“This is War”: How the CIA Justifies Torture

By Frank Smyth on December 10, 2014

Editor’s Note: This piece by Frank Smyth on the use of “negative incentive” methods in Central America was originally published in our August 1987 issue, under the title “El Salvador’s Forgotten War.” From Frank:

The Senate Intelligence Committee report released this week concluded that the CIA engaged in the torture of terrorist suspects in the years following 9/11 without obtaining any significant intelligence information, contrary to claims by former U.S. intelligence and Bush administration officials. The panel concluded that the CIA techniques included waterboarding or nearly drowning suspects, prolonged sleep deprivation, and other techniques including making suspects wear diapers, putting insects in their cells, and subjecting detainees to mock burials.

The revelations have cast the United States in a harsh light 25 years after the end of the Cold War. But such techniques have been employed by U.S. intelligence agencies, in fact, going back even longer. In the 1980s, during the Reagan administration’s effort to repel Marxist guerrilla movements in El Salvador and Guatemala, and to ultimately help oust a leftist revolutionary government in Nicaragua, U.S. intelligence agencies agencies used similar tactics then against Marxist guerrilla suspects that they used two decades later against Islamist terrorist suspects.

U.S. intelligence officers coined such techniques as applying a “negative incentive,” using an Orwellian euphemism for torture that echoes that kind of double-speak like “enhanced interrogation techniques” employed by U.S. officials in the 2000s.

Below is my 1987 story in The Progressive about the use of torture by U.S. intelligence agencies in Central America. It has a personal resonance for me. I interviewed many torture victims in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s. In 1991, I found myself in an Iraqi prison run by intelligence agents from the regime led by President Saddam Hussein, and listened night after night as they tortured Iraqis suspected of having tried to overthrow his regime.

Torture knows no political bounds. No matter who the abuser is, it is employed more often for revenge and deterrence than to gather information. It is abhorrent in all forms. It must be called by its proper name. And it must be resisted always. Torture by U.S. officials has done much harm to many human beings. It has done irreparable harm to us.”

The U.S. Congress, like the American mass media, seem notoriously in­ capable of focusing on more than one international troublespot at a time. A few years ago, all eyes were on El Salvador, its infamous Death Squads, and the U.S. Government’s role in sustaining a brutally repressive regime. Today the spotlight is on Nicaragua and El Salvador is all but forgotten, despite a resurgence of political violence and new evidence of U.S. com­ plicity in assaults on human rights.

“The democratic revolution has just begun,” President Jose Napoleon Duarte told the Salvadoran people in his third an­nual state-of-the-union address on June 1. But one day earlier, labor leader Julio Portillo was shot at an anti-government dem­onstration near San Salvador. Three days before that, the offices of the Co-Madres (Committee of Mothers and Relatives of Political Prisoners Disappeared) were de­molished by a bomb. And earlier in May, the tortured, headless body of peasant leader Antonio Hernandez Martinez was found in San Miguel.

Hernandez, Portillo, and the Co-Madres were active participants in a labor-led op­position coalition that has been challeng­ing the Salvadoran government to pursue genuine reforms and negotiate an end to years of insurgent warfare. Instead, the Duarte government has chosen to dismiss the opposition as a subversive communist front.

The murdered Hernandez Martinez was last seen being led off by government sol­diers on April 16. He had been on his way to arrange for a loan to his peasant co­ operative.

Julio Portillo, who heads a high-school teachers’ union, was leading a peaceful anti-government protest outside Mariona prison when he was struck by one of the shots directed at the protesters from the direction of the Salvadoran army’s First Infantry Brigade.

Duarte ignored these developments when he traveled in a heavily armored eighty-car convoy to deliver his state-of-the-union address in the small northern town of Sensuntepeque. He unveiled fifty- four new proposals to rebuild El Salvador and promised to open a dialogue with left­ist guerrillas, provided they first laid down their arms.

The Salvadoran government maintains that the Farabundo Marti National Lib­eration Front (FMLN) is prolonging the conflict. But classified CIA documents re­veal that it is Duarte’s U.S.-backed government that has no interest in ending the civil war. In fact, these documents—pre­pared by the Office of African and Latin American Analysis in coordination with the CIA’s Directorate of Operations—dis­miss Duarte’s previous call for peace, is­ sued last year, as a meaningless “public-relations gesture.” Salvadoran govern­ment officials “see little to be gained in a dialogue with the rebels while the Salva­doran military has the initiative in the war,” says a CIA report dated September 2, 1986.

The Salvadoran military say they can win the war, and U.S. authorities believe the government has taken the upper hand. “Although they have not been decisively beaten,” the September CIA report states, “the guerrillas, in our view, no longer have the capacity to launch and sustain major offensives.”

Such assessments have often been made in the course of the eight-year-old conflict, and they have always turned out to be un­founded. Early this spring, at a time when the insurgents were believed to be in de­cline, the FMLN mounted a surprise at­tack on an army garrison at El Paraiso, killing sixty-nine government soldiers and one U.S. Army Special Forces adviser.

The FMLN has expanded its opera­tions to all fourteen provinces of El Sal­vador, increasing the likelihood that the struggle may continue for many years. The conflict has already claimed some 60,000 lives—more than 1 percent of the Salva­doran population.

Duarte, who has neither the will nor the power to oversee an end to the war, did offer two symbolic concessions in his June 1 speech: He said that he would allow sev­enty-eight wounded rebels to leave the country for medical treatment and that he might grant amnesty to 400 political pris­oners. At the same time, however, he re­jected out of hand a bold new FMLN peace initiative.

Three days before Duarte’s speech at Sensuntepeque, the FMLN had proposed to enter into direct negotiations with the government on July 15. Their offer in­cluded pledges to stop using land mines and to suspend their campaign of eco­nomic sabotage in exchange for an end to aerial bombing by the government and a halt of summary executions by both sides.

