Bush’s Death Squads

BY Robert Parry

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'The Sunni population is paying no price for the support it is giving to the terrorists. ... From their point of view, it is cost-free. We have to change that equation.'

Refusing to admit personal misjudgments on Iraq, George W. Bush instead is pushing the United States toward becoming what might be called a permanent “counter-terrorist” state, which uses torture, cross-border death squads, and even collective punishments to defeat perceived enemies in Iraq and around the world.

Since securing a second term, Bush has pressed ahead with this hard-line strategy, in part by removing dissidents inside his administration while retaining or promoting his protégés.

As a centerpiece of this tougher strategy to pacify Iraq, Bush is contemplating the adoption of the brutal practices that were used to suppress leftist peasant uprisings in Central America in the ’80s. The Pentagon is “intensively debating” a new policy for Iraq called the “Salvador option,” Newsweek magazine reported on January 9.

The strategy is named after the Reagan-Bush administration’s “still-secret strategy” of supporting El Salvador’s right-wing security forces, which operated clandestine “death squads” to eliminate both leftist guerrillas and their civilian sympathizers, Newsweek reported. “Many U.S. conservatives consider the policy to have been a success—despite the deaths of innocent civilians,” Newsweek wrote.

The magazine also noted that a number of Bush administration officials were leading figures in the Central American operations of the ’80s, such as John Negroponte, who was then U.S. ambassador to Honduras and is now U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

Other current officials who played key roles in Central America include Elliott Abrams, who oversaw Central American policies at the State Department and who is now a Middle East adviser on Bush’s National Security Council staff, and Vice President Dick Cheney, who was a powerful defender of the Central American policies while a member of the House of Representatives.

The insurgencies in El Salvador and Guatemala were crushed through the slaughter of tens of thousands of civilians. In Guatemala, about 200,000 people perished, including what a truth commission later termed a genocide against Mayan Indians in the Guatemalan highlands. In El Salvador, about 70,000 died including massacres of whole villages, such as the slaughter carried out by a U.S.-trained battalion against hundreds of men, women and children in and around the town of El Mozote in 1981.

The Reagan-Bush strategy also had a domestic component, the so-called “perception management” operation. Administration propaganda justified U.S. actions in Central America by portraying the popular uprisings as an attempt by the Soviet Union to establish a beachhead in the Americas to threaten the U.S. southern border.

By employing the “Salvador option” in Iraq, the U.S. military would crank up the pain, especially in Sunni Muslim areas where resistance to the U.S. occupation of Iraq has been strongest. In effect, Bush would assign other Iraqi ethnic groups the job of leading the “death squad” campaign against the Sunnis.

“One Pentagon proposal would send Special Forces teams to advise, support and possibly train Iraqi squads, most likely hand-picked Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shiite militiamen, to target Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers, even across the border into Syria, according to military insiders familiar with discussions,” Newsweek reported.

Newsweek quoted one military source as saying, “The Sunni population is paying no price for the support it is giving to the terrorists. … From their point of view, it is cost-free. We have to change that equation.”

The conditions in Central America and Iraq are not parallel, however.

In Central America, powerful oligarchies had long surrounded themselves with ruthless security forces and armies. So, when uprisings swept across the region in the early ’80s, the Reagan-Bush administration had ready-made—though unsavory—allies who could do the dirty work with help from Washington.

A different dynamic exists in Iraq, because the Bush administration chose to disband rather than co-opt the Iraqi army. That left U.S. forces with few reliable local allies and put the onus for carrying out counterinsurgency operations on American soldiers who were unfamiliar with the land, the culture and the language.

Those problems, in turn, contributed to a series of counterproductive tactics, including the heavy-handed roundups of Iraqi suspects, the torturing of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and the killing of innocent civilians by jittery U.S. troops fearful of suicide bombings. The blame for these medieval tactics continues to climb the chain of command toward the Oval Office.

Bush finds himself facing a narrowing list of very tough choices. He could acknowledge his mistakes and seek international help in extricating U.S. forces from Iraq. But he abhors admitting errors, even small ones.

Instead Bush appears to be upping the ante, expanding the war by having Iraqi Kurds and Shiites kill Sunnis. This is a prescription for civil war or genocide.

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the '80s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. He is the author of Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush and Secrecy and Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq. He is the editor of Consortium News.

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