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Dealing With Death Squads In Iraq

US soldiers carry weapons that were discovered with arrested insurgents in the city of Baquba, northeast of Baghdad, 11 May 2006. US forces and Iraqi police arrested 36 militants most of them wearing Iraqi army uniforms. At least 13 people were killed in Iraq as politicians planned to crack down on alleged death squads blamed for a spate of sectarian killings in the violence-ravaged country. Photo courtesy of Ali Yussef and AFP.
by Martin Sieff
UPI Senior News Analyst
Washington (UPI) Aug 11, 2006
This week, U.S. military commanders finally acknowledged the significance of Shiite death squads in Iraq. But the U.S. government and armed forces in Iraq still lack any coherent strategy to contain or reduce this threat. Last Wednesday, Gen. George Casey, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, acknowledged what we have been monitoring and stating in these columns for the past five-and-a-half months -- Shiite death squads are doing the largest amount of the killing in Iraq.

In these columns, we identified the dramatic upsurge in the activities of the Shiite militias and their operational death squads in the weeks following the bombing of the al-Askariya, or Golden Mosque, in Samara on Feb. 22 this year by Sunni insurgents. The insurgents succeeded in the grand strategic goal they had been aiming for -- they provoked a massive upsurge in Shiite militia violence.

The rise in killings inflicted by the Shiite death squads since Feb. 22 demonstrates harsh truths that are still denied by the Bush administration and glossed over or simply missed by most U.S. media commentators, although the handful of dedicated U.S. reporters still on the ground in Iraq, spearheaded by the likes of Anthony Shahid of The Washington Post, are well aware of them.

The democratically elected government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which was only brought into being months after the Golden Mosque bombing, when the Shiite militias were already on the rampage, is not even master in its own capital.

The Maliki government still appears to exert effective power in many, or even most of Iraq's 18 provinces that have not been directly impacted by the Sunni insurgency. But it operates in Kurdistan only on the sufferance of the local Kurdish authorities who enjoy their de facto independence under U.S. protection.

And in many of the Shiite majority provinces of southern Iraq, the continued smooth functioning of the Maliki government, its infrastructure and its security forces depends on their tacit protection of the web of militias that has rapidly been established over the last nine months.

These militias are increasingly integrated, but neither U.S. nor British military intelligence in Iraq has hard data on the degree to which they may be capable of organized coordinated action against both the Maliki government and U.S. and British forces in the country in the near future.

What is clear, however, is that Iraq's new security forces, numbering 275,000 men, have not dared to challenge the Shiite militias or seriously try to suppress them.

This has been the case both in Baghdad, where the sectarian, random killings of innocent Sunni Muslims by Shiite militias are at their worst, and across southern Iraq.

It would not be wise for the U.S. forces in Iraq to be drawn into direct conflict with the militias. Shiite anger at the failure of U.S. forces to protect them from Sunni insurgent terror remains intense.

Also, the monster demonstration in Baghdad Aug. 3 by hundreds of thousands of Shiites to protest the Israeli military operations against their fellow Shiites in Hezbollah in southern Lebanon demonstrated that these anti-American passions have been fueled by the new Lebanon war.

Any major U.S. military drive against Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army or any other major Shiite militia force now or in the coming weeks could therefore set off a very dangerous and unpredictable chain reaction of popular, Shiite anti-American anger across Iraq that would dwarf anything that has gone before.

The first thing U.S. commanders in Iraq and Pentagon policymakers in Washington should do is to launch an intelligence assessment program to boost their understanding of the various Shiite militias, how they interact, what their decision-making process is, and what is the command structure through which they run their death squads.

U.S. forces throughout Iraq should also be directed to follow a nationwide policy of negotiation and accommodation with the militias on local issues such as maintaining security in militia controlled enclaves of Baghdad and other towns and cities. They should seek to work with the local militia leaders in ensuring supplies of essential services like electricity, working hospitals and running water.

U.S. forces in Iraq need to develop a cadre of officers who have personal experience in dealing with local Shiite militia commanders in their areas and who are able to develop personal relations with them.

Also, U.S. intelligence organizations in Iraq need to establish as a top priority goal investigating the degree to which the Shiite militias and their sympathizers have infiltrated the new Iraqi police and army, especially at NCO and junior officer level.

They need to produce reliable assessments of which Iraqi army and police units can be relied upon to take effective action against the Shiite militias and which cannot. They also need to assess what, if any, are the risks that the new Iraqi armed forces at some point may rebel against their own government and turn their weapons on the U.S. forces who created and trained them.

This is far from unprecedented in modern Iraqi history. During the quarter-century that Britain retained military forces in Iraq after it was granted independence in the early 1930s, the Iraqi army toppled democratically elected governments in Baghdad on three occasions, in 1936, 1941 and 1958. On two of those occasions, in 1941 and 1958, Iraqi army coup leaders either tried to side with Britain's enemies during a world war, in 1941 -- or expelled British influence from the country, in 1958.

Gen. Casey Wednesday made clear that U.S. policy was to dismantle all the death squads in Iraq, regardless of their affiliation. But the harsh truth is that over the past three-and-a-half years, U.S. forces in Iraq have been unable to prevent even the Sunni insurgents from operating at will. He did not say how he would finally succeed against both them and the Shiite ones too.

U.S. policymakers still know far too little about the Shiite militias and their death squads. They need to learn a lot more before they plunge into a new open-ended conflict whose end no one can foresee.

Source: United Press International

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