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Operation Phoenix Rises from the Ashes of history

Death squads didnt work in Vietnam, but the CIA is betting theyll be great in Iraq

Never pretty, the war in Iraq is about to get a whole lot uglier. U.S. officials have begun to recruit ex-officers of Saddam Hussein's infamous Mukhabarat, or secret police, to hunt down resistance forces fighting U.S. troops in Iraq.

According to human rights groups, the Mukhabarat was responsible for torturing and murdering tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians during Hussein's brutal reign. Nonetheless, the CIA has already reportedly begun sending paychecks to dozens of Saddam's former thugs, who reportedly assisted in the successful hunt for Hussein and suspected Iranian and Syrian spies in Iraq.

Ex-CIA officials have compared the program to Operation Phoenix, an agency operation that assassinated and tortured tens of thousands of mostly innocent South Vietnamese civilians between 1967 and 1970, a period that marked the most brutal years of the Vietnam War.

"They're clearly cooking up joint teams to do Phoenix-like things, like they did in Vietnam," said former CIA counterterrorism chief Vincent Cannistraro in a Jan. 4 London Sunday Telegraph article.

That's not good news, if you happen to be an Iraqi—or if you want the United States to win the war in Iraq. In Operation Phoenix, South Vietnamese police and paramilitary death squads compiled lists of suspected Viet Cong guerrillas and their civilian sympathizers, and CIA agents and Special Forces soldiers supervised their torture and assassination. Also providing names of suspected subversives was Vietnam Quoc Dan Dang [VNQDD], a right-wing Vietnamese nationalist group that used Operation Phoenix to eliminate its various political rivals.

In a prequel to the horrors that soon befell victims of Latin American death squads, Operation Phoenix detainees were tortured with electric shocks applied to their genitals, while women prisoners were typically raped, occasionally with foreign objects. A particularly infamous interrogation technique involved flinging a blindfolded prisoner from a helicopter while threatening to do the same to the remaining passengers.

As Douglas Valentine relates in his book Operation Phoenix, the program may have first been exposed in 1970 when a group of South Vietnamese students staged a re-creation of their imprisonment and torture in so-called tiger cages.

"The students had been tried and convicted by a military field court," Valentine wrote. "Some were in shock and being fed intravenously. Some had had bamboo splinters shoved under their fingernails. One was deaf from having soapy water poured in his ears, and his ears pounded. The women students had been raped as well as tortured."

Following the tiger-cage spectacle, a congressional delegation traveled to Saigon and discovered a South Vietnamese military camp where several tiger cages were hidden behind a woodpile.

"From three to five men were shackled to the floor in each cage," Valentine continued. "Their legs were withered, and they scuttled like crabs across the floor, begging for food, water and mercy. Some cried. Others told of having lime buckets, which sat ready above each cage, emptied upon them."

"I never knew in the course of all those operations any detainee to live through his interrogation," Bart Osborn, a former CIA agent, told Congress in 1971. "They all died. There was never any reasonable establishment of the fact that any one of those individuals was, in fact, cooperating with the VC, but they all died and the majority were either tortured to death or . . . thrown out of helicopters."

But perhaps the worst publicity to arise in connection with Operation Phoenix involves the March 1968 massacre of 504 South Vietnamese civilians—almost all of them women, children and elderly men at a tiny hamlet in Quang Ngai province known as My Lai. The CIA's exact role in that atrocity has never been proven, but as Valentine reports, members of one of the Vietnamese groups assisting the agency with Operation Phoenix—the VNQDD—visited My Lai the day before the massacre took place.

Furthermore, an Army sergeant accused of complicity in the massacre named a CIA officer who had allegedly provided his unit with a list of suspected Viet Cong to be assassinated in My Lai. The soldiers accused in the incident also claimed they had been given "intelligence" saying that the only people who would be in My Lai on the day of the planned attack were "hard-core VC guerrillas." New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh, who uncovered the massacre in 1970, revealed that the Phoenix blacklist of VC suspects in My Lai "was sharply reduced" after the massacre.

By the time My Lai and Operation Phoenix came to light, however, President Nixon had already announced he would gradually withdraw American troops from Vietnam—one indication that Operation Phoenix had been a total failure.

"Under the aegis of neutralizing the [VC] infrastructure, old men, women and children became the enemy," Valentine argued. "Phoenix made it as easy to shoot a Vietnamese child as it was to shoot a sparrow in a tree. The ammunition was faulty intelligence provided by secret agents harboring grudges."

There's every indication that the same mistakes are already being made in Iraq, where the United States has detained approximately 12,800 Iraqis suspected of involvement in attacks against American troops. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator for Iraq, recently announced that more than 500 of those prisoners would be released in what he called a "good-will" gesture. (Ironically, or perhaps not, the prisoners are being held in a jail where the Mukhabarat once tortured Hussein's political foes.)

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