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Imperial Echoes - The Salvador Option in Iraq

category mashriq / arabia / iraq | imperialism / war | opinion / analysis author Friday November 05, 2010 06:17author by dara Report this post to the editors

The whistleblowing website WikiLeaks has once again released a flood of classified information, washing away the dominant platitudes of stability in nation-building and revealing the ordinary evil of imperial occupation.

It may not be news for those who live there, but the 400,000 or so military field reports give us the clearest picture yet of the everyday violence that underlies the American occupation.
Commandos with prisoners. From
Commandos with prisoners. From

Much of the focus is on the Iraqi government and quasi-government’s involvement in the various atrocities; torture by the police, corruption within the paramilitary Sons of Iraq/Awakening Councils and worst of all; mass torture and extrajudicial killings by the Wolf Brigade, the Special Police Commandos of the Interior Ministry. The embattled Al-Maliki has attempted to shift the focus onto the murder of civilians by private contractors, but there is no political element within Iraq that is not culpable for atrocities. Although much of the media has tried to blame the atrocities on local sectarianism, we can find in the leaks much that resonates with previous American interventions. These are the echoes of imperialism.

For the United States, the most damning revelation is of Frago 242[1], a standing order that instructed US personnel to report evidence of Iraqi security service torture of prisoners to higher authorities, but to take no further action unless instructed[2]. It is not clear whether this indifference was due to a desire to expedite matters through ‘harsh’ methods, or a matter of political calculus, but 6 years on from the Abu Ghraib scandal, the United States administration remains a conscious and willing sponsor of torture.

For those on the Left, this will not be startling. The project of building and supporting adjunct administrations in resistant territory has often led to such methods; they are not exception or aberration, they are a direct result of the situation and the goals and capacities of the imperial power. Most prominent in the media are the Wolf Brigade of Special Police Commandos.[3] These paramilitary units augment the regular police and army and were originally established in mid 2004. Police Commandos were formed from Saddam-era Republican Guards and special forces, and the units even maintain similar uniforms.

The logs show that these groups were notorious for their use of torture, although it was widespread across the Iraqi security services. The reports are shocking for their volume, with over 1156 reports of abuse. Limbs are broken. Detainees are burnt with cigarettes. Shocked with electric wires.[4] Bored through by electric drills. Beaten with electric cables. Hung by the wrists and forced to confess to terrorist acts. and that police would often threaten to turn detainees over to the Wolves if they did not cooperate. Parents are even said to warn their children to behave in case the Wolves get them.

Such details echo the recent history of American interventions. This was highlighted in a Newsweek article from 2005 that reported discussions within military circles about utilising ‘The Salvador Option’ to take the offensive against the insurgency.

"Following that model, one Pentagon proposal would send Special Forces teams to advise, support and possibly train Iraqi squads, most likely hand-picked Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shiite militiamen, to target Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers, even across the border into Syria, according to military insiders familiar with the discussions. It remains unclear, however, whether this would be a policy of assassination or so-called "snatch" operations, in which the targets are sent to secret facilities for interrogation."[5]

The motivation for taking this option was the unreliability of the standard forces in Iraq. In numerous instances, the US found that the security services of the new Iraqi state were simply unable to fight. A RAND report notes that during confrontations in early 2004, “many in the ISF (ICDC, IPS, and NIA) proved unable or unwilling to fight. This led to programmatic setbacks and to a refocusing of the coalition’s force generation efforts on leadership and specialist training.”[6]

Such failures instigated discussions within the Coalition over the establishment of a “third force”, that lay “somewhere between civilian police and armed forces”.[7] The debate over shifting to this third force arose for both the police service and the ICDC (later National Guard), although neither were selected for the role.[8] The recurrence of the debate seems to indicate that certain members of the Coalition Provisional Authority had a reasonably clear idea of the solution they needed, they were looking for where it could come from. Ultimately, various units capable of dealing with ‘high-end’ violence were formed by the CPA, and the Interior Minister Faleh Naqeeb assigned his uncle, Adnan Thabit to build special police commando battalions with personnel from the previous special forces and Republican Guard.[9] After General Petraeus’ aide Colonel James Coffman investigated the fledgling unit, the police commandos were built up and incorporated into the security services to take on the work that the regular forces could not.[10] Petraeus provided the commandos with money, men and weapons, and assigned Colonel James Steele to work with them.[11]

