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Death Squads in Iraq & The Likelihood of Civil War

Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release March 27, 2006

Rise of Death Squads in Iraq Increase Likelihood of Civil War

Interview with Robert Dreyfuss, journalist and author, conducted by Scott Harris

Listen in RealAudio:

On the third anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, President Bush traveled the country and held a press conference to defend his policy and repeat an optimistic forecast about progress being made in the war. But there are numerous facts on the ground that directly contradict the president's rosy assertions. Iraq's former U.S.-installed prime minister Ayad Allawi said of the recent intensification of sectarian violence, "We are losing an average 50 to 60 people a day throughout the country, if not more. If this is not civil war," he said, "then God knows what civil war is."

Timed to coincide with the third anniversary of the war, the Pentagon's "Operation Swarmer," involving more than 1,500 U.S. and Iraqi troops and 50 aircraft was billed as the largest military campaign since the start of the conflict. But reporters on the ground say that the operation, which encountered few, if any insurgents, was likely little more than a media show. Meanwhile, the House approved an amendment to an emergency-spending bill by Rep. Barbara Lee Democrat of California that would prohibit the use of funds to establish permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq.

Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with journalist Robert Dreyfuss, author of the book, "Devil's Game: How The United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam." He assesses the increasing sectarian violence and death squad activity in Iraq, as the U.S. occupation enters its fourth year.

ROBERT DREYFUSS: Every year since the invasion, things have gotten progressively worse in Iraq, not better. I think it's safe to say that Iraq is now in the early phases of civil war. And I calculate the start of that civil war from the time of last summer or last fall, when the number of people killed by death squads, execution, kidnappings and so forth mostly by pro-government militias exceeded the number of people killed by the insurgency. In other words, more people are now being killed in this sectarian warfare through torture-murders and executions than the resistance is killing.

So, while the United States is continuing to fight the so-called insurgency, the latest being this massive air offensive that we launched in the area around Samarra north of Baghdad, Iraq itself is descending into hell. It's descending into a completely insecure, violence-filled chaos in which there's no security for the people of Iraq. There's no economic reconstruction going on, and each community is arming itself to the teeth in preparation for what looks like the disintegration of the country. So, it's hard to overstate how bad things are in Iraq, but in fact, they could continue to get significantly worse.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Robert Dreyfuss, I wanted to ask you a bit about the death squad activity. I don't know what you have in terms of information on the U.S. connection to these death squads, but can you give us any details as to what is happening there on the ground?

ROBERT DREYFUSS: Well, I've been writing about this for a couple of years now. I would say that at the beginning, back when we had the interim government in place and we were creating the beginnings of an Iraqi security force, the CIA and the Pentagon did help to create these so called "Wolf Brigades" and other units within the Interior Ministry -- kind of police commando units that began on a small scale to engage in death squad-type activity. And I think we turned a blind eye to it because we were so obsessed with combating the insurgency.

I have to say that now I think it's gotten completely out of hand. The United States isn't behind it anymore, because we're really not behind much in Iraq. The Shiite religious parties that control the government and are not especially friendly to the United States have chosen to vastly expand this death squad activity on their own initiative, probably also with the help of Iran and the Iranian intelligence services.

And that activity has actually been, I think, shocking to the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad ,and to some of the military who've tried to clamp down on some of its worst abuses. You'll remember last fall, the military uncovered a torture prison where several hundred -- mostly Sunnis -- had been held illegally and were being tortured , and in fact, tortured to death in some cases.

The U.S. military has also on at least one or two occasions arrested red-handed some of these death squad folks and locked them up. But the situation has gotten so far out of control now, with so many different players in the game, with so many different militias and paramilitary forces operating throughout the country that Baghdad is starting to resemble Beirut during the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s and 1980s. I think it's far beyond the point where it can be said to be under any kind of American control.

BETWEEN THE LINES: As we get close r to the important U.S. November midterm Congressional elections , what do you think the Bush administration's game plan is in terms of withdrawing American troops -- even if it's symbolic , or a way to stem their losses in the election?

ROBERT DREYFUSS: I don't think they have a game plan; I think they're completely adrift. I mean their last hope was the December election s when Iraq went to the polls to elect what was supposed to be a permanent government. The Parliament has only met for, I think, half an hour in that entire three-and-a-half months. They don't have a prime minister; they don't have a Cabinet; they don't have anything like a government.

So the whole intention of the Bush administration was to allow that December election to create some veneer of stability so that we could start pulling enough troops out to make it look good. Now, however, they're talking about sending additional forces back in, which means that come the U.S. election in November, I think the glaring failure of Iraq is going to be smack dab in the middle of the television sets for everybody to see.

So, they don't have any game plan. I think they're hoping that by some miracle that Iraq will somehow stabilize itself. But with each passing day, that looks less and less likely.

Read Dreyfuss' articles online at

Related links:


Scott Harris is executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 40 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending March 31, 2006. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Scott Harris and Anna Manzo.

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