Guerrilla-planted mines cause up to 70 percent of government casualties and are, along with the economic-sabotage cam­paign, the insurgents’ most effective weap­ons. Government bombing missions are targeted on areas of high rebel activity, but most casualties are inflicted on civilians rather than FMLN fighters. The steps pro­posed by the FMLN would, therefore, go a long way toward reducing civilian cas­ualties.

But the Salvadoran government, backed by the United States, is interested only in a military solution. The Reagan Admin­istration has tried to make El Salvador a showcase for containment of communism in the Hemisphere, and has undertaken highly publicized steps to “professional­ize” the Salvadoran military.

In 1981, when unarmed civilians were being murdered at the rate of thirty-five a day, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff sent Brigadier General Fred Woerner to con­duct a survey of the Salvadoran armed forces. His report, which called for the ex­pansion, equipping, training, and modern­ization of the Salvadoran military, set the tone for Reagan Administration policy toward El Salvador.

However, State Department sources confirm there was considerable friction within the Administration over its indif­ference to human-rights considerations. Under mounting pressure from church and human-rights groups, the Administration began in 1983 to express concern over the operations of the Salvadoran Death Squads.

“The idea,” says a former State Department official, “was to play by their rules”—”their” meaning such human-rights organizations as Amnesty International and Americas Watch, which had long crit­icized U.S. policy. Congress, mindful of El Salvador’s blatant disregard for human rights, had blocked or reduced Adminis­tration requests for an escalation of mili­tary aid. However, the new training effort undertaken by the U.S. Government was directed less at restoring human rights than at developing more sophisticated forms of interrogation.

The first group of 470 Salvadoran of­ficer cadets received training in a three-month course at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1982. Another 600 arrived in 1983, fol­lowed by even more in 1984. Additional units, particularly elite battalions, were trained at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and smaller units received special instruction at the U.S. Southern Command in Pan­ama. In 1985, 250 Salvadoran military personnel were sent to the Pentagon’s Re­gional Training Center in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Last year, training shifted to a new center in La Union, El Salvador.

A Defense Department spokesman, Marine Captain Jay C. Farrar, said it is “highly doubtful” that these courses of­fered instruction in abusive interrogation techniques. But according to U.S. Army Special Forces advisers formerly stationed in the region, small courses for selected Salvadoran soldiers regularly included training in “negative-incentive” methods.

“Torture in El Salvador,” Americas Watch reported last year, “consists in­creasingly of physical abuse that does not leave physical marks, such as the capucha (hood to suffocate) and immersion in filthy water. . . . The most prevalent forms of abuse of detainees at present are sleep dep­rivation, food deprivation, and threats against family members. These practices, like the capucha and immersion, leave no physical marks.” State Department sources say abuse of this kind now occurs in about 20 percent of all prisoner interrogations.

A Pentagon intelligence officer who spoke on condition that his name not be published said such techniques “are ex­actly the kind of thing that the Special Forces are teaching in El Salvador.” He added that methods inappropriate for use by the police in the United States can be justified in El Salvador because “this is a war and a different situation.”

Even as the use of “negative-incentive” techniques has increased, blatant physical abuse continues. Few armed guerrillas have ever been taken prisoner, and it is gener­ally assumed that they are executed when captured in the field. According to former U.S. advisers, Salvadoran officers com­plain that they don’t have time for lengthy interrogations on patrol.

Military intelligence documents sent from El Salvador to Washington give an indication of how interrogations are con­ducted in the field. In mid-1985, three combatants of the FAL—a guerrilla group led by the Salvadoran Communist Party—were captured coming off the Guazapa Volcano near the capital. The interroga­tors were able to learn the pseudonyms of about thirty members of that guerrilla unit, their titles and functions, and the pseu­donyms of the three clandestine operatives who had recruited the prisoners.

The documents explain, in euphemistic terms, the interrogation of one combatant: “In the beginning he didn’t say much, due to his companeros who had told him that the FAL would beat or kill him [if he talked]. But once he saw that this was false, he opened up a little more.” The prisoner, it seems clear, was persuaded that his cap­tors would inflict greater harm if he didn’t talk than his comrades would if he did.

One goal of Reagan Administration policy is to avoid the kind of wholesale slaughter that used to lead to questions in Congress and public protests. But if the Duarte government’s current policy of selective repression were to fail to keep the domestic opposition un­der control, the military might resort to more obvious methods. Indeed, five un­armed alleged “FMLN collaborators” were murdered by the army’s Arce Battalion on May 22, their bodies thrown into a well.

CIA analysts fear the FMLN is trying to provoke violence between civilians and security forces, and have expressed con­cern that in the future the military may exercise less restraint: “Increasing violence will fuel the insurgency by alienating Duarte’s primary constituencies in the lower middle classes and the urban poor, or by provoking a coup and military crack­down.”

The extreme Right continues to play an active role in Salvadoran politics. Ultra-conservative parties, backed by the coun­try’s intransigent private sector, control El Salvador’s supreme court. For four months earlier this year, they boycotted the legis­lative assembly, which is dominated by Duarte’s Christian Democrats. A new rightist organization, the Movement for National Action, has entered the fray, call­ing for Duarte’s resignation and berating the military for failing to crush the insur­gents.

In the past, such rhetoric has preceded the unleashing of new Death Squad offen­sives. In fact, one of El Salvador’s notor­ious right-wing Death Squads resurfaced on June 16. The Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez Brigade accused fourteen teach­ers and students at the National Univer­sity of having guerrilla links, and gave them forty-eight hours to leave the country.

The ultraconservatives enjoy backing within the armed forces, especially among U.S.-trained oficiales de la guerra (war of­ ficers), including Colonel Sigfrido Ochoa, former commander of the Fourth Infantry Brigade in Chalatenango, and Colonel Mauricio Staben of the Arce Battalion. For these officers, there is no distinction be­tween the insurgents and the domestic po­litical opposition.

That may explain why opposition po­litical figures have come under violent po­litical attack in recent months, and why Duarte’s effectiveness has been markedly reduced. In the past few months, the mil­itary has grown increasingly independent in El Salvador, and another round of po­litical violence may be in the offing. •

Frank Smyth, a freelance writer in Wash­ington, D.C., has reported from El Salva­dor.