‘The Salvador Option’ was indeed pursued, and pursued very literally. Steele had acquired the requisite experience for the role in Central America, having served as the commander of the US Military Advisory Group in El Salvador. This group of 55 Special Forces Advisors had trained Salvadoran units such as the Atlacatl Battalion, which was behind the notorious El Mozeto Massacre[12] Such groups were responsible for much of the torture, rape and massacres in the conflict.[13] US advisors were fully aware of the actions of their proteges.[14]

Another Latin American echo is Steven Casteel, a former DEA Chief of Intelligence who helped form the Special Police Commandos in his role as Senior Advisor to the Interior Ministry. He brought to that position the experience of many years in the struggle against ‘narco-terrorism’ in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia. In Colombia he had worked with ‘Los Pepes’, the vigilante group that waged war against Pablo Escobar of the Medellin drug cartel. Los Pepes were themselves founded by the Cali cartel, rival drug smugglers, and the death of Escobar allowed the Cali to corner the drugs trade.[15] Led by Carlos Castano, members of Los Pepes would later form the AUC, the right-wing paramilitaries that are behind many of the attacks against workers and peasants in the ongoing Colombian civil war. Casteel had worked with Centra Spike, an incarnation of the US Army Intelligence Support Activity which had passed information onto Los Pepes. The Colombians used this information to carry out assassinations of Escobar’s associates and relatives.[16]

Similarly, John Negroponte, who was ambassador to Iraq in 2004 and 2005, the time of the establishment of the ‘third force’ had previously served as ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985. In Central America he had displayed considerable career competence; energetic in channeling weapons to the Contras in the Nicaraguan civil war, and discrete about the various human rights abuses being carried out by his close contacts in the Honduran regime.[17] Similar traits have clearly been called for within Iraq.

Torture is not the worst of it. As Max Fuller has noted[18], where the Special Police Commandos went, bodies soon surfaced. In Mosul, Samarra and Baghdad, mass graves of tortured and executed abductees were found soon after the Wolf Brigade began operations, with civilians directly accusing the Interior Ministry commandos of the murders. The Ministry and police typically claim that the victims were off-duty soldiers, murdered by terrorists, who had been dressed as soldiers or police. From an article by Nicolas Davies:
After Special Police Commandos were first deployed in Baghdad in April, 14 farmers were found in a shallow grave on May 5, 2005, with their right eyeballs removed and other signs of torture, after they were seen being arrested at a vegetable market. Another incident 10 days later, in which eight bodies were found in a garbage dump, prompted Hareth al-Dhari, the secretary general of the Association of Muslim Scholars, to accuse the Interior Ministry directly. “This is state terrorism by the Ministry of Interior,” he claimed. The defense minister responded by blaming “terrorists wearing military uniforms.”[19]

Similar stories came from an Iraqi doctor, Yasser Salihee, who investigated some of the deaths, speaking to witnesses and officials, before he was shot dead at a US checkpoint. In his investigations, he found convincing evidence of Interior Ministry culpability in extrajudicial murders. The victims had been tortured and killed in the same way:

"In most cases, the dead men looked as if they'd been whipped with a cord, subjected to electric shocks or beaten with a blunt object and shot to death, often with single bullets to their heads.
Marks on the bodies were similar to the injuries found on prisoners who were rescued from secret Interior Ministry jails by representatives of the Iraqi ministry for human rights, according to family accounts and medical records....[According to eyewitnesses] many of the dead were apprehended by large groups of men driving white Toyota Land Cruisers with police markings. The men were wearing police commando uniforms and bulletproof vests, carrying expensive 9-millimeter Glock pistols and using sophisticated radios”.[20]

