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The American Prospect Volume 15, Issue 1. January 1, 2004

Phoenix Rising

Tucked away in the recent Iraqi appropriation was $3 billlion for a new paramilitary unit. Close students of Vietnam may see similarities.
Robert Dreyfuss

With the 2004 electoral clock ticking amid growing public concern about U.S. casualties and chaos in Iraq, the Bush administration's hawks are upping the ante militarily. To those familiar with the CIA's Phoenix assassination program in Vietnam, Latin America's death squads or Israel's official policy of targeted murders of Palestinian activists, the results are likely to look chillingly familiar.

The Prospect has learned that part of a secret $3 billion in new funds—tucked away in the $87 billion Iraq appropriation that Congress approved in early November—will go toward the creation of a paramilitary unit manned by militiamen associated with former Iraqi exile groups. Experts say it could lead to a wave of extrajudicial killings, not only of armed rebels but of nationalists, other opponents of the U.S. occupation and thousands of civilian Baathists—up to 120,000 of the estimated 2.5 million former Baath Party members in Iraq.

"They're clearly cooking up joint teams to do Phoenix-like things, like they did in Vietnam," says Vincent Cannistraro, former CIA chief of counterterrorism. Ironically, he says, the U.S. forces in Iraq are working with key members of Saddam Hussein's now-defunct intelligence agency to set the program in motion. "They're setting up little teams of Seals and Special Forces with teams of Iraqis, working with people who were former senior Iraqi intelligence people, to do these things," Cannistraro says.

The plan is part of a last-ditch effort to win the war before time runs out politically. Driving the effort are U.S. neoconservatives and their allies in the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney's office, who are clearly worried about America's inability to put down the Iraqi insurgency with time to spare before November. They are concerned that President Bush's political advisers will overrule the national-security team and persuade the president to pull the plug on Iraq. So, going for broke, they've decided to launch an intensified military effort combined with a radical new counterinsurgency program.

The hidden $3 billion will fund covert ("black") operations disguised as an Air Force classified program. According to John Pike, an expert on classified military budgets at globalsecurity.org, the cash, spread over three years, is likely being funneled directly to the CIA, boosting that agency's estimated $4 billion a year budget by fully 25 percent. Operations in Iraq will get the bulk of it, with some money going to Afghanistan. The number of CIA officers in Iraq, now 275, will increase significantly, supplemented by large numbers of the U.S. military's elite counterinsurgency forces. A chunk of those secret funds, according to Mel Goodman, a former CIA analyst, will to go to restive tribal sheikhs, especially in Sunni-dominated central Iraq. "I assume there are CIA people going around with bags of cash," says Goodman.

But the bulk of the covert money will support U.S. efforts to create a lethal, and revenge-minded, Iraqi security force. "The big money would be for standing up an Iraqi secret police to liquidate the resistance," says Pike. "And it has to be politically loyal to the United States."

Unable to quell the resistance to the U.S. occupation, the Pentagon is revamping its intelligence and special-operations task force in Iraq, a classified unit commanded by an Air Force brigadier general. It's also pouring money into the creation of an Iraqi secret police staffed mainly by gunmen associated with members of the puppet Iraqi Governing Council. Those militiamen are linked to Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress (inc), the Kurdish peshmerga ("facing death") forces and Shiite paramilitary units, especially those of the Iran-backed Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Technically illegal, these armed forces have been tolerated, even encouraged, by the Pentagon. Some of these militias openly patrol Baghdad and other cities, and in the south of Iraq, scores of Islamic-oriented paramilitary parties, with names like Revenge of God, are mobilized.

Because the militiamen who will make up the paramilitary force are largely from former Iraqi exile political groups, many have personal scores to settle. They will be armed with detailed lists, seized from government files, of Iraqi Baathists. Sporadic but persistent revenge killings against Hussein loyalists have already plagued Iraq. In Baghdad, Basra, and scores of smaller cities and towns, hundreds of former Iraqi officials and members of the Arab Baath Socialist Party have been gunned down, and the murderers have not been arrested or, in most cases, even pursued. Virtually signaling open season on ex-Baathists, Maj. Ian Poole, spokesman for the British forces controlling Basra, told The New York Times: "The fact is, these are former Baath Party officials. That makes it hard to protect them."

Chalabi's INC is promising to use its own intelligence teams to act forcefully against opponents of the United States. Chalabi, the darling of U.S. neoconservatives and the Pentagon's choice to be Iraq's first prime minister, is leading the charge for the "de-Baathification" of Iraq. When elements of the U.S. Army in Iraq seek to enlist the support of mid- and low-level Baath officials in trying to put a national bureaucracy back into place, Chalabi objects, often clashing with U.S. Army officers overseeing civil affairs.