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Who Are the Progressives in Iraq?: The Left, the Right, and the Islamists

Original story found here.

One event in Baghdad went unreported this month, not only by the mainstream media but also by the “alternative” press, even though it implies that U.S. control over Iraq’s political future may already be waning. In August, the White House supported the establishment of an Iraqi National Council comprising 100 Iraqis from various tribal, ethnic, and religious groups in an effort to influence the composition of an electoral oversight body. Yet this month, two large political parties, each of which has long been viewed with suspicion by Washington, came out ahead in the voting.

Many criticize the legitimacy of the process by which the Bush administration is hoping to steer Iraq toward national elections next January. The indirect elections took place under war conditions, and the Associated Press reported that mortars exploded near the convention site in Baghdad where delegates gathered. Iraqi delegates also expanded the number of vice-chairs in the national council from two to four. Had they not done so, the results might have been even more troubling for the White House.

In the September balloting, the delegate from the Supreme Assembly for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Jawad al-Maliki, came in first with 56 votes. This is a Shi’ite group that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld lambasted as a tool of Iran during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Another Iraqi even less attractive to Washington, the Secretary General of the Iraqi Communist Party (, Hamid Majid Moussa, came in second with 55 votes. Meanwhile, Rasim al-Awadi, the delegate from the Iraqi National Accord — the group once backed by the CIA and whose leader, Iyad Allawi, who was supported by the Bush administration to become the Iraqi prime minister — came in third with 53 votes. Nasir A`if al-Ani — the delegate from the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni group, sympathetic to the Ba’athist-based, anti-American resistance operating both west and north of Baghdad — came in fourth with 48 votes.

By any count, getting only one ally elected out of four seats on this potentially all-important electoral oversight body does not bode well for the Bush administration. After the Iraqi National Council was formed, but before it voted, White House spokesman Scott McClellan, while at President Bush’s family ranch in Crawford, Texas, declared: “The selection of the council is a sign that the Iraqi people will not allow terrorist elements to stand in the way of their democratic future.”

But what if elections in Iraq early next year lead to a government unlike anything ever expected by the Bush administration? The respected Arabist from the University of Michigan, Juan Cole, was among the first to report the Iraqi National Council election results on his blog, “So,” he quipped, “this list is further evidence that the U.S. invaded Iraq to install in power a coalition of Communists, Islamists and ex-Ba’athist nationalists. If you had said such a thing 3 years ago you would have been laughed at.”

My Enemy’s Friends

Many American leftists seem to know little about their Iraqi counterparts, since understanding the role of the Iraqi left requires a nuanced approach. Unfortunately the knee-jerk, anti-imperialist analysis of groups like International A.N.S.W.E.R. has wormed its way into several progressive outlets. Dispatches and columns in The Nation as well as reports and commentary on the independently syndicated radio program “Democracy Now” have all but ignored the role of Iraqi progressives while highlighting, if not championing, the various factions of the Iraqi-based resistance against the U.S.-led occupation without bothering to ask who these groups are and what they represent for Iraqis.

By now several things about the Iraq War seem clear. The U.S.-led invasion was the most dangerous and reckless step taken by the United States since the Vietnam War, and America is already paying dearly and is sure to pay an even steeper price in the future for this imprudent action. More than 1,000 American soldiers have died in little more than a year in a campaign that has undermined U.S. security more profoundly than even candidate John Kerry has managed to articulate. Never has the United States (according to international public opinion polls) been so resented, if not loathed, by so many people around the world. And this is exactly the kind of environment in which al-Qaida terrorists — who do represent a real and ongoing threat to the United States and others — thrive.

U.S. activists who demonstrated against the Iraq War made an invaluable contribution by letting the rest of the world know that millions of Americans opposed the U.S.-led invasion. But the enemy of one’s enemy is not necessarily one’s friend. To think otherwise is to embrace an Orwellian logic that makes anti-war Americans appear not only uninformed but also as cynical as the pro-war protagonists whom they oppose. The irony of the Iraq War is that the Bush administration made a unilateral decision to invade a nation in order to overthrow a leader who ranked among the most despised despots in the world but, in so doing, managed to turn countless people in many nations against the United States.

Who Hated Saddam?

Saddam Hussein’s detractors have always included none other than Osama bin Laden, who long derided the Iraqi leader as either an “infidel” or a “false Muslim” nearly every time he has ever mentioned his name in any interview or recorded statement. The most radical of Muslims, in fact, know all too well that no modern Arab government tortured and murdered as many Muslims as did Saddam’s Ba’athist regime. No Middle Eastern leader, either, has tortured and murdered as many communists as Saddam did during the decades of his regime.

The Arab Nationalist Renaissance [or] Ba’athist Party has been both anti-communist and anti-Islamic and unabashedly championed ethnic nationalism. In Iraq, the Ba’ath Party under Saddam Hussein instituted a minority-based government. Ethnic Arabs of the mainstream Sunni Muslim faith have long dominated the Ba’ath Party, even though Sunni Arabs today constitute at most 17{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} of the Iraqi population, just a bit above the percentage of whites in South Africa.

Ethnic Arabs of the Shi’ite Muslim sect, meanwhile, are nearly as numerous in Iraq as blacks are in South Africa. Anyone interested in empowering the poor should also know that Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslims have long been the most indigent of Iraqis and suffered the most during the U.S.-backed UN sanctions. Shi’ite males were often little more than cannon fodder for Saddam’s various military adventures. Like the Shi’ites, Iraq’s Kurds, about 20{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} of the population, never enjoyed more than token representation under Saddam.

