Latin America-Style Dirty War in Iraq?

September 25, 2007

The attacks against U.S. soldiers in Iraq by anti-occupation guerrillas have resulted in the U.S. military applying its infamous National Security Doctrine so familiar to many Latin Americans. A primary component of this doctrine is the use of paramilitary forces to gather intelligence and carry out strikes against suspected insurgents. Last month, it was announced that the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council had agreed to arm, train and deploy 700-1,000 paramilitary fighters who will conduct counterinsurgency operations under U.S. military command.

In the early days of the occupation, the CPA had called for the dismantling of Iraqi militia groups. But by the end of 2003, with increasing attacks against U.S. soldiers, the U.S. military command decided that these militias could be utilized for counterinsurgency operations. The new paramilitary force will be drawn from the armed wings of the seven largest parties in the Governing Council—seen by the Bush administration to be the strongest supporters of the occupation. The new force will be divided into five companies, each of which will work temporarily with a ten-man U.S. Army Special Forces team before operating on their own. Their mission: to hunt down Saddam loyalists and other anti-occupation insurgents.

This strategy is eerily reminiscent of the U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine applied in Latin America for more than 40 years. In Guatemala, the U.S.-trained military utilized U.S. counterinsurgency tactics when it formed civil defense patrols in the early 1980s. These paramilitary groups, together with the Guatemalan military, were responsible for slaughtering tens of thousands of Maya.

A similar tragedy occurred in Peru from 1980-2000. The Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that more than 69,000 died in the civil conflict. Peru’s military also abided by U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine and formed civil defense patrols; even killing peasants who refused to join the paramilitary groups. As was the case in Guatemala, these militias massacred thousands of unarmed civilians suspected of harboring sympathies for the guerrillas. In many cases, simply living in a region where the rebels operated was enough to be labeled a subversive.

While Guatemala and Peru are attempting to cope with the legacy of paramilitary violence stemming from U.S.-formulated counterinsurgency efforts, Colombians are still being slaughtered by paramilitaries. In 1962, U.S. military advisors recommended that Colombia’s security forces establish paramilitary groups in order to combat leftist insurgents. These right-wing militias were finally made illegal in 1989. However, two years later, U.S. advisors helped reorganize Colombia’s military intelligence apparatus and recommended creating new paramilitary networks in violation of Colombian law. Throughout the 1990s, thousands of Colombian peasants died at the hands of paramilitary groups who, according to human rights groups and even the U.S. State Department’s own annual reports, were responsible for more than 70% of Colombia’s human rights abuses.

Despite the horrific legacy of U.S. counterinsurgency strategies in Latin America, the Bush administration appears intent on utilizing the same “dirty war” tactics to combat insurgents in Iraq. Some members of the 25-person Iraqi Governing Council have criticized the proposal to incorporate fighters from the various militias into one paramilitary force under the command of the U.S. military. Independent council member Ghazi Yawar said, “We should be dissolving the militias, not finding ways to legitimize them. This sends the wrong message to the Iraqi people.”

One concern—not to mention the potential for human rights abuses— is that the paramilitaries would undermine any future democratic development through the intimidation of voters on behalf of the political parties with which they are affiliated. Leaders of these parties could also use the paramilitaries to suppress political dissent. The Bush administration claims it will safeguard against such abuses by insisting that members of the new paramilitary force renounce their political affiliations. According to U.S. Undersecretary for Defense of Policy Douglas Feith, “We are willing to take people into these forces as long as when they come in they are not operating as members of these other [politically-affiliated] forces.” But as one independent member of the Governing Council pointed out, “When you ask them, ‘Who are you loyal to?’ They will not say Iraq. They will say Alawi or Chalabi or Talabani,” listing some of the Governing Council’s most prominent political leaders.

The Bush administration’s military occupation of Iraq has increasingly alienated the occupied population, resulting in escalating attacks against U.S. troops. The decision to combat the guerrillas by implementing a paramilitary strategy will likely result in a dirty war waged against the civilian population. One can only hope that this madness is halted before thousands of innocent Iraqis meet the same fate as tens of thousands of Latin Americans.

Garry Leech is the Interim Editor of the NACLA Report on the Americas


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