Such occurrences were not at all uncommon. Bodies were regularly found with the tell-tale signs; handcuffed, tortured, shot in the head. It is unlikely that the true body-count will ever be known.[21] There were several brigades of Special Commandos, variously named ‘Wolf’, ‘Tiger’, ‘Thunder’ and ‘Scorpion’ and each of these comprised of three battalions.[22] By following the stories of abductions and mass grave exhumations, Max Fuller has found direct correlations with the movements of the battalions across Iraq.[23]

Intimidation plays a major role in their activity. In addition to the red berets and brigade armbands, police commandos wear sunglasses, balaclavas and leather gloves. They brutalise detainees in public view and in front of supporting US military.[24] The first commander, Adnan Thabit, even had his own reality TV show, ‘Terrorism in the Grip of Justice’, which showcased detainee confessions.

"They tremble on camera, stumble over their words and look at the ground as they confess to everything from contract murders to sodomy. The program's clear message is that there is now a force more powerful than the insurgency: the Iraqi government, and in particular the commandos, whose regimental flag, which shows a lion's head on a camouflage background, is frequently displayed on a banner behind the captives."[25]

In these videos, it is as much fear as guilt that is on display. We now know with certainty of the systematic torture that produces fear and guilt alike. The Special Police are not detectives, but thugs. Their methods are to intimidate, to show that they can strike, abuse and kill without fear of reprisal. This is counter-insurgency, it is the work of cowing and terrifying a population, of showing them that they are powerless.

In Iraq as elsewhere, the United States has found great success in the role of the backseat driver, allowing local allies to take on the dirty work that comes with counter-insurgency. The switch to ‘The Salvador Option’ indicates precisely the desire of the United States to establish a proxy nation that will support US objectives and interests. The careers of Steele, Casteel and Negroponte all pay respect to the success of this modus operandi. As too does the Central American participation in the war and occupation; troops from Honduras, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic and El Salvador all served in the US-led coalition in Iraq.

There is continuity between Central America and Iraq because there is a larger continuity; Iraq is a contemporary stage in American global power. It is an ongoing project, and power at the highest level is won through violence at all levels. It is won through murder, torture, rape and massacre. The mainstream media will rarely relay the victims’ cries, but, if we listen, we can hear the echoes.


[1] Reports of detainee abuse can be found here: The Guardian video gives a good overview of the extent
[2] Examples that specifically mention this order can be found at and
[3] For instance:
[6] pp21, 40, Rathmell et al, ‘Developing Iraq’s Security Sector’, RAND Corporation, 2005. Available at:
[7] pp48, ibid.
[8] pp39 & 48, ibid
[9] See n70, pp49, ibid and Maas, P., ‘The Way of the Commandos’ New York Times, 1 May, 2005. Available online at:
[10] ‘New factor in Iraq: irregular brigades fill the void’, Wall Street Journal, 16 February, 2005. Part of the article is available at: and pp17, Jr. Maj. W. Brooks, ‘Iraqi Ministry of Interior Forces: A Case Study to examine their likely effectiveness when the United States and Coalition Forces Depart’ US Army Master’s Thesis, Kansas 2006. Available at:
[11] The Way of the Commandos’, ibid and
[13] Chomsky, N., ‘The Crucifixion of El Salvador’. Available at:
[14] Blum, W., ‘El Salvador 1980-1994: Human Rights, Washington Style’. Available at:
[15] See for references.
[20] The original article is not available online, but has been copied onto a discussion forum:
[21] For a round up of these stories, see Fuller, M., ‘For Iraq, “The Salvador Option” becomes a Reality’, Global Research 2 June 2005. Available at: A useful letter from Sen. D. Kuchinich includes a round-up of relevant news-stories:
[22]Iraqi Ministry of Interior Forces’, ibid.
[23] ‘For Iraq, “The Salvador Option” becomes a Reality’, ibid.
[24} The Way of the Commandos’, ibid.
[25]One of the videos can be seen at:

Adnan Thabit (big man in sweatshirt) & James Steele (R). From
Adnan Thabit (big man in sweatshirt) & James Steele (R). From

Steve Casteel
Steve Casteel

Scorpion Brigade Police Commandos. From
Scorpion Brigade Police Commandos. From

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