Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Whatever happened to the Special Police Commandos?

On 29 May 2007, a convoy of forty men, some in Special Police Commando (SPC) uniforms, drove through the gate of the Iraqi finance ministry and kidnapped five British contractors, whose names are being withheld on the instructions of the Foreign Office. The next that was heard about it was a video message from a purported Shi'ite group, featuring a British man who said: "My name is Jason. Today is November 18 ... I have been here now for 173 days and I feel we have been forgotten."[1] This was merely the latest of the exploits implicating the SPC, which Lt Gen David Petraeus built up before he was placed in charge of the occupation[2]. Dr John Pace, the former human rights director for the UN mission in Iraq, wrote in a 2005 report of how the Special Police Commandos had carried out death squad killings[3]. In early 2006, an attack on the al-Askari shrine was carried out by individuals in Special Police Commando uniforms.[4] The ensuing communal violence has now resulted in de facto segregation, and residents say that the completion of this project (rather than the bloody 'surge') is responsible for a recent decline in violence.[5]

By now it is reasonably well known that the SPC have been trained by the US army, and have carried out numerous death squad attacks. In one notorious incident, having murdered someone and dumped the body, they contacted the Baghdad morgue where the corpse ended up, demanding the metal handcuffs back on the grounds that they are too expensive to replace[6]. Among elements said to be incorporated into the SPC were the Badr Brigades of the occupiers' allies, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (now renamed the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council), and former Republican Guards[7]. These are the shock troops chosen for the elite counter-insurgency unit whose purpose was "special operations" - a term that turns out to mean applying cordless drills to living human beings. (Quite why this part needs to be outsourced is not entirely clear: if soldiers can handle electrocuting, drowning, raping, ripping the skin off prisoners' bodies, 'Palestinian hangings' and so on, drilling holes in the body is surely not that much of a step up).

However, the management of these death squads has been partially privatised since their initiation in 2005. In a Department of Defense 'Bloggers Roundtable' back in September, Brigadier General David Phillips boasted that the Special Police Commandos are presently being expertly trained by a Virginia-based outfit called USIS under the direction of the US army[8]. To an already shadowy world of unaccountable militias and illicit cashflows is added a further layer of mystery - governments lie and conceal, but are less efficient at it, and are the subject of considerably more scrutiny, than private companies. The role of USIS was briefly mentioned when Colonel Ted Westhusing died from an apparently self-inflicted wound, some time after receiving an anonymous letter alleging corruption, the murder of Iraqis by the commandos, and the direct involvement of USIS contractors in killings. One investigation by the LA Times suggested that the gun shot that killed Westhusing actually may have come from fellow contractors frightened that he would spill the beans[9]. But the military has closed its case, and USIS is still employed.

Pace's revelations led to a number of commandos being fired, but the outfit continues to be responsible for atrocities and crimes. In September this year, robbers wearing police commando uniforms stole $550,000 from an armoured truck - one week after a US Committee led by retired Marine Gen. James Jones called for the disbanding of the commandos.[10] Disbandment is unlikely, since the SPC is entrusted with relieving much of the burden from the US army. Checkpoints in parts of Iraq with a strong resistance presence are manned by this outfit. In Sammara earlier this year, one such checkpoint was targeted by a suicide attack, and five commandos were killed[11]. Earlier, another SPC checkpoint in Diwaniyah was attacked, with two commandos killed.[12]

The early advertising of a 'Salvador Option', drawn from the example of death squads in El Salvador, was an indication that the SPC's deadly operations would not exactly be shrouded in secrecy. Mainstream news reporters were quickly admitted to SPC buildings and were able to report on blood-spattered rooms and tortured screams. True, the media reliably showed little interest, and much of what was reported came through a few independent journalists, but I suspect that the information could have been much more tightly controlled than it was. More important was the element of 'plausible denial' (speaking in the broadest possible terms here), so that now it looks as if the US will put the SPC's behaviour down to its capture by entrepreneurial and sectional interests. Yet, it isn't as if this is an independent Iraqi body. It is funded, managed and trained by the US, populated by its closest allies and clients, driven by its agenda, operates where it is allowed with the means it is given. It takes its orders from the US army, and the Ministry of Interior that it operates from is riddled with US diplomatic and military advisors. In the circumstances of an increasingly occult occupation, with powers and funds devolved to all sorts of unaccountable and private bodies, it provides an excellent conduit for terror and black ops in Iraq. It is usually futile trying to second guess the way such bodies will operate in real time, but the main answer to the question in the title appears to be that they have achieved an extraordinary level of success on behalf of the occupiers; are now locking down the main arteries in and out of city centres on their behalf; and are probably therefore permitted a wide leeway for criminal activity and the pursuit of their own turf wars.

[1] Raymond Whittaker, 'Forgotten hostages back in spotlight'; Iraq kidnap, The Independent on Sunday, 9 December 2007
[2]Peter Maass, 'The Way of the Commandos', New York Times Magazine, 1 May 2005; 'Gangs of Iraq: Interview with General Petraeus', PBS Frontline, 11 October 2006
[3]Andrew Buncombe and Patrick Cockburn, 'Iraq's Death Squads: On the Brink of Civil War', The Independent, 26 February 2006
[4] Michael Howard, 'Iraq slips towards civil war after attack on Shia shrine', The Guardian, 23 February 2006
[5]Ali al-Fadhily, 'IRAQ: RESIDENTS SAY SEGREGATION, NOT SURGE, DECREASED KILLINGS', Interpress Service, 13 November 2007
[6]Kim Sengupta, ‘Operation Enduring Chaos’, The Independent on Sunday, 29 October 2006
[7]See the testimony of Gerald F. Burke, Former Major, Massachusetts State Police and former Senior Advisor to the Iraqi Police, reproduced in full in ‘Veterans, Expert Testify About the Bush Administration's Conduct in War in Iraq’, US Newswire, 12 October 2006
[9]T Christian Miller, 'Soldier's journey ends in anguish', Los Angeles Times, 4 December 2005
[10] Lauren Frayer, 'Bandits in police uniforms steal US$550,000 from armored truck in east Baghdad', Associated Press, 13 September 2007
[11]Amit R Paley, '2007 Toll A Record For U.S. In Iraq', Washington Post, 7 November 2007
[12] 'Suicide bomber attacks Sunni office in Iraq', Agence France Press, 26 October 2007