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Archive for October, 2011

Iraq’s New Death Squad

Posted by alanmirs on October 1, 2011

Research support provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute, the Center for Investigative Reporting and New America Media.


The light is fading from the dusty Baghdad sky as Hassan Mahsan re-enacts what happened to his family last summer. We’re standing in the courtyard of his concrete-block house, his children are watching us quietly and his wife is twirling large circles of dough and slapping them against the inside walls of a roaring oven. He walks over to his three-foot-tall daughter and grabs her head like a melon. As she stands there, he gestures wildly behind her, pretending to tie up her hands, then pretending to point a rifle at her head. “They took the blindfold off me, pointed the gun at her head and cocked it, saying, ‘Either you tell us where al-Zaydawi is, or we kill your daughter.'”

“They just marched into our house and took whatever they wanted,” Hassan’s mother says, peeking out the kitchen door. “I’ve never seen anyone act like this.”

As Hassan tells it, it was a quiet night on June 10, 2008, in Sadr City, Baghdad’s poor Shiite district of more than 2 million people, when the helicopter appeared over his house and the front door exploded, nearly burning his sleeping youngest son. Before Hassan knew it, he was on the ground, hands bound and a bag over his head, with eight men pointing rifles at him, locked and loaded.

At first he couldn’t tell whether the men were Iraqis or Americans. He says he identified himself as a police sergeant, offering his ID before they took his pistol and knocked him to the ground. The men didn’t move like any Iraqi forces he’d ever seen. They looked and spoke like his countrymen, but they were wearing American-style uniforms and carrying American weapons with night-vision scopes. They accused him of being a commander in the local militia, the Mahdi Army, before they dragged him off, telling his wife he was “finished.” But before they left, they identified themselves. “We are the Special Forces. The dirty brigade,” Hassan recalls them saying.

The Iraq Special Operations Forces (ISOF) is probably the largest special forces outfit ever built by the United States, and it is free of many of the controls that most governments employ to rein in such lethal forces. The project started in the deserts of Jordan just after the Americans took Baghdad in April 2003. There, the US Army’s Special Forces, or Green Berets, trained mostly 18-year-old Iraqis with no prior military experience. The resulting brigade was a Green Beret’s dream come true: a deadly, elite, covert unit, fully fitted with American equipment, that would operate for years under US command and be unaccountable to Iraqi ministries and the normal political process.

According to Congressional records, the ISOF has grown into nine battalions, which extend to four regional “commando bases” across Iraq. By December, each will be complete with its own “intelligence infusion cell,” which will operate independently of Iraq’s other intelligence networks. The ISOF is at least 4,564 operatives strong, making it approximately the size of the US Army’s own Special Forces in Iraq. Congressional records indicate that there are plans to double the ISOF over the next “several years.”

According to retired Lt. Col. Roger Carstens, US Special Forces are “building the most powerful force in the region.” In 2008 Carstens, then a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, was an adviser to the Iraqi National Counter-Terror Force, where he helped set up the Iraqi counterterrorism laws that govern the ISOF.

“All these guys want to do is go out and kill bad guys all day,” he says, laughing. “These guys are shit hot. They are just as good as we are. We trained ’em. They are just like us. They use the same weapons. They walk like Americans.”

When the US Special Forces began the slow transfer of the ISOF to Iraqi control in April 2007, they didn’t put it under the command of the Defense Ministry or the Interior Ministry, bodies that normally control similar special forces the world over. Instead, the Americans pressured the Iraqi government to create a new minister-level office called the Counter-Terrorism Bureau. Established by a directive from Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, the CTB answers directly to him and commands the ISOF independently of the police and army. According to Maliki’s directive, the Iraqi Parliament has no influence over the ISOF and knows little about its mission. US Special Forces operatives like Carstens have largely overseen the bureau. Carstens says this independent chain of command “might be the perfect structure” for counterterrorism worldwide.

Although the force is officially controlled by the Iraqi government, popular perception in Baghdad is that the ISOF–the dirty brigade–is a covert, all-Iraqi branch of the US military. That reading isn’t far from the truth. The US Special Forces are still closely involved with every level of the ISOF, from planning and carrying out missions to deciding tactics and creating policy. According to Brig. Gen. Simeon Trombitas, commander of the Iraq National Counter-Terror Force Transition Team, part of the multinational command responsible for turning control of the ISOF over to the Iraqi government, the US Special Forces continue to “have advisers at every level of the chain of command.”