Resistance to Saddam’s rule took many forms from 1979 to 2003, with anti-Saddam groups organized largely along Shi’ite Islamic, Kurdish nationalist, or Communist Party lines. Each of these groups lost tens of thousands of adherents to brutal counterinsurgency sweeps conducted by the Ba’athist government. Some American leftists apologized for Saddam’s government, saying it was no worse than many others in the world. But Saddam Hussein’s behavior deserves a category for itself, employing vicious repression and often including the torture and rape of family members of suspected dissidents. Few rulers anywhere in the world were so brutal, with one exception of the CIA-backed government in Guatemala during the l980s. (Both that government and Saddam’s, it is worth noting, were clandestinely aided by the United States during the Reagan administration.)

In more recent years, U.S. leftists were not the only ones who ignored the various Iraqi groups that had long resisted Saddam’s tyranny. The U.S. right, led most recently by the neoconservatives of the Bush administration, also ignored these resistance groups when they sought Iraqi allies during the buildup to the 2003 U.S. invasion. Instead of reaching out to broad-based, anti-Saddam groups like either the Shiite Muslim opposition or the secular leftist resistance, both of which still had either armed or clandestine cadres inside Iraq as late as 2003, the Bush administration allied itself instead with a group of ex-monarchists led by the now-discredited Ahmed Chalabi. A solid member of the old ruling class, Chalabi’s father was the wealthiest man in Baghdad in 1958, when Iraq’s short-lived, British-imposed monarchy was overthrown. The Ba’athists, eventually led by Saddam, came out on top in the ensuing power struggle, but both the Shi’ite majority and Iraq’s second-largest population group, the Kurds, remained excluded from wealth as well as power.

The Resistance Versus the Revolutionaries

There are several factions fighting U.S.-led forces inside Iraq today, and the heavy-handedness of the U.S. occupation has spurred many individual Iraqi nationalists to join them. American abuses have included breaking into homes, with male troops often manhandling women and terrifying children, firing into populated areas, causing many civilian casualties, and humiliating–as well as torturing–Iraqis inside Abu Ghraib prison.

Yet, all of the organized groups among the Iraqi resistance are reactionary forces of one kind or another. The resistance around and between the cities of Falluja, Tikrit, and Baghdad in the so-called “Sunni triangle” is led by ex-Ba’athists who aspire to return the old minority-based dictatorship to power. As Juan Cole points out, Nasir A`if al-Ani, the Sunni delegate to the Iraqi National Council from the Iraqi Islamic Party, does not even recognize the Shi’a people as a majority in Iraq (Not even the most recalcitrant Afrikaners in apartheid South Africa pretended that blacks were a minority).

Others like The Nation‘s Naomi Klein, meanwhile, seem to have naively fallen for the al-Mahdi militia that recently fought U.S. Marines in Najaf. The al-Mahdi militia is a loosely organized Shi’ite opposition group led by Muqtada al-Sadr. He is a young man who inherited his role after his father and two brothers were murdered by Saddam. Lacking either the maturity or training of a senior cleric, al-Sadr has tried to lure supporters from more-respected Shiite clerics by promoting militant enforcement of the most fundamental tenets of Shiite Islam, including the explicit repression of gays and women.

The third sizable element of resistance inside Iraq is composed of foreign Islamist members of al-Qaida, who, like both the Saudi royal family and Osama bin Laden, practice an even more extreme version of Islam, Wahaabism. This group’s recent victims may include two kidnapped Italian women who work for the Italian group A Bridge to Baghdad, which, like U.S. anti-war groups working in Iraq, is explicitly opposed to the U.S. occupation. The American anti-war group, Iraq Occupation Watch, seems to believe that members of the Iraqi resistance may be holding them, pointing out on its website that the abductors should recognize that the Italian women are anti-war activists. On the other hand, Democracy Now’s Jeremy Scahill and The Nation‘s Naomi Klein have written in The Guardian that a Western intelligence-backed group may be behind the abductions, suggesting that the CIA or others seized the two women to try to discredit the Iraqi opposition.

The Iraqis favored by the Bush administration may be secular, but they are hardly more admirable people. Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is an ex-Ba’athist who left the Ba’ath Party in the mid-1970s. Paul McGeough of the Sydney Morning Herald, reported that Allawi personally executed (with a handgun) six Iraqis in a Baghdad police station right before he became prime minister, though no proof of this crime has yet been forthcoming. Prime Minister Allawi’s democracy credentials are also not impressive. He has already banned the Qatar-based satellite TV network, Al-Jazeera, and has imposed certain forms of martial law.

Neither the resistance groups cheered on by many on the American left nor the governing parties championed by the American right seem to reflect the views and aspirations of most Iraqi people, who seem to be hoping for the rise of groups independent of both Saddam’s reign and the increasingly dictatorial Allawi government. Possibilities include moderate Shiite groups and secular leftist ones, through whose leadership most Iraqis hope to find a way to empower themselves for the first time in their history.

Unfortunately, mainstream Iraqis seem to have been all but forgotten by both the American left and right. Iraqis must be valued for who they are, not as pawns in some partisan political agenda. Such chauvinism might be expected of “America-first” right-wingers, but such a position is hardly defensible for any conscientious progressive. It’s no wonder instead of seeing Iraq’s highly complex and, indeed, contradictory political reality, so many American leftists have chosen instead to cling to the comfort that comes from simple sloganeering.

–This article, after its first posting on, has been translated into Spanish, Arabic, Italian, and Norwegian. Both links and text may be found on by clicking on Iraq. The Arabic version was translated by it may be found by clicking:

Hussein Opens His Prison Doors to Trouble

Original story found here.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein released thousands of political and other prisoners from jails across his country last Sunday, including from the notorious Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad. The broad amnesty was no doubt welcomed by many Iraqi families whose loved ones disappeared years, if not decades, ago because of their real or suspected opposition to his regime. Hussein’s spokesmen said he freed the prisoners in gratitude, after Iraqis allegedly voted unanimously to reaffirm their support for his rule. But the act of amnesty only angered some families, whose relatives remain missing.

