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September 16, 2007

Petraeus armed rival gangs in Iraq

Amy Goodman has a fascinating interview with Arun Gupta, the author of an upcoming book on the history of the Iraq war.

Gupta describes how Gen David Petraeus helped create the rival death squads that are currently laying waste to Iraq:

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us who David Petraeus is. Arun, you’re the first person to mention General Petraeus on our show years ago.

ARUN GUPTA: Yeah. What we were talking about two-and-a-half years ago was Petraeus’s role in helping to set up the Special Police Commandos. In 2004, 2005, he was given the mission to train all Iraq military and police forces. And, in fact, in July 2004, Newsweek had this cover of him, saying that Petraeus was going to train Iraqis to take over the fight. Now, the reality is, is that was, of course, a failure, because three years later he was back with an escalation of US forces.

Now, one of the key things that Petraeus did was they decided -- him and his command decided -- that they were going to create this paramilitary force, the Special Police Commandos. They armed them. They funded them. They trained them. And they also issued the usual denials: “Oh, we're not giving them any weapons. This is an Iraqi initiative.” And so, now he’s saying the same thing with the Sunni militias.

So, anyway, the Special Police Commandos quickly morphed into Shiite death squads that were used against the Sunni insurgency and against Sunnis, in general, throughout Iraq. And this played a key role in terms of stoking and fomenting the civil war, because you had these death squads wearing government uniforms, being armed and trained by the US, going around killing Sunnis randomly. It generally alienated the Sunni Arab population from the government and drove them into the arms of the resistance.

Now what Petraeus is doing is he’s funding and arming these Sunni militias. And there are reports that have stated clearly with these militias saying, like, “Yes, we’re getting weapons from the US government.” And part of it is, is that they do want to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq, which is another Sunni-based group. It’s an Iraqi-based group. But their main purpose is they want this money and weapons and aid to fight the Shiite militias.

So here we have them, like in 2004, setting up these Shiite militias, and now he’s setting up these Sunni militias to fight these Shiite militias. And what it portends is just an absolute disaster for Iraq. And, of course, it will also be used as justification: “Well, we can't leave because a bloodbath will result.” But we’re not looking at the fact that it’s the US that’s creating this bloodbath. [Democracy Now]

For more details, see Gupta's recent article, Meet Gen. David Petraeus.

Update: Longtime Iraq-watcher Swopa offers a helpful clarification in comments. It's not entirely fair to blame Petraeus for arming the Shiite militias. He helped set up a dangerous paramilitary structure that was, predictably, hijacked by religious extremists after the elections of 2005. Petraeus is now arming the Sunni militias as a counterweight to the Shiite death squads.

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Comments

Having written quite a bit about these developments when they happened, I'd quibble a little bit with the description of Petraeus intentionally arming the Shiite militias.

What happened was that when our boy Iyad Allawi was the interim prime minister, we supported him in setting up the Special Police Commandos (from whence the stories about the "Salvador option," etc., arose). Like Allawi, they may have been nominally Shiite, but were really more secular/Baathist -- i.e., Saddamism without Saddam.

Then, in early 2005, the new elected Shiite government takes over, looks at the SPC -- including the TV show(!) set up to promote them -- and says, "Hey, nice structure you've put in place here... now step aside, and let us show you how to do this." They proceeded to sideline the Allawi loyalists and turned the Special Police Commandos into a Shiite death squad, along with much of the rest of the govt. security forces.

The current program of arming Sunni militias is essentially a reaction to the Shiite hijacking of not just the SPC, but the entire Bushite fantasy of a U.S.-loyal, secular government. Which broadly speaking is the same dynamic Gupta describes, since we supposedly sought to bring democracy to Iraq (but haven't liked the results), but the specific charge about creating the Shiite death squads isn't quite accurate.

How dare you question the credibility of General David Petraeus!

"You have no right to disagree with his integrity" said Rudy Giuliani.

(end sarcasm)


Keep talkin'

Actually Rudy, the first amendment guarantees me that right. Particularly as a civilian.

Add it to the list: America to the rescue!

Did people not understand the meaning of the phrase "Salvador option" when it first arose? The "Salvador option" is the creation and backing of opposing death squads. Divide and conquer. Just like we Brits did in India, only with more guns and heavy weapons. Just like El Salvador. Or Chile. Or Guatemala, Haiti, Afghanistan. Or, indeed, just aout any other place the US has "intervened" in in the last 30 years or so.

I think Swopa's point is that Petraeus is knowingly backed death squads, but that he didn't explicitly set out to arm both sides in an ethnic/religious civil war.

Petraeus was hoping to give his quasi-secular political buddy a monopoly on deadly extrajudicial force--but that just wasn't how things worked out.

I'm sure many people in Washington envy the imperialist powers of a century ago, who weren't constrained by having to pay lip service to the idea of "democracy". Everything has gone to hell for them since Sistani filled the streets three-and-a-half years ago with protesters demanding a free election.