In January 2008 the US Special Forces started allowing ISOF commanders to join missions with them and the ISOF rank and file. Starting last summer–when Hassan’s family was attacked–ISOF battalions began launching missions on their own, without American advisers, in Sadr City, where political agreements forbid the Americans from entering. Accusations of human rights abuses, killings and politically motivated arrests have surfaced, including assaults on a university president and arrests of opposition politicians.

The US government has been focused on turning out “as many men in arms as possible, as quickly as possible,” says Peter Harling, senior Middle East analyst at the International Crisis Group. “There has been very little impetus to build checks and controls to prevent abuse. It’s been very much about building up capability without the oversight that could prevent some of the units [from] turning into proxies working for some politician.”

In Sadr City opposition to the Iraqi government and the US occupation is strong. There is no longer any visible militia presence, but pictures of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr still stick to the US-built concrete walls that enclose the city, and calls to prayer end with a demand for the hastened exit of “the enemy.” There, the ISOF uses a policy of collective punishment, aimed at intimidating civilians, charges Hassan al-Rubaie, Sadrist member of the parliamentary Security and Defense Committee. “They terrorize entire neighborhoods just to arrest one person they think is a terrorist,” he says. “This needs to stop.”

US Special Forces advisers have done little to respond to allegations of abuse. Civilian pleas, public protests, complaints by Iraqi Army commanders about the ISOF’s actions and calls for disbanding it by members of Parliament have not pushed the US government to take a hard look at the force they are creating. Instead, US advisers dismiss such claims as politically motivated. “The enemy is trying to discredit them,” says Carstens. “It’s not because they are doing anything dirty.”

On the same night Hassan Mahsan’s house was raided, 26-year-old Haidar al-Aibi was killed with a bullet to the forehead. His family says there was no warning. They tell me how it happened as we drink tea on the floor of their living room, furnished only with thick foam cushions and mournful depictions of the Shiite martyr Hussein. A woman weeps loudly in the corner, the sleeping child of her dead son almost obscured by the folds of her black garments.

Fathil al-Aibi says the family was awakened around midnight by a nearby explosion. His brother Haidar ran up to the roof to see what had happened and was immediately shot from a nearby rooftop. When Fathil, his brother Hussein and his father, Abbas, tried to bring Haidar downstairs, they were shot at, too. For about two hours he lay lifeless on the roof while his family panicked as red laser beams from rifle scopes danced on their windows. “We had tests the next day at the university,” Hussein says. “We didn’t think he would go like this.”

Down the road, around the same time that night, police commando Ahmed Shibli says he was also being fired on. He illuminates two bullet holes in his house with a kerosene lamp as we talk. The men who busted open his front door called themselves the dirty brigade, he says, and they were carrying American weapons, not the AK-47s or PKCs the National Police use. When they entered, they fired immediately. “It wasn’t a warning shot. They shot at me like they wanted to kill me as I was getting down on the ground. It was like we were first-degree terrorists.” They fired again, he says, fatally shooting his ailing 63-year-old father. As blood poured from the old man’s hip, Ahmed says the men held a gun to his little boy’s head and forced his wife to search the room for the police-issued weapon he had left at work.

Ahmed and his brother were hauled to the outskirts of the city, along with Hassan, where they were lined up with other men in the dark. Hassan insists on substantiating his story by showing me an official complaint issued by a local army commander named Mustafa Sabah Yunis, alleging that an “unknown armed squadron” entered the area and arrested him.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi Army was rushing in to respond to the gunfire, and according to Hussein al-Aibi, these soldiers were shot at as well. He tells me the army got Haidar off the roof and drove him to the hospital. On the way, Fathil says, the vehicle was stopped by a dirty brigade operative, who asked Iraqi Army Major Abu Rajdi where they were going. According to Fathil, Rajdi told the operative, “This is a college student who has nothing to do with anything, and you shot him recklessly.” The operative responded by hitting Rajdi and saying, “Turn around and go back, or we’ll shoot him and we’ll shoot you too.”