Many regimes around the world have brutalized their own citizens, but few have tortured and killed as many people as Hussein’s has. Eleven years ago a French photographer, Alain Buu, and myself, then a stringer for CBS News radio, spent two weeks in Abu Ghraib after we were captured traveling with Iraqi rebels during anti-Hussein uprisings following the Persian Gulf War. In prison, we saw Hussein’s guards select individual Iraqi captives, ranging from men to even one frail boy, to torture for fun at night, while intelligence operatives painfully interrogated the same prisoners during the day. Hussein’s amnesty seems to show that he is concerned about his political image as the Bush administration marches toward war. The Iraqi leader may be trying to avoid a military contest that even he, this time, knows he cannot win, and he is showing his alleged compassion to Iraqis and others whom he finally sees he could use on his side.

Ironically, he now has something in common with President George W. Bush. Each leader has recently betrayed his own instincts to try to broaden his own respective political coalition: While Bush previously announced his goal to change the Iraqi regime unilaterally if necessary, lately the administration has been negotiating with France and Russia in the UN Security Council over the terms for UN arms inspectors to return to Iraq. Not unlike Hussein, the Bush administration seems to be learning the hard way that more allies are better than one or none.

There is no need for Bush to act alone. Hussein is more widely despised than almost any other world leader, with enemies spread not only around the globe but within Iraq as well. His Iraqi enemies go far beyond the relatively few Iraqis associated with the U.S.-backed opposition based in London. The U.S. Defense Department is training 500 Iraqis recommended by the Iraqi National Congress, led by ex-monarchists.

Hussein’s opponents cut across Iraqi politics, ethnicity and religion. Human rights abuses by Hussein’s regime against his people have been widely documented, and even the Iraqi Communist Party’s Web site includes many reports about torture and mass executions at Abu Ghraib. Emptying his largest gulags may only backfire; Shia women in particular have become emboldened to demand information about their disappeared sons.

One Hussein detractor outside Iraq includes none other than Osama Bin Laden. Whether or not any ties between Bin Laden’s Al-Qaida organization and Hussein’s regime are ever firmly established, these two anti-American leaders are indeed enemies. In the summer before Sept. 11, bin Laden broadcast his contempt for Hussein through Al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite television network, in the video that Al-Qaida released last year. Bin Laden calls Hussein “a false Muslim,” who only worships himself and his ruling Ba’ath party. It wasn’t until the eve of the Gulf War when Hussein for the first time raised an Islamic banner, adding the words “God is Great” — written in his own handwriting — to the Iraqi tricolor. According to Bin Laden, the Iraqi leader is a cynic, not a fundamentalist.

As Bush talks about regime change in Iraq, the administration and its supporters should keep in mind that Iraqis have heard it all before. In 1991, during the Gulf crisis, then-President George H.W. Bush urged “the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands to force Saddam … to step aside.” Millions of Shias in the south and Kurds in the north did just that, joining thousands of defecting regular Iraqi troops and officers against his regime. At different times, Iraqi rebels controlled 14 out of 17 Iraqi cities, including the outskirts of Baghdad. But the former Bush administration was hoping for a coup and not a popular insurrection, so it ordered American troops that were then in southern Iraq to stand by — and Hussein’s elite forces crushed the rebels in four weeks.

Many of the prisoners whom Hussein just released have been jailed since that spring, and most of them are either Shi’as or Kurds. Despite his professed gratitude, this was a calculated act by a threatened despot newly willing to play any card in his hand. The freed prisoners include many Iraqis who have fought his regime in the past, and letting them go remains a gamble. No one should underestimate what he might do next.


Baghdad waited only three days last week before rejecting a British/Dutch proposal to finally lift economic sanctions against Iraq in exchange for new inspections into its ability to produce weapons of mass destruction. Thus the impasse between Iraq and other nations goes on. Few observers doubt that the regime led by Saddam Hussein has continued to try and produce chemical, nuclear and biological weapons, as U.N. inspectors, before Saddam expelled them, caught his regime doing time and again. Few doubt, either, that without comprehensive inspections to control his efforts they will eventually succeed.

Without inspections, the only levers to try and contain Iraq are economic sanctions and air strikes. Thus far, neither has proved to be an effective tool to curb Saddam’s development of weapons of mass destruction. Yet the United States and its sole military ally in the campaign against Iraq, the United Kingdom, go on paying a high international political price for using both.

Saddam, for one, is confident that they will eventually grow tired and give up. “[T]he longer the arm stretches, the weaker it becomes,” he said this month in a speech to Iraqi military commanders. “We are close to the day when the enemy itself will declare that it has no other choice but to leave.”

Four days before Saddam’s speech in Baghdad, Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk said the opposite in Washington. “[A]s long as he is around, we will contain Saddam,” he told the House International Relations Committee.

But what no Clinton administration official can explain is how anyone plans to effectively control Saddam without inspections. The Clinton administration has made the removal of Saddam from power an explicit aim of the United States. Congress is in agreement, and has allocated at least $97 million for the Iraqi opposition. This plan in its present form, however, has little chance of success.
Will the allies give up on Hussein?

No trust

That is because the group within the Iraqi opposition that represents the most Iraqis and that has long posed the greatest threat to Saddam’s regime is now alienated from the United States.

Since 1968, Iraq’s ruling Ba’ath party regime, like previous Iraqi regimes including the monarchy, has been dominated by Sunni Arabs like Saddam, even though they comprise a minority of only about 17{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} of Iraq’s population. Meanwhile, Sunni Kurds, who comprise perhaps 20{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} of Iraqis, and Shi’a Arabs, who comprise at least 60{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} of Iraqis, have each long been excluded from power.

Indyk told Congress that the administration seeks “to change the regime in Iraq” to one that “can represent fairly the concerns of all of Iraq’s communities.” The dilemma no policy-maker will address, however, is how any representative government could continue excluding Iraq’s Shi’a majority from power — yet that seems to be what the United States is aiming to do.

Bayan Jabr, a representative of the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, told Reuters last week in Beirut that the West wants to use Shi’as only as “decorations” in the anti-Saddam coalition. Another Supreme Assembly representative, Hamid Al-Bayati, was noticeably absent from eight Iraqi opposition group representatives who traveled to Washington last month to meet officials including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The falling out between the United States and the Supreme Assembly comes less than one year after Supreme Assembly representatives made their first trip to Washington to meet with mid-level American officials. Now they clearly distrust each other.

