The Anglo-American Dirty War in Iraq
By Chris Floyd
-- -- Imagine a city torn by sectarian strife.
Competing death squads roam the streets; terrorists
stage horrific attacks. Local authority is distrusted
and weak; local populations protect the extremists in
their midst, out of loyalty or fear. A bristling
military occupation exacerbates tensions at every turn,
while offering prime targets for bombs and snipers. And
behind the scenes, in a shadow world of double-cross and
double-bluff, covert units of the occupying power run
agents on both sides of the civil war, countenancing --
and sometimes directing -- assassinations, terrorist
strikes, torture sessions, and ethnic cleansing.
Is this a
portrait of Belfast during "The Troubles" in Northern
Ireland? Or a picture of Baghdad today? It is both; and
in both cases, one of Britain's most secret – and most
criminally compromised – military units has plied its
trade in the darkness, "turning" and controlling
terrorist killers in a dangerous bid to wring actionable
intelligence from blood and betrayal. And America's
covert soldiers are right there with them, working
side-by-side with their British comrades in the aptly
named "Task Force Black," the
UK's Sunday Telegraph reports.
the right-wing, pro-war paper published an early
valentine to the "Joint Support Group," the covert unit
whose bland name belies its dramatic role at the center
of the Anglo-American "dirty war" in Iraq. In gushing,
lavish, uncritical prose that could have been (and
perhaps was) scripted by the unit itself, the Telegraph
lauded the team of secret warriors as "one of the
Coalition's most effective and deadly weapons in the
fight against terror," running "dozens of Iraqi
double-agents," including "members of terrorist groups."
story fails to mention is the fact that in its Ulster
incarnation, the JSG – then known as the Force Research
Unit (FRU) –
actively colluded in the murder of at least
15 civilians by Loyalist deaths squads, and an
untold number of victims killed, maimed and tortured by
the many Irish Republican Army double-agents controlled
by the unit. What's more,
the man who commanded the FRU during the height of
its depredations – Lt. Col. Gordon Kerr – is in Baghdad
now, heading the hugger-mugger Special Reconnaissance
Regiment (SRR), a large counter-terrorism force made up
of unnamed "existing assets" from
the glory days in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.
the fact that a
10-year, $100 million investigation by Britain's top
police officer, Lord Stevens, confirmed in 2003 that
the Kerr-led FRU "sanctioned killings" through
"institutionalized collusion" with both Protestant and
Catholic militias during the 1980s and 1990s. Stevens
sent dossiers of evidence against Kerr and 20 other
security apparatchiks to the Blair government's Director
of Public Prosecutions, in the expectation that the
fiery Scotsman and the others would be put on trial.
prosecuting Kerr, Blair promoted him: first to a plum
assignment as British military attaché in Beijing –
effectively the number two man in all of UK military
Scotland's Sunday Herald notes – then with the SRR
posting to Baghdad, where Kerr and his former FRU mates
now apply the "methods developed on the mean streets of
Ulster during the Troubles," as the Telegraph
puff piece is naturally coy about revealing these
methods, beyond the fact that, as in Ireland, the JSG
uses "a variety of inducements ranging from blackmail to
bribes" to turn Iraqi terrorists into Coalition agents.
So to get a better idea of the techniques employed by
the group in Baghdad, we must return to those "mean
streets of Ulster" and the unit's reign of terror and
collusion there, which has been thoroughly documented
not only by the exhaustive Stevens inquiries, but also
in a remarkable series of investigative reports by the
Sunday Herald's Neil Mackay, and in extensive stories by
the BBC, the Guardian, the Independent, the Times and
We will also
see how the operations of the JSG and "Task Force Black"
dovetail with U.S. efforts to apply the lessons of its
own dirty wars – such as the "Salvador Option" – to
Iraq, as well as long-running Bush Administration
initiatives to arm and fund "friendly" militias while
infiltrating terrorist groups in order to "provoke them
into action." It is indeed a picture painted in black, a
glimpse at the dark muck that lies beneath the
high-flown rhetoric about freedom and civilization
forever issuing from the lips of the war leaders.