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On Iran, Turn Rhetoric Into Results

Posted by alanmirs on October 1, 2011

Reza Marashi

Research Director, National Iranian American Council

Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, has sent another letter to the Permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) lead negotiator, Catherine Ashton, requesting fresh talks to bridge the longstanding divide. When news of the letter broke, reactions ranged from surprise to doubt. Some noted Jalili’s moderate and forthcoming tone was different from previous communiqués, and thus warranted consultations to determine Iran’s degree of seriousness. Others dismissed the letter as yet another attempt by an inflexible regime to create and exploit fissures in the international community. What commentators from both viewpoints agree upon — knowingly or unknowingly — is striking: Iran has put out numerous, subtle but clear diplomatic feelers. While testing Iran’s seriousness is a logical desire, rendering judgment before sitting across from the Iranians at the negotiating table is less understandable. Perhaps more importantly, it raises key questions about America’s own readiness.

Since Iran torpedoed talks in Istanbul, it has twice offered to resume negotiations with the P5+1. Most recently, western diplomats said that Iran’s “charm offensive”would be reviewed to assess its credibility versus its potential as a ploy to influence forthcoming IAEA reporting. If that’s a possibility now, it wasn’t months ago when Iran’s initial offer to revive talks was dismissed as “not serious.” Iran was said to be stalling, buying time, and trying to derail sanctions. Again, that may be true, but how can foreign governments determine Tehran’s strategic intent thousands of miles away from the negotiating table, where motivations are typically assessed? If Iran was offering talks in an effort to avoid new punitive measures, wasn’t that the point? To “bring Iran back to the table” and sharpen its choices so that it “negotiates in good faith”?

A prescient observer recently told me that Iran may be offering talks now because it knows that American domestic political realities severely limits the Obama administration’s ability to negotiate. There is merit to this argument. A hostile congress — together with key allies that oppose diplomacy — drives up the political costs for Obama. As political space for diplomacy shrinks, so does his administration’s political will. But don’t take my word for it — the aforementioned observer is a senior-level U.S. official that works the Iran file, and my former colleague at the State Department.

The paradox personified by this observation is telling. Iran’s domestic politics are often described as fractious, thereby rendering Iranian decision-makers unable to take “yes” for an answer. Again, that may be the case — as it was in 2009, when Iran couldn’t follow through on its initial acceptance of the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) confidence-building measure. But there is a degree of mirror imaging going on that is not negligible. When the U.S. says that Iran’s system is paralyzed and can’t respond, we should also look at ourselves. Turkey and Brazil sought to revive the TRR deal — with Obama’s blessing — and got Tehran to sign on the dotted line, but it was the Obama administration that couldn’t take “yes” for an answer.

Patience and perseverance are needed in any negotiation. This is not unique to the U.S. or Iran. Indeed, Iran won’t play fair — it can be expected to leverage loopholes and missteps throughout the negotiation process. Is that unyielding ideology and a lack of seriousness? Or is that driving a hard bargain?

If Iran is making offers to negotiate with the P5+1 — America’s preferred mechanism — why not test its seriousness? Domestic political constraints in Tehran and Washington are always going to be an obstacle. There will never be a good time to start negotiations, so if either side waits for the “right” time, it will never come. There is a history of Iran being politically toxic in America. It has, after all, brought down one presidency and nearly did the same to another. Nevertheless, that is what leadership is all about. President Obama spoke of the need for diplomacy with Iran during his 2008 campaign, proceeded after he entered office, and took flak for it the entire time. Moving forward, perhaps Obama needs to take a page from his own playbook.

Dismissing even the faintest effort to revive talks is now the norm — as it has been for much of the past 32 years. Changing this unproductive relationship is harder to do, and we don’t have much experience. Consider this: After negotiations collapsed in 2009, and the U.S. increased its push for UN sanctions, how many times did we speak to the Russians and Chinese? How many times did we speak to the British, French, Germans and other Security Council members? How many times did Secretary Clinton and President Obama interact directly with their foreign counterparts? Compare all of that to the number of times American officials spoke to their Iranian counterparts, who were the subject of the entire process: zero. This suggests a certain imbalance in the focus of our diplomacy.

Winston Churchill once said that the thing he liked most about America was that “they always did the right thing in the end … they just liked to exhaust all the alternatives first.” The latter describes much of our historical experience in Iran. Certainly, the Iranians suffer from the same flaws — and more. While a true agreement only can come about when both sides shed their old habits, as a super-power, the U.S. cannot give Tehran veto power over America’s Iran policy. For President Obama to peacefully defuse the Iran crisis, he must actively seek to do the right thing in the end — turn his compelling vision into practical policy, and rhetoric into results.