The Shi’a question

How to deal with Iraq’s Shi’a majority is a key question that has so far been surprisingly absent from the Iraq policy debate. The fact is that most Iraqis are Shi’a Arabs, and the men who claim to represent them now seem to loathe Saddam only little more than they do the United States. Of course the fear is mutual, as the Supreme Assembly is a coalition of Shi’a clerics based in Tehran who have long been ambiguous about their intentions for Iraq.

The Clinton administration is already presuming the worst, as its liaison with the Iraqi opposition, Frank Ricciardone, seems to have reached out to every other Iraqi group but the Supreme Assembly. The problem is that most of these groups long have been based in exile in London or elsewhere in the West, and only a few of them have ever mounted any military activities back in Iraq. The Supreme Assembly has within it Islamic Action, the Awakening and other groups that have long waged armed struggle against Saddam’s regime.

Back in 1991, two days after the end of fighting in the Gulf War and the same day that George Bush urged Iraqis to overthrow Saddam, Shi’a clerics throughout southern Iraq declared an intifada, sparking a month-long insurrection that eventually spread as well to the Kurdish-populated areas of Northern Iraq. But the Bush administration merely watched by satellites as Saddam’s forces decimated the insurgents everywhere with tanks, multiple-rocket-launchers and helicopter gunships.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis died fighting the regime, while thousands more perished far more painfully later in Saddam’s jails. Since the intifada, Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq have been too plagued by infighting to effectively challenge Saddam’s regime, while small groups in southern Iraq have enjoyed more success. In December 1996, the Awakening attacked Saddam’s eldest son, Uday, crippling him. In November 1998, unknown assailants made an unsuccessful attempt against Izat Ibrahim, who has long been vice president of the Revolutionary Council and Saddam’s second-in-command.

Iraqi Shi’as have good reason to loathe Saddam’s regime, as he has repeatedly squandered Shi’a men in battle. Saddam’s officer corps, like the ranks of his various elite troops, are dominated by Sunni Arabs who share a stake in maintaining the ethnic hegemony of his regime, while the vast majority of Iraq’s rank-and-file soldiers have long been Shi’as. They suffered Iraq’s highest casualties in both the Iran-Iraq War and the Gulf War.

“Why do we kill? Why did we go to war with Iran?” one Shi’a soldier being held as a POW in Zakho by Kurdish rebels said on camera at the peak of the 1991 intifada, before he led fellow prisoners along with their Kurdish captors to chant, “Down with Saddam!”

Many Iraqi Shi’as are loyal instead to Iraq’s Shi’a clerics. While many revered clerics are already in exile in Tehran, others have struggled on in Southern Iraq. In February, unidentified assailants killed the Grand Ayatollah, Mohammed Sadiq Al-Sadr, along with his two sons in a drive-by shooting, 100 miles south of Baghdad. He was the third Shi’a cleric over the past year to be so murdered. Shi’as spontaneously poured out into the streets protesting Saddam in not only Baghdad, but also in Beirut and in Tehran, where the Iranian hardliner, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, blamed Saddam for Al-Sadr’s slaying, saying “the strangulation of Shi’a Muslims in that country has reached a climax.”

What about self-determination?

For the United States, the argument against backing groups like the Supreme Assembly is that they are likely to become fundamentalist allies of Iran if they come to power. But if the United States goes on excluding Iraq’s Shia majority from its plans for a post-Saddam Iraq, then that Iraq will certainly be anti-Western, and maybe fundamentalist as well, when and if they do govern the Tigris-Euphrates valley.

The final irony of the administration’s Iraq policy is that it is now unabashedly inconsistent with the administration’s moralist campaign in Yugoslavia, as it fails to apply its newly embraced principle of self-determination, not to mention democracy, to Iraq. Meanwhile, as Saddam says, our stretched arm only tires.

Frank Smyth covered the post-Gulf War Kurdish uprising in northern Iraq for The Economist, the Village Voice and CBS News before being captured by Iraqi Army Special Forces. His Voice story, “Tragedy in Iraq,” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Toppling Saddam: Clinton Wants a New Government in Baghdad, but He and the Iraqi Opposition Are Unlikely to Be Up to the Task

WASHINGTON — President Clinton is committed to backing Iraqi opposition forces toward eventually forming a new government in Baghdad, say Clinton administration officials. But they acknowledge that risky strategy could take years to bear fruit.

“You can’t work this precipitously,” says one White House official. “What we don’t want is an ill-conceived, poorly prepared effort that will only cost innocent people their lives.” Instead, he adds, the administration’s long-term objective is “to build the opposition into a viable alternative to the current regime.”

President Clinton on Sunday modified his own Iraq policy and moved closer to a Republican-led plan. Late last week, critics like Sens. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan., along with former Bush administration officials like Paul Wolfowitz, had urged the Clinton administration to adopt a long-run strategy toward ousting Saddam Hussein. On Sunday Clinton said that while the United States will continue its policy of containing Saddam by working to eliminate his weapons of mass destruction, “over the long-term the best way to address that threat is through a government in Baghdad — a new government — that is committed to represent and respect its people, not repress them; that is committed to peace in the region.”

The last time any U.S. president talked like that was shortly after the Gulf War, when President George Bush called upon Iraqis to “force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside” and bring Iraq “back into the family of peace-loving nations.” Though Bush’s call quickly inspired mass insurrection in northern as well as in southern Iraq, the Bush administration merely stood by as Saddam crushed the insurrectionists with superior firepower that he had ingeniously saved from harm during the Gulf War.

“They were slaughtered,” says Wolfowitz, now the dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, who, during the Bush administration, was a senior Pentagon planner. “I got chewed out by [Gen. Colin] Powell for fighting the decision [not to back them] even after it had been made,” he adds. “It was wrong morally and we’re paying for it now.”

