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See more by Scott Ritter
The Salvador option
by Scott Ritter
Thursday 20 January 2005
By any standard, the ongoing American occupation of
Iraq is a disaster. The highly vaunted US military
machine, laurelled and praised for its historic march
on Baghdad in March and April of 2003, today finds
itself a broken force, on the defensive in a land that
it may occupy in part, but does not control. The
all-out offensive to break the back of the resistance
in Falluja has failed, leaving a city destroyed by
American firepower, and still very much in the grips of
the anti- American fighters.
The same is true of Mosul, Samarra, or any other
location where the US military has undertaken
"decisive" action against the fighters, only to find
that, within days, the fighting has returned, stronger
And yet, it now appears as if the United States, in an
effort to take the offensive against the fighters in
Iraq, is prepared to compound its past mistakes in Iraq
by embarking on a new course of action derived from some
of the darkest, and most embarrassing moments of
America's modern history.
According to press accounts, the Pentagon is
considering the organisation, training and equipping of
so-called death squads, teams of Iraqi assassins who
would be used to infiltrate and eliminate the
leadership of the Iraqi resistance.
Called the Salvador Option, in reference to similar
US-backed death squads that terrorised the population
of El Salvador during the 1980s, the proposed plan
actually has as its roots the Phoenix assassination
programme undertaken during the Vietnam war, where
American-led assassins killed thousands of known or
suspected Vietcong collaborators.
Perhaps it is a sign of the desperation felt inside the
Pentagon, or an underscoring of the ideological
perversity of those in charge, that the US military
would draw upon the failed programmes of the past to
resolve an insoluble problem of today.
The Salvador Option would not be the first embrace of
assassination as a tool of occupation undertaken by the
United States in Iraq.
In the months following Paul Bremer's taking over of
the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in June 2003,
the streets of Baghdad crawled with scores of
Among the more effective and brutal of these units were
those drawn from the Badr Brigade, the armed militia of
the Shia political party known as the Supreme Council
of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI.
Although not publicly acknowledged, the role played by
the various anti-Saddam militias in confronting the
residual elements of Saddam's former ruling Baath Party
offered a glimpse into what was, and is, an unspoken
element of the US policy regarding de-Baathification -
let the Iraqis do the dirty work.
SCIRI's efforts to exterminate Baath Party remnants
still loyal to Saddam Hussein, or who stand accused of
committing crimes against SCIRI or its sympathisers,
attracted the attention of the "black" side of the
CPA-run de-Baathification efforts - covert operations
run by the CIA and elite Special Operations units of
the United States military.
Of all the various players in this deadly game, the
Badr militia stood out as the most willing and able to
take the fight to the Baathist holdouts.
Tipped off by the CPA's covert operatives, the Badr
assassination squads killed dozens of Baathists in and
But the assassination of former Baathists did nothing
to pacify Iraq.
The ongoing resistance to the American occupation of
Iraq was not founded in the formal structure of the
Baath Party, but rather the complex mixture of tribal
and religious motivations which had, since 1995, been
blended into the secretive cell structure of the Baath
While the Americans and their SCIRI allies focused on
bringing to heel former Baathists, the resistance
morphed into a genuine grassroots national liberation
movement where strategic planning may very well be the
product of former Baathists, but the day-to-day
tactical decisions are more likely to be made by tribal
shaikhs and local clerics.
The increasing success of the resistance was attributed
in part to the failure of the CPA-ordered
de-Baathification policy. In an effort to reverse this
trend, Bremer rescinded his de-Baathification
programme, and ordered the Badr assassination squads to
This change of policy direction could not change the
reality on the ground in Iraq, however.
The Sunni-based resistance, having been targeted by the
Badr assassins, struck back with a vengeance.
In a campaign of targeted assassinations using car
bombs and ambushes, the resistance has engaged in its
own campaign of terror against the Shia, viewed by the
Sunni fighters as being little more than collaborators
of the American occupation.
Having started the game of politically motivated
assassination, the US has once again found itself
trumped by forces inside Iraq it does not understand,
and as such will never be able to defeat.
The Salvador Option fails on a number of levels. First
and foremost is the moral and ethical one.
While it is difficult at times to understand and
comprehend, let alone justify, the tactics used by the
Iraqi resistance, history has shown that the tools of
remote ambush, instead of a direct assassination, have
always been used by freedom fighters when confronting
an illegitimate foreign occupier who possesses
overwhelming conventional military superiority.
As such, history celebrates the resistance of the
French and the Russians when occupied by the Germans
during the second world war, the Chinese resistance to
Japanese occupation during that same time, or even the
decades-long national liberation movement in Vietnam
which defeated not only the French and the Americans,
but also the illegitimate government these two
occupiers attempted to impose on the people of South
History, on the other hand, treats harshly the
occupying power which resorts to the use of the tools
of terror to subdue an occupied people. Thus, while it
is fine for a French resistance fighter to blow up a
German troop train, it is not acceptable for the
Germans to burn a French village in retaliation.
History will eventually depict as legitimate the
efforts of the Iraqi resistance to destabilise and
defeat the American occupation forces and their imposed
Iraqi collaborationist government.
And history will condemn the immorality of the American
occupation, which has debased the values and ideals of
the American people by legitimising torture, rape and
murder as a means of furthering an illegal war of
Ethics aside, the Salvador Option will fail simply
because it cannot succeed. In an effort to confront a
Sunni-based resistance, the Pentagon proposes that
special assassination squads be recruited from the
ranks of "loyal" Kurds and Shia.
In the 30 years of Saddam's rule, the Baathist
government and its security organs were very successful
in infiltrating the ranks of Kurdish and Shia
The Shia and Kurds, on the other hand, have no history
of being able to do the same to the Sunni. If anything
has emerged as the undisputable truth in post-invasion
Iraq, it is that the Iraqi resistance knows Iraq
infinitely better than the American occupiers.
If implemented, the Salvador Option will serve as the
impetus for all-out civil war. In the same manner that
the CPA-backed assassination of Baathists prompted the
restructuring and strengthening of the Sunni-led
resistance, any effort by US-backed Kurdish and Shia
assassination teams to target Sunni resistance leaders
will remove all impediments for a general outbreak of
ethnic and religious warfare in Iraq.
It is hard as an American to support the failure of
American military operations in Iraq. Such failure will
bring with it the death and wounding of many American
service members, and many more Iraqis.
As an American, I have hoped that there was a way for
America to emerge victorious in Iraq, with our national
security and honour intact, and Iraq itself a better
nation than the one we "liberated". But it is far too
late for this to happen. We not only invaded Iraq on
false pretences, but we perverted the notion of
liberation by removing Saddam and his cronies from his
palaces, replacing them with American occupiers who
have not only kept open Saddam's most notorious
prisons, but also the practice of torture, rape and
abuse we were supposed to be bringing to an end.
Faced with our inability to come to grips with a
popular-based resistance that has grown exponentially
over the past year, the best the American policy
planners can come up with is to embrace our own form of
terrorism, supporting death squads we cannot control
and which will only further debase the moral foundation
of our nation while slaughtering even more Iraqis.
As an American, I hope and pray that common sense and
basic morality prevail in Washington DC, terminating
the Salvador Option before it gets off the ground.
Failing that, I hope that the programme of US-backed
death squads is defeated. That is the most pro-American
sentiment I can muster, given the situation as it
Scott Ritterwas a senior UN arms inspector in Iraq
between 1991 and 1998. He is now an independent
January 24, 2005 - page created by Charlie Jenks