(Continued after the jump.)
II. Whacking for the Peelers
had a problem. He was one of Gordon Kerr's FRU informers
planted deep inside the IRA, along with two of his
friends, Johnny Dignam and Aidan Starrs.
But as Mackay noted in a February 2003 story, the
already-partnered Burns had acquired a girlfriend on the
side, Margaret Perry, 26, a "civilian" Catholic with no
paramilitary ties. Forbidden fruit is sweet, of course –
but pillow talk is dangerous for an inside man. "Burns
didn't keep his mouth shut and [Perry] found out he was
working for British intelligence," an FRU officer told
Mackay. "He tried to convince her he was a double-agent
the IRA had planted in the [British] army – but she
didn't buy it."
his FRU handlers and asked to come in from the cold.
He'd been compromised, he said, and now he and his
friends needed to get out, with new identities,
relocation, good jobs – the usual payoff for trusted
agents when the jig was up. But Kerr refused: "He said
[Burns] should silence Perry," the FRU man told Mackay.
Burns, panicking at thought of the IRA's horrific
retributions against informers, insisted: he would have
to kill the woman if they didn't bring him in, he told
Kerr. Again Kerr refused.
And so Burns
arranged a meeting with his lover, to "talk over" the
situation. His friends, Aidan and Johnny, volunteered to
drive her there: "On the way, they pulled into a forest,
beat her to death and buried her in a shallow grave,"
Mackay notes. Two years later, when her body was found,
the IRA put two and two together – and slowly tortured
Burns and his two friends to death, after first
extracting copious amounts of information about British
intelligence operations in Ireland.
eyes, Burns just wasn't important enough to resettle,"
the FRU source told the Sunday Herald. "So we ended up
with four unnecessary deaths and the compromising of
British army intelligence officers, which ultimately put
soldiers' lives at risk. To Kerr, it was always a matter
of the ends justifying the means."
Kerr could well afford to sacrifice a few informers here
and there to the wrath of the IRA's dreaded "security
unit" – because his own prize double agent was the head
of that security unit.
Codenamed "Stakeknife," Kerr's man presided over,
and sometimes administered, the grisly torture-murders
of up to 50 men during his tenure in the IRA's upper
ranks. The victims included other British double agents
who were sacrificed in order to protect Stakeknife's
cover, as the Guardian and many other UK papers reported
when the agent's work was revealed in 2003. ("Stakeknife"
was later identified in the press as Alfredo Scappaticci
– an Irishman despite the Italian name, although he
continues to deny the charge.)
The FRU also
"knowingly allowed soldiers, [police] officers and
civilians to die at the hands of IRA bombers in order to
protect republican double agents,"
the Sunday Herald's investigations found. As Mackay
reports: "FRU sources said around seven police and army
personnel died as a result of military intelligence
allowing IRA bombs to be placed during Kerr's time in
command of the FRU. They estimate that three civilians
also died this way, with casualties in the hundreds."
But some of
the worst excesses came from the FRU's handling of
operatives on the other side, in the fiercely
pro-British Protestant militia the Ulster Defense
Association (UDA). Here, among the Loyalists, Kerr's top
double agent was Brian Nelson, who became head of
intelligence for the UDA.
As John Ware put it in the Guardian: "Kerr regarded
Nelson as his jewel in the crown… For the next three
years [from 1987], Nelson colluded with murder gangs to
shoot IRA suspects. Month after month, armed and masked
men crashed into homes. Sometimes they got the wrong
address or shot the wrong person."
Gerald Slane, a 27-year-old Belfast man shot down in
front of his three children. A gun had been found dumped
on his property; this, and his Catholicism, was enough
to get him assassinated at the order of Kerr's man
Nelson. Afterwards, it was found that Slane had no IRA
"wrong person" killed by the FRU's agents was the
Belfast attorney Pat Finucane, who was shot 14 times in
front of his wife and children. Finucane was a civil
rights activist who had defended both Catholics and
Protestants, but was considered an IRA sympathizer by
Loyalists – and a thorn in the side by British
authorities. He was killed at Nelson's order by a fellow
FRU informer in the UDA, Ken Barrett, who was convicted
of the murder but freed last year after as part of an
amnesty program in the Northern Ireland peace process.
