Iraq's New Death Squad | The Nation


Iraq's New Death Squad

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At Haidar's funeral, Fathil asked Rajdi to testify. "You are a representative of the government, and you saw it all happen," he told the major. "You saw that he didn't have a weapon in his hand." Fathil says the major declined. "This is the dirty brigade," he recalls Rajdi saying. "We are afraid of them. When we see them, we retreat. If I testify against them, I'll be killed the next day. They kill and no one will hold them accountable, because they belong to the Americans."

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Shane Bauer
Shane Bauer is a freelance journalist and Arabic speaker living in the Middle East.

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Major Rajdi's fear and distrust of the ISOF are echoed by other members of the regular Iraqi Army. "Sometimes we are surprised when the Special Forces enter," says Lt. Colonel Yahya Rasoul Abdullah, commander of the Third Battalion of the Forty-second Brigade in Sadr City. "Bad things happen. Some people steal, and some abuse women. They don't know the people on the streets like us. They just go after their target. We have suffered from this problem."

Accounts of older ISOF operations I heard around Baghdad suggest that the Americans may have knowingly allowed violence against civilians. In Adhamiya, long the stronghold of the Sunni insurgency in Baghdad, two hospital employees described their 2006 run-in with the ISOF to me. According to both witnesses, a self-identified ISOF operative named "Captain Hussam" unloaded his machine gun in the Al Numan Hospital after seeing the body of his superior, who had died under the hospital's care. An American operative with a red beard stood by silently watching. According to one witness, the Iraqi operative demanded his commander's death certificate, threatening to "torture you, kill you and kill the people of Adhamiya" if they didn't comply. The witnesses said the eight operatives who entered the hospital were driving Humvees, vehicles that only the Americans and the ISOF use. The next day, Captain Hussam returned, a witness said, offering a box of bullets as an apology.

The effective head of the American ISOF project is General Trombitas of the Iraq National Counter-Terror Transition Team. A towering man with a gray mustache and a wrinkled brow, Trombitas spent nearly seven of his over thirty years in the military training special forces in Colombia, El Salvador and other countries. On February 23 he gave me a tour of Area IV, a joint American-Iraqi base near the Baghdad International Airport, where US Special Forces train the ISOF. As we walk away from the helicopter, he cracks a boyish smile. Though he's worked with special forces all over the world, he tells me the men we are about to meet are "the best."

Trombitas says he is "very proud of what was done in El Salvador" but avoids the fact that special forces trained there by the United States in the early 1980s were responsible for the formation of death squads that killed more than 50,000 civilians thought to be sympathetic with leftist guerrillas. Guatemala was a similar case. Some Guatemalan special forces that had been trained in anti-terrorism tactics by the United States during the mid-1960s subsequently became death squads that took part in the killing of around 140,000 people. In the early 1990s, US Special Forces trained and worked closely with an elite Colombian police unit strongly suspected of carrying out some of the murders attributed to Los Pepes, a death squad that became the backbone of the country's current paramilitary organization. (Trombitas served in El Salvador from 1989-90 and in Colombia from 2003-2005, after these incidents took place.)

"The standards get looser when the Americans aren't with [the local special forces], and they can eventually become death squads, which I believe actually happened in Colombia," says Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo, a book about the hunt for Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar by CIA and US Special Forces. The tactics taught in each country are the same, Bowden says. "They teach the same kind of skills. They use the same equipment."

Trombitas told the official blog of the Defense Department that the training missions used in Latin America are "extremely transferable" to Iraq. Salvadoran Special Forces even helped train the ISOF, he tells me. "It's a world of coalitions," he says. "The longer we work together, the more alike we are. When we share our values and our experiences with other armies, we make them the same."

Trombitas guides me into a warehouse where ISOF operatives, most of them in black masks, have been preparing for our arrival. He walks me through a special display of their American equipment--machine guns, sniper rifles, state-of-the-art night-vision equipment and fluffy desert camo that makes soldiers look like teddy bears. He takes me up a catwalk overlooking a fake house stocked with cartoonish posters of big-breasted women pointing pistols, a couple of real men dressed as "terrorists" with kaffiyehs wrapped around their faces and a 10-year-old boy playing hostage.

As we stand in the observation area, the door explodes. After a minute of constant shooting, the operatives march out with the "terrorists," the boy and a poster of an '80s-style villain, wearing a jean jacket and holding a woman hostage. More than twenty bullet holes are centered on his forehead. "Look at that marksmanship," Trombitas says, smiling proudly.

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