Clinton administration officials say they have no intention of repeating past mistakes. Instead, their policy is designed “so the next time this set of circumstances present themselves the results will be different,” says the White House official.

For nearly six years, the Clinton administration followed Bush’s lead of not getting too close to the Iraqi opposition. Last February, during the last dramatic showdown with Saddam, Clinton snubbed Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress, when he came to Washington to solicit the administration’s backing on behalf of a loose coalition of opposition groups that make the INC.

Critics both within and outside the administration have long argued that the Iraqi opposition is too spent a force to play any effective role. In March, Richard N. Haass, a former Bush administration national security advisor, told the Senate Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs that the Iraqi opposition was “weak and divided.” He added: “Building a strong, united opposition is an uncertain proposition that at a minimum would take years.”

But that didn’t stop the Republican-led Congress from authorizing Clinton to provide the Iraqi opposition with $97 million in U.S. assistance. Though the president signed the bill two weeks ago, he did not encourage the legislation. “The administration has opposed any serious effort to help the Iraqi opposition in recent years,” says Zalmay Khalizad, a Rand Corporation analyst who, during the Bush administration, was also a Defense Department planner. “The question now is, does he have a plan, a strategy, a will for moving forward?”

The Clinton administration began to rethink its Iraq policy back in February, U.S. officials say, when it became clear that Saddam’s constant thwarting of the U.N. inspection team might render it an ineffective way to curb his ability to produce weapons of mass destruction. “If it hasn’t worked for eight to 10 months,” says another White House official, “then why would it work now?” So officials at the National Security Council and the State Department began reconsidering their options. “But you only have so many tools in your toolbox,” says a State Department official.

The administration’s three main tools have been U.N. inspections to monitor Saddam’s ability to make weapons of mass destruction, unilateral bombing to enforce his compliance with the U.N. inspection team and multilateral economic and trade sanctions to maintain pressure on Saddam and his regime. Newsweek reported last week that in the face of Saddam’s constant thwarting this year of the U.N. inspections, the administration had decided that sanctions, backed up by bombing, would be the best way to contain Saddam in the long term.

“We were not getting anything with the inspections,” explains Andrew C. Winner, a former State Department political/military planner who is now with the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis. “So sanctions were seen as the best lever.”

Until Sunday, there was little indication that the administration was even considering another tool: the option of seriously backing the Iraqi opposition to eventually replace Saddam in power. Now, however, Clinton has flagged that goal as a stated objective of U.S. policy, though critics still complain that he fails to move toward it. “I see [Clinton’s statement] as inching in the right direction,” says ex-Bush planner Wolfowitz. “But what I think is needed is a very clear statement that we are committed to [Saddam’s] removal.”

Instead, the Clinton administration has said exactly the opposite. After Clinton stepped off the White House podium on Sunday, National Security Advisor Sandy Berger and Secretary of Defense William Cohen fielded questions from the press. In response to one journalist’s query about whether the president’s unusually strong language suggested that he was seeking to oust Saddam, Cohen said: “He was not calling for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. What he was saying is that we are prepared and will work with opposition forces or groups to try and bring about, at some future time, a more democratic type of regime.”

Clinton administration officials deny that there is any inconsistency between longing for a new Iraqi government in the future and stopping short of calling for Saddam’s overthrow now. “We are intensifying our efforts” in the support of the opposition, says the White House official. “There will be an effort to work with them more in earnest,” he adds, choosing language that seems like an admission of the administration’s failure to earnestly support the opposition before. Earlier this year, many State Department diplomats and other U.S. officials had privately dismissed the idea of backing the Iraqi opposition because, they said, it was ineffective. This week a few of the same officials who were reached for comment declined to discuss the matter. Others failed to return a reporter’s calls.

Most of America’s allies have yet to formally respond to the president’s new words of encouragement for the Iraqi opposition. But during the standoff with Saddam last February, Saudi Arabia refused to allow American bombers to launch from its soil, fearing that the attacks might be perceived as taking a heavier toll on Iraq’s civilians than its leaders. Now Arab diplomats say they are cautious about the administration’s plan to back the Iraqi opposition.

Many of the front-line states around Iraq, like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have long opposed any plan for Iraq that could potentially divide the country. U.S. officials have also long feared the same result. Though about one in five Iraqis are Sunni Arabs like Saddam Hussein, three out of five Iraqis are Shi’a Arabs who share their religion with the vast majority of Persian people along with the government in neighboring Iran. Nearly one more out of five Iraqis are Sunni Kurds who, to some degree, share an ethnic identity with Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iran. Says one Arab diplomat, “We [have long] opposed any plan that could lead to the break-up of Iraq.”

The Clinton administration now seeks to bring America’s regional allies on board with the opposition. “We know we don’t have it yet,” says the White House official. “But we want to work with a broad range of [Iraqi] groups and build a base of support for them with countries in the region.” But first the administration must convince its Arab allies, along with others, that the Iraqi opposition could be resurrected into a viable force. “After years of repression by Saddam Hussein, there is no recognizable Iraqi opposition out there yet,” says the Arab official.

There was once. Back after the Gulf War, on March 1, 1991, the very day that Bush made his call for Iraqis to overthrow Saddam, Shi’a clerics in southern Iraq called for insurrection, and within days, rebel forces had taken the Iraqi town of Basra near the Saudi border, while fighting had broken out as well in nearly every city in southern Iraq. On March 14, Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq followed suit by launching their own offensive. In less than a week, they liberated every town with a Kurdish-speaking population in northern Iraq. Journalists in northern Iraq at the time interviewed Iraqi army prisoners-of-war who expressed only contempt for Saddam, and they saw Kurds holding hands and singing and dancing in the streets.