Barrett was unapologetic about his FRU "wetwork" on
Finucane. "The peelers [authorities] wanted him
he told a BBC documentary team after his release.
"We whacked him and that is the end of the story."
Nelson packages of intelligence files to help facilitate
the assassination of UDA targets, including at least
four "civilians" with no IRA ties, the Stevens inquiry
found. The FRU also obtained "restriction orders" from
other British security and military units in Northern
Ireland, whereby they would pull their forces from an
area when Kerr's UDA agents were going to make a hit
there, allowing the killers to get in and get out
without hindrance, investigator Nick Davies reports.
Yet the FRU
was wary of sharing its own intelligence with other
security services – which was the ostensible reason for
running the double-agents in the first place. Instead,
Kerr engaged in fierce turf wars with other agencies,
while "stovepiping" much of his intelligence to the top
circles of the UK government, including the
cabinet-level Intelligence Committee chaired by
then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Indeed, when
Nelson was finally exposed and brought to trial on five
counts of conspiracy to commit murder, Kerr testified in
his behalf, noting for the court that Nelson's
intelligence "product and his reporting was passed
through the intelligence community and at a high level,
and from that point of view he has to be considered a
very important agent."
As one FRU
man told Mackay: "Under Kerr's command…the mindset was
one of 'the right people would be allowed to live and
wrong people should die.'"
This is the
"mindset" now operating in the heart of the Green Zone
in Baghdad, where the JSG is carrying out – we are told
in glowing terms – precisely the same mission it had in
Ulster. a unit which has allowed its agents to torture,
murder and commit acts of terrorism, including actions
that killed local civilians and the soldiers and
intelligence operatives of their own country.
III. The White House Green Light
Kerr and his Baghdad black-op crew are not alone in the
double-dealing world of Iraqi counterinsurgency. The
Pentagon's ever-expanding secret armies are deeply
enmeshed in such efforts as well. As Sy Hersh has
Coming Wars," New Yorker, Jan. 24, 2005), after his
re-election in 2004, George W. Bush signed a series of
secret presidential directives that authorized the
Pentagon to run virtually unrestricted covert
operations, including a reprise of the American-backed,
American-trained death squads employed by authoritarian
regimes in Central and South America during the Reagan
Administration, where so many of the Bush faction cut
their teeth – and made their bones.
remember the right-wing execution squads in El
Salvador?” a former high-level intelligence official
said to Hersh. "We founded them and we financed them.
The objective now is to recruit locals in any area we
want. And we aren’t going to tell Congress about it." A
Pentagon insider added: "We’re going to be riding with
the bad boys." Another role model for the expanded dirty
war cited by Pentagon sources, said Hersh, was Britain's
brutal repression of the Mau Mau in Kenya during the
1950s, when British forces set up concentration camps,
created their own terrorist groups to confuse and
discredit the insurgency, and killed thousands of
innocent civilians in quashing the uprising.
greenlighting of the death-squad option built upon an
already securely-established base, part of a larger
effort to turn the world into a "global free-fire zone"
for covert operatives, as one top Pentagon official told
Hersh. For example, in November 2002
a Pentagon plan to infiltrate terrorist groups and
"stimulate" them into action was uncovered by William
Arkin, then writing for the Los Angeles Times. The new
unit, the "Proactive, Pre-emptive Operations Group," was
described in the Pentagon documents as "a
super-Intelligence Support Activity" that brings
"together CIA and military covert action, information
warfare, intelligence and cover and deception."
