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The US Wants To Crack Down On Iraqi Death Squads

Iraqi soldiers perfect their aim during target shooting practice. Photo courtesy of AFP.
by Pamela Hess
UPI Pentagon Correspondent
Washington (UPI) Jul 31, 2006
Information and perception are major fronts of battle in insurgencies and in fights against terrorists, and the top American general in Iraq is trying to claim some of that ground. In a new message published Sunday, Gen. George W. Casey, the commander of some 150,000 U.S. and coalition troops, is attempting to shift the discussion from violence undertaken by militias to that undertaken by "death squads."

"These criminal elements are domestic terrorists, murdering innocent citizens, seeking to foment sectarian violence and acting illegitimately outside the law," Casey stated in a new message published in Iraq.

"Some claim these actions are necessary to protect neighborhoods or citizens of one sect from attacks by another. That's just plain wrong. The Iraqi security forces are the only legitimate forces responsible for protecting the Iraqi people. These death squads are nothing but a terribly destructive element of society and, along with terrorists and other members of the insurgency, must be defeated and brought to justice."

The difference between death squad and militia is an important semantic distinction to make as the new Iraqi government and the U.S. military attempt to win back Baghdad, which for the last three years has been in the steady and growing stranglehold of armed fighters.

Militias in Iraq have a distinct and, even if only in popular imagination, proud history -- the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Shi'ite Badr Brigade both posited themselves as anti-Saddam forces, for instance. While they were not enough to oust Saddam Hussein, they are respected enough to have been written into the Iraqi constitution. Nine militias are recognized and legal, although none are legally allowed to operate independently of the government.

Some do however and in many cases the U.S. military and the Iraqi government look the other way. Without enough troops to police every neighborhood, militias can play a constructive role.

Casey's latest statement is meant to draw the lines between those whose actions are acceptable, and those who must be stopped, with violence if necessary.

"In the past, we have probably been somewhat imprecise in seeing militias as a threat to security," a top U.S. military official told UPI Monday. "Militias are some combination of young, unemployed men who believe themselves to be neighborhood watch, criminal opportunists who kill and kidnap for hire, and in some cases dangerous (Shiite) religious extremists who run Sharia courts and who execute Sunni (Muslims) in retaliation for acts against them."

By delineating between the groups -- their composition, motivation and action -- the U.S. military is attempting to narrow down the problem and label it in a way that will not make governing any more difficult for Baghdad than it already is.

"To some extent, focusing on the most dangerous component of them --death squads -- we have been able to focus our intelligence better," the official said.

Casey is not just speaking to the Iraqi and American public. He also has a constituency in the Iraqi government, controlled primarily by Shi'ites but which needs to reconcile with the 25 percent of the population that is Sunni, with whom he walks a careful line in discussing the threat.

"The Iraqi Government is very sensitive to two particular labels. 'Insurgents' is almost always used to describe the Sunni side of the threat, and 'militia' is almost always used to describe the Shiite side of the threat. As in most things we do, in describing the threat as 'death squads' we are trying to find a term that the government can accept," the officer said.

In June 2004, then-Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi announced a deal to disband the nine recognized militias -- those that pre-dated the Iraq invasion and who opposed Saddam Hussein. The militias count around 100,000 fighters collectively. The militia leaders reportedly agreed to a timetable for disbanding their forces and joining the Iraqi army and police in separate units. About 60 percent were to remain in the military, and the rest were to retire or take other kinds of jobs.

That disarmament plan has been put on hold for political reasons and strategic ones: The U.S. military and the government in Baghdad have their hands full with the current violence and are not interested in courting a fresh clash with organized armed groups.

Source: United Press International

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