This was the moment that the Bush administration chose to ignore. “We should have at least taken out [Saddam’s] gunships,” says Wolfowitz, adding that without the protection of helicopters his tanks would have found it riskier to advance. Instead, Bush officials did nothing as first Shi’a rebels in the south and then Kurdish guerrillas in the north were decimated. In As-Samawah in southern Iraq, fleeing witnesses reported that Iraqi troops shot Shi’a men on sight as they advanced behind a shield of captured Shia women. Outside Kirkuk in northern Iraq, journalists saw Iraqi forces drop a blanket of fire on fleeing guerrillas and civilians. Tanks only overran Kirkuk after multiple rocket launchers had softened the ground and rocket-firing gunships, along with smaller choppers, had destroyed most fixed targets.

There has been only weak and sporadic armed opposition to Saddam and his regime since. Most of it has been concentrated in northern Iraq, where the CIA, in the mid-’90s, provided at least $15 million in covert aid to the Iraqi National Congress. The INC’s main goal was to unite two feuding Kurdish factions that have long differed over clan-based identification as well as ideology. But the effort collapsed in August 1996, when one of the Kurdish leaders, Massoud Barzani, invited Saddam to join forces with him against Iraq’s other main Kurdish leader, Jalal Talabini. Saddam’s forces moved in to destroy the CIA-backed operation, reportedly killing many detainees after capture.

Baghdad is the only other place where any significant military action against the Iraqi regime has occurred since the spring of 1991. In December 1996, a group identifying itself as Al-Nahdad, or the Awakening, attacked Saddam’s eldest son, Uday, who was notorious for torturing suspected dissidents, leaving him a paraplegic. Meanwhile, in southern Iraq, though some fighting has occurred among its remote marshlands, no known urban confrontations have taken place since the 1991 revolt, known throughout Iraq as the intifada.

The impact of its demise — throughout Iraq and the region — is something that the Clinton administration now seeks to overcome. To be successful, says Wolfowitz, Clinton “would have to finish George Bush’s war.” But he and other observers doubt whether Clinton is any more committed to the task. “We would have to show people that we were serious about this, and reassure them,” says Winner of the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis. “And that is a tall order.”

Frank Smyth, a freelance journalist who has also served as an investigative consultant for Human Rights Watch as well as Amnesty International, is a contributor to Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, edited by Roy Gutman and David Rieff.

An Iraqi Prison Diary

Original article can be found here.

Our correspondent crossed into Iraq with Kurdish guerrillas in March, when their uprising against Saddam Hussein was going well. Here, delayed by nearly three weeks in an Iraqi prison, is his report

BAKHTIAR, a Kurdish rebel, took a pen to my hand. “This is the city,” he said drawing a circle. He added two solid dots on the left and bottom of my palm: “This is the Iraqi army.” Our Kurdish guide was wrong. As we attempted to flee Kirkuk, he, I and two other reporters drove directly into an Iraqi ambush.

Having taken cover behind a house, we watched a column of tanks descend from a mountain pass. With a French-Vietnamese photographer I spent 18 hours hiding in a ditch. The Iraqi soldiers were camped directly on top of us. We last saw Bakhtiar, who was armed, and Gad Gross, a German photographer on assignment for Newsweek, running behind a house. Soon after sunrise, they were discovered; they surrendered but within minutes both had been executed.

We were found in our ditch an hour later; the presence of an Iraqi officer during our capture may have been the only reason why we too were not killed. It was March 29th. My blindfold was made of thin cloth so I could still see a bit.

It was then that I knew that the Kurdish rebellion would soon be finished. I could hear and see the outlines of dozens of tanks, artillery, armoured personnel carriers and other heavy vehicles. Whole divisions were massing for a counteroffensive.

The Kurds had no pre-knowledge of this build-up. And, their enthusiasm apart, they had no strategy capable of prevailing against the vastly superior firepower of the Iraqi army. Saddam Hussein was clearly planning to retake all of Kurdistan. He recaptured most of it in less than four days.

The Kurds were simply over-confident: the initial liberation of Kurdistan had gone too well, with local villagers and armed guerrillas overrunning local military posts and even bases. But these posts had been defended by regular army conscripts whose performance gave little indication of what to expect from the special forces and Republican Guard divisions. Their tanks and helicopters made all the difference.

Blindfolded, we underwent interrogations. During the most severe ones, I was accused of being a CIA agent and told that if I confessed I would go free, but if I “continued to lie” I would spend “many years” in jail. In the event, without any confessions, I was released “on the personal order of President Saddam” after 18 days.

One evening a prisoner was dragged out of his cell. We heard him making strange sounds, interspersed with the sound of heavy wood meeting flesh. The soldiers made him crow like a rooster, laughing when a real rooster crowed as if to answer his call. During his ordeal, the sound of guards playing ping-pong competed for our attention. A prisoner with a rare beautiful voice began to sing, almost wail, in prayer. The sounds of pain, mirth and prayer blended strangely.

The guards’ instrument of choice was a heavy rubber hose. We listened, and occasionally watched, as men were beaten. Some were hit on the soles of the feet. If a prisoner raised his hands to defend himself, he would be savagely beaten around the head and body. The guards also had a collection of heavy sticks, some as thick and twice as long as a baseball bat. I watched as one blindfolded man cried out in the cell-block yard: about five guards flailing. One playfully held his broom handle like a pool cue as he repeatedly poked the weeping man in the head.

“Stun guns” which give electric shocks were another favourite. A black man, perhaps from Sudan, was hosed down and then made to stand outside on an overcast day. He was interrogated while he stood there shivering. When the answer failed to satisfy, a guard zapped him with the stun gun, watching him fall helplessly. We sometimes heard faint but terrible cries coming from elsewhere in the prison. We tried to ignore them but they persisted. They were the screams not of fear or sharp pain but of a man in long agony.

The prisoners we were with seemed to be neither hardened criminals nor important enough to be political prisoners. But they were all under suspicion and, in Iraq, to be under suspicion is as good as being charged with a crime. If a person is suspected of being against the regime, the suspicion can result in his being abused and held incommunicado in jail.

There was a larger-than-lifesize portrait of Saddam next to one of my cells. A Kurd I was with spoke no English except to reiterate that “Saddam is a donkey!” Perhaps, I thought, but this donkey is still up on its legs and kicking.