August 2004, then deputy Pentagon chief Paul Wolfowitz
appeared before Congress to
ask for $500 million to arm and train non-governmental
"local militias" to serve as U.S. proxies for
"counter-insurgency and "counterterrorist" operations in
"ungoverned areas" and hot spots around the world,
Agence France Presse (and virtually no one else)
reported at the time. These hired paramilitaries were to
be employed in what Wolfowitz called an "arc of crisis"
that just happened to stretch across the oil-bearing
lands and strategic pipeline routes of Central Asia, the
Middle East, Africa and South America.
By then, the
Bush Administration had already begun laying the
groundwork for an expanded covert war in the hot spot of
Iraq. In November 2003, it created a "commando squad"
drawn from the sectarian militias of five major Iraqi
as the Washington Post reported that year. Armed,
funded and trained by the American occupation forces,
and supplied with a "state-of-the-art command, control
and communications center" from the Pentagon, the
new Iraqi commandos were loosed on the then-nascent
Iraqi insurgency – despite the very prescient fears
of some U.S. officials "that various Sunni or Shiite
factions could eventually use the service to secretly
undermine their political competitors," as the Post
in early 2005 – not long after Bush's directives loosed
the "Salvador Option" on Iraq – the tide of death-squad
activity began its
long and bloody rise to the tsunami-like levels we
see today. Ironically, the first big spike of mass
torture-murders, chiefly in Sunni areas at the time,
coincided with "Operation Lightning," a much
ballyhooed effort by American and Iraqi forces to
"secure" Baghdad. The operation featured a mass influx
of extra troops into the capital; dividing the city into
manageable sectors, then working through them one by
one; imposing hundreds of checkpoints to lock down all
insurgent movements; and establishing a 24-hour presence
of security and military forces in troubled
neighborhoods, the Associated Press reported in May
2005. In other words, it was almost exactly the same
plan now being offered as Bush's "New Way Forward," the
"Lightning" fizzled in a matter of weeks, and the death
squads grew even bolder. Brazen daylight raids by "men
dressed in uniforms" of Iraqi police or Iraqi commandos
or other Iraqi security agencies swept up dozens of
victims at a time. For months, U.S. "advisers" to Iraqi
security agencies – including veterans of the original
"Salvador Option" – insisted that these were Sunni
insurgents in stolen threads, although many of the
victims were Sunni civilians. Later, the line was
changed: the chief culprits were now "rogue elements" of
the various sectarian militias that had "infiltrated"
Max Fuller has pointed out in his detailed examination
of information buried in reams of mainstream news
stories and public Pentagon documents, the vast majority
of atrocities then attributed to "rogue" Shiite and
Sunni militias were in fact the work of
government-controlled commandos and "special forces,"
trained by Americans, "advised" by Americans and run
largely by former CIA assets. As Fuller puts it: "If
there are militias in the Ministry of Interior, you can
be sure that they are militias that stand to attention
whenever a U.S. colonel enters the room." And perhaps a
British lieutenant colonel as well
Anglo-American coalition so deeply embedded in dirty war
– infiltrating terrorist groups, "stimulating" them into
action," protecting "crown jewel" double-agents no
matter what the cost, "riding with the bad boys,"
greenlighting the "Salvador Option" – it is simply
impossible to determine the genuine origin of almost any
particular terrorist outrage or death squad atrocity in
Iraq. All of these operations take place in the shadow
world, where terrorists are sometimes government
operatives and vice versa, and where security agencies
and terrorist groups interpenetrate in murky thickets of
collusion and duplicity. This moral chaos leaves "a kind
of blot/To mark the full-fraught man and best indued/With
some suspicion," as Shakespeare's Henry V says.
the "intelligence" churned out by this system is
inevitably tainted by the self-interest, mixed motives,
fear and criminality of those who provide it. The
ineffectiveness of this approach can be seen in the
ever-increasing, many-sided civil war that is tearing
Iraq apart. If these covert operations really are
intended to quell the violence, they clearly have had
the opposite effect. If they have some other intention,
the pious defenders of civilization – who approve these
activities with promotions, green lights and unlimited
budgets – aren't telling.
was first published at Truthout.org