2005 May 29 Sunday
Paramilitary Forces Against Iraq Insurgency

Syed Saleem Shahzad, bureau chief for Asia Times in Pakistan, says the United States will use militias to fight against the insurgent militia groups in Iraq.

According to Asia Times Online contacts, these US-backed militias will comprise three main segments - former Kurdish peshmerga (paramilitaries), former members of the Badr Brigade and those former members of the Ba'ath Party and the Iraqi army who were part of the Saddam regime but who have now thrown in their lot with the new Iraqi government.

All three segments have already been equipped with low- and medium-level weapons purchased from various countries, including Pakistan. Military analysts believe the US military in Iraq will use the Kurd and Shi'ite militias to quell the resistance in central and northern Iraq, while in the south the former Ba'athists and old-guard Iraqi soldiers will be used against anti-US Shi'ite groups.

Note the divide and conquer aspect of this. But Kurd and Shia militias operating in the Sunni Triangle lack the ability to collect effective intelligence. Sunnis view Kurds and Shias as outsiders. Kurds and Shias lack ties in local tribal networks.

Paramilitary militias play by more brutal rules. The United States has trained and funded them in El Salvador and other Latin American countries to fight against communists and drug lords. The US government has usually denied funding groups that carry out assassinations and terrorising of civilian populations. Sometimes the US has provided a government with a lot of money and some of that money and probably leaked through to paramilitaries, providing the US with deniability. For example, in Colombia during the early 1990s a paramilitary group called Los Pepes (People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar) conducted assassinations against friends and business associates of Pablo Escobar. Did US special forces and the CIA have direct contact with Los Pepes members? We may never know.

I wonder whether the Asia Times story accurately portrays the division of labor for the paramilitary forces in Iraq. Peter Maass, writing for the New York Times reports that the chief of a 5,000 soldier counter-insurgency force of Special Police Commandos is headed by Adnan Thabit, a Sunni and former Baathist general under Saddam. (same article here)

The template for Iraq today is not Vietnam, to which it has often been compared, but El Salvador, where a rightist government backed by the United States fought a leftist insurgency in a 12-year war beginning in 1980.

The cost there was high - more than 70,000 people were killed, most of them civilians, in a country with a population of just six million. Most of the killing and torturing was done by the army and the rightist death squads affiliated with it.

There are far more Americans in Iraq today - about 140,000 troops in all - than there were in El Salvador, but U.S. soldiers and officers are increasingly moving to a Salvador-style advisory role.

In the process, they are backing up local forces that, like the military in El Salvador, do not shy away from violence. It is no coincidence that this new strategy is most visible in a paramilitary unit that has as its main adviser James Steele, one of the U.S. military's top experts on counterinsurgency. Steele, having been a key participant in the Salvador conflict, knows how to organize a counterinsurgency campaign that is led by local forces.

Maass' article does not provide a religious and ethnic breakdown for the troops under General Adnan's command. Too many Sunnis in such a command and it will be riddled with spies reporting to the opposition. Too few Sunnis and the soldiers will lack the knowledge, contacts, and skills for operating in the Sunni Triangle.

If anyone comes across more detailed information about ethnic and religious identities of the Iraqi paramilitaries supported by the United States please post in the comments or send me an email. If the paramilitaries can not hunt down the bulk of the insurgents then either a partition or a brutal large scale Shia-Sunni civil war or perhaps even reestablishment of a Sunni regime become probable outcomes.

At this point the US military probably has two choices: Try to harness and form Shiite paramilitaries to fight under US supervision or stand by while the Shiites, furious over killings of Shia by Sunnis, exact revenge without US involvement. The Shiites are hitting back against the Sunnis. (same article here)

No one is sure how long Sistani can hold back the Shiite masses from exacting wholesale retribution — in fact many Sunni Arabs fear it has already begun.

Newly emboldened police commando squads have raided Sunni mosques and arrested Sunni religious leaders, who call them Shiite avengers.

A car bomb exploded April 30 outside the Baghdad headquarters of a Sunni political organization, the National Dialogue Council. Members blame the Shiite-dominated security forces or allied paramilitaries, but the bombers may have been Sunni insurgents outraged at the council's perceived collaboration with the new government.

"The definition of civil war is when the Shiites on the ground start to hit back," said Hussein Shahristani, a top Sistani aide and first deputy speaker of the National Assembly.

Whether the Shias, either on their own or under US supervision, can effectively put down the Sunni insurgency remains to be seen. The Shias outnumber the Sunnies over 3 to 1. But the Sunnis could respond to killings of Sunnis by Shias with their own escalating retaliatory killings.

Sunni and Shia organizations are accusing each other of carrying out targetted killings.

In an effort to mitigate escalating sectarian tensions, officials from the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars, considered close to some insurgent groups, met with representatives from the Badr Brigades the military wing of Iraq's largest Shiite party, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Organized by the anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the gathering aimed to smother accusations that began earlier this month when the association's leader, Harith al-Dhari, accused the Badr Brigades of killing Sunnis and executing their clerics. A number of Shiite clerics were also killed.

The brigades not only denied the charges, they accused the Sunni association of failing to condemn the insurgency and of trying to ''push Iraq into a sectarian conflict.''

Some Iraqis figure the Americans are omnipotent and hence any violence results from American plots.

"I only want to put this question to you," said Sana Abdul-Kareem, a dentist with four children. "Why can't the U.S., with all its might and capabilities, impose security here? How come with all our oil they cannot provide us with electricity? My son was so happy when the American soldiers first came. But after two years of failure to make good on their promises, he abhors them."

Baghdad resident Ali Jalal said: "The Americans are behind these problems. They don't want the country to be stabilized…. The Iraqi government is like a doll in the hands of the Americans."

Maybe larger scale Shiite retaliations will shock the Sunni leaders out of their support for attacks against Shias. Will the Shiites identify the Sunni insurgents fairly accurately? Will most of the Sunnis killed by Shias really be insurgents? Or will the Sunni insurgents so effectively target Shia leaders and police that increasing portions of Iraq will become effectively ungoverned?

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2005 May 29 10:26 AM  Mideast Iraq

Bartelson said at May 29, 2005 2:31 PM:

So instead of just waiting around for the all out war for control of the oil to start - we will start the damn war ourselves!

Stephen said at May 29, 2005 4:56 PM:

If we're talking about the el Salvador model then lets adopt the el Salvador terminology:

militia = death squad
government = junta
rebels = communists
villagers = communist supporters

Stephen said at May 29, 2005 5:03 PM:
Some Iraqis figure the Americans are omnipotent and hence any violence results from American plots.

But the violence does result from an American plot - remember that invasion thing that happened a couple of years ago?

FCC said at May 29, 2005 7:26 PM:

For the average Iraqi is life better today than it was under Saddam? Can anybody answer that question?

Stephen said at May 30, 2005 12:30 AM:

FCC, I've been wondering the same thing myself. I guess that in the old Iraq you were safe so long as you stayed out of politics or didn't accidentally run over Saddam's cat. It seems to me that lots of Iraqi's would see Saddam as a tyrant - but at least the trains ran on time.

Steven said at May 30, 2005 7:52 AM:

Look, torturing babies in front of their parents was something Saddam and the boys could really get into. Mass graves were okay as long as they were put someplace out of the way and not talked about. A million people died in the Iraq/Iran war. For those who still love Saddam, even now, there are a lot of fond memories.

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