Friday, December 26, 2003

The Phoenix rises

The American Prospect, in its January, 2004 issue, reports on "the creation of a paramilitary unit manned by militiamen associated with former Iraqi exile groups," financed by $3 billion "tucked away in the $87 billion Iraq appropriation that Congress approved in early November."
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.
It's necessary to be clear on what "Phoenix-like things" means, so an extended sidebar. One of the earliest revelations of the Phoenix Program in Vietnam came through a suit filed by Lt. Francis Reitemeyer, who was seeking a conscientious objector discharge from the army. In a statement for the record dated February 14, 1969, Reitemeyer said he was told he was to be an adviser to the program when he arrived in Vietnam. (The text is from a copy of his Proffer - a statement of previously-disallowed testimony which a person making an appeal wants to be considered as a part of that appeal - in my possession.)
The "Phoenix Program" was described to him as a policy of the United States Government which sought the elimination and destruction of the Communist "infra-structure" in South Vietnam. Your Petitioner [i.e., Reitemeyer] was informed that he would be one of many Army Officers designated as an Adviser whose function it was to supervise and to pay with funds from an undisclosed source eighteen mercenaries (probably Chinese, some of whom would be officers or enlisted men of the U.S. military) who would be explicitly directed by him and others advisers to find, capture and/or kill as many Viet Cong and Viet Cong sympathizers within a given number of small villages as was possible under the circumstances. Viet Cong sympathizers were meant to include any male or female civilians of any age in a position of authority or influence in the village who were politically loyal or simply in agreement with the Viet Cong or their objectives. The Petitioner was officially advised by the lecturing United States Army Officers, who actually recounted from their own experiences in the field, that the Petitioner as an American Adviser, might actually be required to maintain a "kill quota" of fifty bodies a month.

Your Petitioner was further informed at this Intelligence School, that he was authorized to adopt any technique or employ any means through his mercenaries, which was calculated to ferret out the Viet Cong of the Viet Cong sympathizers.

Frequently, as related by the lecturing Officers, resort to the most extreme forms of torture was necessary....

The Petitioner was officially instructed that the purpose of the "Phoenix Program" to which he was assigned, was not aimed primarily at the enemy's military forces, but was essentially designed to eliminate civilians, political enemies, and "South Viet Cong Sympathizers." Your Petitioner was further informed that the program sought to accomplish through capture, intimidation, elimination and assassination, what United States up to this time, was unable to accomplish through the conventional use of military power, i.e., (to win the war).
In short, the Phoenix Program was one of targeted kidnapping, torture, and murder of civilians thought to be sympathetic to the "Viet Cong." Significantly, the US Army understood exactly what it was about, because Reitemeyer
was warned that the loss of the war and/or his personal capture by the enemy could subject him personally to trial and punishment as a war criminal under the precedents established by the Nurnberg Trials as well as other international precedents such as the Geneva Convention.
This is what it appears is now to be brought to Iraq. The intention is quite deliberate, TAP says:
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 [John] Pike [an expert on classified military budgets at]. "And it has to be politically loyal to the United States." ...

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."
Even harder when you're the ones paying the murderers.

The parallels to Vietnam run even deeper. Recall that the Phoenix Program was begun precisely because the US military could not win its war, so it resorted to torture and terror and "termination with extreme prejudice," in the classic phrase. This time around, the program is, TAP reports,
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. ...

[Bob] Boorstin [who oversees national-security policy for the Center for American Progress], 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 [Danielle] Pletka [American Enterprise Institute vice president for foreign- and defense-policy studies], 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."
It has often been true in war, especially in civil wars and ethnic and religious conflicts, that when one side realizes it's losing (or least can't win), it turns to the most vicious crimes, the most appalling bloodshed, in an attempt to head off defeat. Just as in Vietnam we turned to assassination and "kill quotas" when it became clear we couldn't win militarily, so too in Iraq are we prepared to "cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war," to unleash - indeed to finance and support - blood vengeance for political ends.

There is, however, one difference: In Vietnam, the idea was to protect against "an embarrassing defeat." In Iraq, the idea is to protect George Bush's re-election.

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