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Death squads & torture. State terror in Iraq in context.

Rod H | 18.02.2006 13:24 | Analysis | Anti-militarism | Repression | Terror War

A brief summary of developments in Iraq with useful references.

Just what is going on in Iraq? ‘Bad apples’ humiliate, beat, torture and murder internees. Iraqi ministers blame “lower-level officials” for running death squads (1). It seems whenever they get caught out, military forces cease to be disciplined top-down command-and-control organisations and become autonomous cells of torturers and killers, all without orders or raising suspicion (until they film themselves in the act). But the situation is clearly more complicated, whilst US planners talk of a ‘Salvador Option’ (2), a US general triumphantly declares "We have found one of the death squads. They are part of the police force" (3) without a hint of irony.

While the ‘Salvador Option’ has sparked much debate in anti-war circles, you could be forgiven for having no idea what it means if reliant on the corporate media’s infamous non-coverage. Here’s a quick summary;

“The United States was supporting the government of El Salvador, said President Ronald Reagan, because it was trying “to halt the infiltration into the Americas, by terrorists and by outside interference” (4). “Despite overwhelmingly superior military might, the government could hold the insurgents to no more than a stalemate” (5). Sound familiar? The result; “tens of thousands have been slaughtered and more than a million have become refugees. This is one of the most sordid episodes in US history - and it's got a lot of competition” (6). Grimly familiar indeed. The Salvador Option has mostly being understood as “Special-Forces-led assassination or kidnapping teams” (7), and indeed research has shown that

“even a cursory review of such archives as the one compiled by Iraq Body Count (8) reveals that mass executions have been taking place commonly in Iraq over at least the last six months. What is particularly striking is that many of those killings have taken place since the Police Commandos became operationally active and often correspond with areas where they have been deployed” (9)

This makes a mockery of US claims that the recent death squad caught in action could be an isolated incident (10), Associated Press reports are eerily reminiscent of El Salvador “There is no shortage of Iraqis, particularly in Baghdad, who say family members have been kidnapped and killed by men wearing police uniforms … “It was horrific. Their bodies were tortured and mutilated by drills and an oxyacetylene welder” … "They were blindfolded, handcuffed and severely tortured. One of my brothers had drill wounds in his head, while the other was shot in the head and chest" (11).

Torture is the flipside to death squads in the Salvador Option coin. El Salvador was one of many places where torture was widely deployed by US proxies. A former member of the infamous National Guard testified “I belonged to a squad of twelve. We devoted ourselves to torture, and to finding people whom we were told were guerrillas. I was trained in Panama for nine months by the [unintelligible] of the United States for anti-guerrilla warfare. Part of the time we were instructed about torture”(12), “the embrace of torture by US officials long predates the Bush Administration and has in fact been integral to US foreign policy since the Vietnam War”(13).

The fact US forces arrest death squads while their superiors in Washington deploy them does suggest ‘the US’ is not a homogenous agent. The ’Project for a New American Century’ style neocons were often personally involved in the Reagan-era terror-by-proxy they are seeking to redeploy, while the military itself seems determined to maintain its monopoly of violence: the arrested death squad members and their would-be victim were sent to Abu Grahib (14). This difference in goals/motives between covert and overt forces does not mean that they’re not basically working together however - remember when UK special forces dressed as Arabs shot dead Iraqi policemen and were then rescued by regular troops who demolished prison walls with tanks? (15) “London-based independent defence analyst Paul Beaver said the problem appeared to have been caused by a British intelligence operation to infiltrate insurgent forces going wrong” (16).

There are only so many times you can plead ‘bad apples’ before its obvious you’re dealing with bad trees and bad soil. A little history sheds a lot of light on the current state terror in Iraq.

Recommended reading:

Short articles:

Fuller, Max (2005), ‘For Iraq, the ‘Salvador Option’ becomes reality’. Available at
Klein, Naomi (2005), ‘Never before! The amnesiac torture debate’. Available at
Mccoy, Alfred (2004), ‘The hidden history of CIA torture’, republished at

Full books

McCoy, Alfred (2006), ‘A Question of Torture’, Metropolitan Books.
Blum, William (2003), ‘Killing Hope’, Zed Books.


(1) BBC News, ‘Iraqi death squads ‘caught in the act’’, Available at
(2) Newsweek, ‘The Salvador Option’, Available at
(3) BBC News, ‘Iraqi death squads ‘caught in the act’’, op cit.
(4) William Blum (2003), ‘Killing Hope’, Zed Books, London, p352.
(5) Ibid p357.
(6) Noam Chomsky, ‘The Crucifixion of El Salvador’, Available at
(7) Newsweek, op cit.
(9) Max Fuller, ‘For Iraq, the “Salvador Option” Becomes Reality’, Available at
(10) The Austraian, ‘Iraq to flush out killers in its ranks’, Available at,5744,18184321%255E2703,00.html
(11) Ibid.
(12) William Blum, op cit, p359.
(13) Naomi Klein, ‘Never before! The amnesiac torture debate’. Available at
(14) BBC News, ‘Iraqi death squads ‘caught in the act’’, op cit.
(15) Aljazeera, ‘UK admits basra jail raid’, Available at
(16) Ibid.

Rod H