And Giuliani is just doing what most authoritarians do in a pinch like this: relying on the impulse towards fawning servility inspired in many people by the sight of a highly-decorated uniform. Things are way past the point though that stunts like this are going to help.

Look, CNN interviewed several Republicans who all swear that General Petraeus is a True American Hero(TM). Why can't we just leave it at that?

Which broadly speaking is the same dynamic Gupta describes. . .but the specific charge about creating the Shiite death squads isn't quite accurate.

Swopa, despite Lindsay's comments, I'm still not understanding the nature of your correction, since you're saying the same thing that Gupta says. Gupta says that Petraeus created and armed the SPC's, which "quickly morped into Shiite death squads." You're describing the details of how the morphing took place, but I don't see that you're showing that anything is incorrect about Gupta's description.

More generally, regardless of the details of the situation in 2004, death squads were a predictable (and predicted) consequence of arming and training paramilitary groups. The Bush administration probably thought that the death squads would help stabilize their desired government, rather than destabilizing all of Iraq, but regardless of what form the Iraq government took, I can't imagine that the Bush administration thought that a paramilitary police force was going to be used for kitten-petting and baby-hugging. It's also predictable that when we arm Sunnni militias, they will use those weapons to ethnically cleanse neighborhoods of Shiites. We can debate what the U.S. and/or Petraeus intended to do. But all Gupta claims above is that the U.S. is "creating this bloodbath," which seems indisputable.

I think Swopa's point is that Petraeus is knowingly backed death squads, but that he didn't explicitly set out to arm both sides in an ethnic/religious civil war.

Petraeus was hoping to give his quasi-secular political buddy a monopoly on deadly extrajudicial force--but that just wasn't how things worked out.

Exactly right, thanks. I was just clarifying that there was an unintended (but yes, predictable) turn of events along the way, not by any means giving Petraeus a moral pass.

FWIW, here are my posts on the Special Police Commandos from February 2005, when word of their existence first hit the media, and May 2005, when a New Yorker article described them in detail. I wrote here and here in March 2006 about the takeover of the commando units by the parties in the Shiite government.

Incidentally, I guess the larger point of quibbling with Gupta's description is to say that Iraqi players have contributed to that country's disaster. A narrative I frequently see on liberal sites portrays them as helpless pawns at the mercy of Machiavellian puppetry by the U.S. and Big Oil, and that's just not true.

The part about Machiavellian motivations is correct, of course. But the lesson of the last four and half years is that America's ability to impose its will is far less than advertised. Allawi may cheerlead for the occupation, while al-Hakim seeks to manipulate it and al-Sadr opposes it, but aside from that they all have the same goal -- to rule Iraq -- and all have demonstrated that they would perform that task in a similarly corrupt and brutal authoritarian fashion, differing only in the identity of their victims. The U.S. is just another player in that bloody mix.

If the Iraqi factions were helpless pawns, and the U.S. some kind of master manipulator, it would imply what's going on now- over four years into the war- is something more or less according to Dick Cheney's plan. And (however profitable the current moment is for certain industries) I really can't imagine anyone convincing themselves of that.

Incidentally, I guess the larger point of quibbling with Gupta's description is to say that Iraqi players have contributed to that country's disaster. A narrative I frequently see on liberal sites portrays them as helpless pawns at the mercy of Machiavellian puppetry by the U.S. and Big Oil, and that's just not true.

Now I see what you're saying, but I don't really get that narrative from Gupta's description. Iraqis who make evil decisions certainly bear responsibility for their decisions, but there's enough evil decisions for responsibility all around. The narrative I most frequently see in the MSM is "American tried to do a great thing, helping another country establish a stable democracy. The Iraqis are ungrateful, and have, for some incomprehensible reason, responded to our kindness by choosing to blow things up. Our presence is helping, and the choice is between being kind and helpful, and staying, or leaving, and causing a bloodbath." The background assumption that our presence is helpful (or at least neutral) is so overwhelming that it's typically not explicitly stated by either liberals or conservatives in the MSM. So liberals will often say "Gosh, I opposed the war, but now that we've messed up their country, we need to stay to help." Gupta's report, and other liberal sites, are just countering the prevailing MSM narrative, by saying "Whoa, hold on! American presence is not preventing the violence, but fueling it."

If I give an assault weapon to someone I know to be a mentally unstable killer, it doesn't excuse the killer to point out that I did wrong in giving him an assault weapon.

Glenn Greenwald writes:
-----------------------------
Rudy Giuliani, Sean Hannity and much of the chattering class insisted all week that it was "despicable" for Senators such as Hillary Clinton to suggest that The General's claims of Progress were not believable. Yet most Americans are similarly "despicable," as they appear to share that sentiment. A despicable 62% do not believe Gen. Petraeus' sunny claims about Progress.
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