. They might have been. But they might not have been, too. We will never know.

The evidence of U.S.-sponsored death squads in Iraq continues to mount as more and more mutilated bodies show up in Iraqi streets and morgues. Sadly, as evidenced by the histories of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and others, the U.S. government is all-too-willing to create, advise, and support counterinsurgency death squads which indiscriminately kidnap, torture, and kill. This willingness, however, is overshadowed by the American public's ignorance of and disinterest in its government's love of dirty wars.

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