Echoing Chalabi are various U.S. hawks and neocons. "The Kurds and the Iraqi National Congress have excellent intelligence operations that we should allow them to exploit," read a Wall Street Journal editorial. "Especially to conduct counterinsurgency in the Sunni Triangle." More explicitly citing similar U.S. operations during the Vietnam War were Tom Donnelly, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and Gary Schmitt, executive director of the Project for a New American Century. Schmitt wrote a paper calling for a counterinsurgency effort modeled on the so-called COORDS program in Vietnam, an umbrella effort that included the notorious Phoenix assassinations. And, over lunch at a Washington eatery, I asked a neoconservative strategist how to deal with Iraq. "It's time for 'no more Mr. Nice Guy,'" he said. "All those people shouting, 'Down with America!' and dancing in the street when Americans are attacked? We have to kill them."

The U.S. occupation of Iraq is beginning to resemble Vietnam in more ways than one. American forces under attack are reportedly responding with indiscriminate fire, often killing combatants and innocents alike. Body counts are disputed, including one prominent instance in Samarra when U.S. forces claimed 54 Iraqi rebels killed but angry townspeople said that the dead numbered less than a dozen (and included women and children). Houses of suspected insurgents are being blown up. The wife and child of Izzat Ibrahim, a fugitive Iraqi official thought to be coordinating the insurgency, were seized and held hostage. The entire village of Auja, Hussein's hometown near Tikrit, was surrounded by barbed wire and turned into a strategic hamlet, with ID cards issued by U.S. forces needed to enter and exit it.

In early November, the Pentagon civilians ordered the U.S. military in Iraq to launch a heavily armed offensive against suspected strongholds of the resistance, using fighter bombers, laser-guided missiles, gunships and helicopters against targets of questionable importance, such as empty factories and warehouses. "It's an absolutely insane strategy," says Bob Boorstin, who oversees national-security policy for the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

Until the offensive was launched, U.S. Army officers had been attempting, with uneven success, to rally local populations and adopt a hearts-and-minds approach. But in accordance with the neocons' policy of no more Mr. Nice Guy, the Pentagon ordered the aggressive new stance that took shape as Operation Ivy Cyclone and Operation Iron Hammer. "I was astounded by the warmth and fuzziness of our generals," says Danielle Pletka, AEI vice president for foreign- and defense-policy studies, who just returned from a visit to Iraq. "Well, they got orders: 'You need to fight, and fight hard.' And it suddenly dawned on them that these were bad people, and maybe we need to go out and whomp the crap out of them."

Yet "whomping" is hardly a strategy, and in Iraq the United States is clearly flailing, with a trial-and-error approach that seems haphazard and rudderless. Underlying the neocons' worry is a nagging concern that Bush, who sided with the neocons by launching the global war on terrorism and by going into Iraq, could abandon them for some form of cut-and-run strategy in order to protect his re-election efforts. Some say openly that the White House is "going wobbly," while others, like the AEI's Donnelly, believe in Bush's steadfastness but admit to having second thoughts. "For a neocon like me, having a member of the Bush family carrying the banner is a bit unnerving," says Donnelly, wryly.

But Boorstin, and many others in Washington, believe that Karl Rove, the White House's political guru, is losing patience with the bungled situation in Iraq. "I have no doubt that Karl Rove is ready to cut and run," says Boorstin. That sentiment is virtually seconded by Pletka, who maintains close contact with White House and Pentagon officials. "Some of the people around the president do want to cut and run," she says, "but not his foreign-policy advisers."

The latest offensives, combined with the counterinsurgency efforts, seem partly aimed at convincing Rove that there's no choice but to continue to gamble that the Iraqi venture will pay off. "This is an unusual president," says Richard Perle, an AEI fellow, member of the Defense Policy Board and perhaps the chief architect of U.S. Iraq policy. "He risked his presidency to do this in Iraq." But Perle is worried that politics could trump policy. "I hope it doesn't become a political issue, because that would encourage all of those who want us to fail, all of those arrayed against us," he says. "If we were to retreat, I shudder to think of the wave of terrorism it would unleash.

Robert Dreyfuss

Copyright © 2004 by The American Prospect, Inc. Preferred Citation: Robert Dreyfuss, "Phoenix Rising," The American Prospect vol. 15 no. 1, January 1, 2004. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@prospect.org.