Reza Marashi is director of research at the National Iranian American
Council and a former Iran desk officer at the U.S. State Department.

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Don’t Dismiss Ahmadinejad’s UN Speech

Posted by alanmirs on October 1, 2011

Shirin Sadeghi

Host, New America Now; former producer, the BBC and Al Jazeera

He is religious — dogmatically so. He is controversial — discussing the innocent loss of life from the Holocaust and the September 11th attacks in ways that are deeply hurtful to many people. He also remains mum on the situation in his own country. But Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is audacious and a voice that should be paid attention to because it has a great deal of influence.

Amidst the soporific array of diplomatic “courtesy” that rains upon the UN General Assembly’s annual speeches, his is a speech apart.

Only from him will you hear a reference to historical global colonialism. Only from him will you hear that the descendants of slaves in the United States should be given reparations. Or that the atomic bomb was a travesty of humanity and a war crime that remains unaddressed and unresolved.

It is easy for mainstream media to dismiss Ahmadinejad — his over-the-top references to the Hidden Imam of Shiite Islam and persistent imposition of himself as an authority on the Holocaust and 9/11 make his speech controversial and hurtful to many, especially those who lost loved ones in these terrible acts. But an objective media – since that is what the mainstream media purports to be – is not in a position to decide what its public should know.

It’s like taking a State of the Union speech by a President Bush or Obama and dismissing the important discussions about jobs, economy and education by focusing headlines and news coverage on the outrageous claims of foreign policy victories which most Americans by now know to be false.

Ahmadinejad started off by rattling statistics that the United Nations prides itself on changing:
“Approximately 3 billion people of the world live on less than 2.5 dollars a day, over 200 million live without even one sufficient meal on a daily basis. More than twenty thousand innocent and destitute children die every day in the world due to poverty.”

Then he spoke of American and European slavery of Africans:
“Who abducted forcefully tens of millions of people from their homes in Africa and other regions of the world during the dark period of slavery, making them a victim of their materialistic greed in the U.S. and Europe.”

He spoke of the deadliest wars of the 20th century:
“Who triggered the first and second world wars that left 70 millions killed?”

He addressed a U.S. and European foreign policy legacy that still haunts most of the world to this day:
“Who imposed and supported for decades military dictatorships in Asian, African and Latin American nations?”

He even questioned the U.S. government’s democratic values by asking “why should it not have been allowed to bring [Osama bin Laden] to trial?”

And then he got into the nitty gritty, talking about the imbalanced military expenses of the United States which — even at a time of massive joblessness, foreclosures and depression — still exceeds that of all other countries in the world combined. He mentioned the fact that long before Saddam Hussein was an enemy, he was an ally of the United States and some European powers who was “provoked and encouraged to invade” Iran and use chemical weapons against Iran’s population — most of whom were in the Kurdish region of Iran. And then he reminded all of the other governments of the United Nations that “the majority of nations and governments in the world have had no role in the creation of the current global crisis.”

To top it off he hit at the heart of the institution at which he was speaking when he mentioned the hypocrisy of a United Nations that is not united and not democratic because a handful of nations “continue to control the Security Council”.

But you will hear and read very little of any of the substance of Ahmadinejad’s speech. The headlines will focus on his comments about the “mysterious” September 11th attacks — as he referred to them — and the usual delegates who walked out while he was speaking. There will be no reference to the delegates seen in the video coverage of the event who were enthusiastically clapping.

He is not, as you might be led to believe by the mainstream media, a pariah.

He is a controversial figure who refuses to address the serious issues in his own country but even there he is far from alone — not one UN speaker troubles him or herself to discuss the serious inherent rights issues in their country, the class struggles, the poverty, the inequality and everything else that the government he or she leads is so intrinsically a part of.

Ahmadinejad is a religious fanatic and leader of a country where people are regularly tortured and killed in political prisons, corruption is widespread, and the wealth disparity is enormous. He has angered and hurt many people with his controversial statements. And he also spoke some truth at the UN General Assembly about war and the distribution of wealth and power.

It is undemocratic and trite to dismiss the value of those words, even if he doesn’t practice what he preaches.

It is a sad state of world affairs when there is only one person who takes the UN and its handful of leaders to task when given the opportunity. It is an even sadder state of affairs that one man’s words will change nothing for the powerless, poor and devastated majority of this world who suffer from those leaders’ sins.

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